MANKATO - It hasn't been difficult to locate Jerome Simpson during Vikings training camp. He's the guy who showed up 10 days ago with a large Viking head medallion around his neck, stopping to give the jewelry's creator -- Jaymz P of Clay Chains -- a giddy endorsement.
Simpson is the guy who's signing autographs left and right, conversing and laughing and taking pictures as much as time will allow.
Simpson is the guy using his speed to enliven the Vikings offense, the promising young receiver who quarterback Christian Ponder has difficulty overthrowing -- even when he tries.
Simpson's the guy arriving at the practice field with leaping pirouettes and heel clicks and other acrobatics that might make Gabby Douglas jealous.
"I have a swan jump I like to do, too," Simpson said. "Just to get myself loose."
And when practice ends, while the rest of his teammates commute through the Minnesota State Mankato campus on rented mountain bikes, Simpson zips around on a tiny, light blue dirt bike.
He brought it from home. Better for tricks.
"Pop-up wheelies. Bunny hops. Just being me," Simpson said. "All these guys are on me: 'Give your little brother his bike back.' This is my bike. And I'm having fun."
All this energy doesn't surprise tight end Kyle Rudolph, whose first encounter with Simpson came last summer at a celebrity softball game near Cincinnati.
"Jerome hits a home run," Rudolph said. "He's running around the bases. Then all of a sudden he does a double back-handspring plus a back flip into home plate. I was like, 'Oh my god. This guy is a freak athlete.'"
Simpson wants it known that was his fourth home run that day. And the flip was his way of providing extra entertainment.
Ponder immediately takes to Simpson
Yep, Jerome Simpson sure seems to be living life on a pogo stick. And with the Vikings now deep into camp, the 26-year-old receiver has established himself as the newcomer most likely to catalyze an offensive resurgence.
His speed should give the Vikings a legitimate vertical threat. And Simpson's chemistry with Ponder should not be understated either.
In April, the second-year quarterback was one of a handful of Vikings whom head coach Leslie Frazier sent to lunch with Simpson during the receiver's free-agent visit. Frazier wanted to know if Simpson fit with the team from a character standpoint.
Ponder offered immediate backing, struck by Simpson's affability.
"Jerome's a fun guy to be around," Ponder said. "He's like a little kid, a kid in the candy store all the time."
Yet part of the reason Frazier had deemed that evaluation lunch necessary? Just days before arriving at Winter Park, Simpson had walked out of the Kenton County Detention Center in Kentucky after serving a 15-day sentence for a felony drug charge.
"Part of what I had to get past," Frazier said, "was some of the things that I had read and heard."
Simpson's punishment stemmed from a September incident in which authorities intercepted a package containing 2.5 pounds of marijuana on its way to his Kentucky home. Police later searched Simpson's residence and found an additional 6 pounds of marijuana plus drug paraphernalia.
Originally indicted on a trafficking charge, Simpson eventually entered a guilty plea to a lesser felony charge of "being involved in a prohibited act relating to controlled substances."
Asked to reflect on his crime, Simpson's usual enthusiasm evaporates. He swallows hard and looks toward the pavement.
Those 15 days?
"Felt like three years, man," he said.
Inside the detention center, Simpson said he was exposed to criminals and stories and pitches that turned his stomach.
Drug dealers, aware of his NFL status, approached him with "business opportunities." Simpson recoiled.
"Business opportunities? Come on, man. Really?" he said. "There are people in there trying to sell you a dream. They're trying to act like they know what's best for you and steer you down a bad path. The way these guys ran the streets in the drug trade, in that underworld, I don't want to go into specifics, but those stories upset me. It shook me pretty good."
Relieved to leave detention
Simpson knew he was in a place he didn't belong. So when he emerged from the detention center, he felt relieved and sobered all at once.
He was free again. But now, as a convicted felon, he can no longer vote. He also can't legally hunt and has a parole officer to check in with when he wants to travel.
He'll also serve a three-game NFL suspension at the start of this season.
The Vikings were quick to offer a redemption opportunity. But the organization was also intent on listening to Simpson explain himself.
"I was extremely impressed with his honesty and the humility he showed," Frazier said.
Added Simpson: "I was young. I got sidetracked. I made a mistake, man. I can only guess God put that road block out there for me just to wake me up."
Simpson hopes that road block will soon be just a fine-print footnote in his story, an incident of poor judgment overpowered by all the positive energy he exudes and all the good he tries to do.
Long before his arrest, while with Cincinnati, Simpson went twice a week year-round to a nearby church to help feed the homeless.
He donated school supplies and 89 backpacks --corresponding with his Bengals jersey number -- to his middle school back in Reidsville, N.C.
He bought winter coats for needy children near Cincinnati and took every opportunity to appear at charity functions for the Bengals.
"This is a kid with a big, big heart," said Dave Butz, Simpson's agent. "And it's all very genuine. That enthusiasm of his is not manufactured. Sit down, spend time with the guy. It's who he is. He's made mistakes. But he's a damn good person."
A promising receiver, too. And that's what gives Simpson the most energy these days. He's not only back in action, jelling with Ponder, but the door has been kicked wide open for him to have a major impact on the Vikings offense.
Considering where he was four months ago, the ability to practice, to showcase his athleticism, to spend time brightening the days of adoring fans are things he relishes.
"The Vikings took a chance on me. I'm going to prove to them they made a great decision," Simpson said. "That's why I come out here every day and enjoy all this. Enjoying my fans. Enjoying my life. I'm going to keep a smile on my face and be as energetic as I can be. I hope that rubs off on everyone here."