HAVANA, Fla. (WTXL) — In the first month of 2022, there were nearly 30 shootings and five homicides in Leon County. That's coming off 75 shootings and sixteen homicides in 2021, a trend officials and community members want to change.
One of those community members is Florida A&M head football coach Willie Simmons, and he has had enough. Recent shootings in Gadsden and Leon County's have impacted students at Gadsden County High School, the county coach Simmons grew up in.
He's long spoken out about his experiences with gun violence, and when addressing those male students at Gadsden County, he brought others who have unfortunately dealt with it too.
"It's heartbreaking, every time we hear or see one of our young students lose their lives to senseless gun violence," said Simmons.
The numbers just in Leon County are staggering. That's why Willie went back home this week to Gadsden County, to talk to kids that grew up just like him, and he didn't go alone.
"My first time seeing someone get killed was when I was eight."
"Me and a couple other guys got into a gang fight, and one of the guys that was fighting along with me lost his life."
Rattler football players made the trip too, and all had a story to tell.
"I just lost my brother to gun violence," said Eddie Tillman III, who is from New Orleans. "The best mechanic in the world, one of my mentors coming up, who taught how to fight and to handle different situations, who saved my life from getting shot one time. He knew he wasn't really a role model, but he knew that I looked up to him and he effected a lot of my life decisions. It hit me hard when I lot him."
The hope? If their stories can save just one life, sharing their pain was worth it.
"Them seeing us come up there and really open up to them and tell them how it is, hopefully it can really change them," said Tillman. "If it touched all of us, I'm sure it will touch all of them here."
"Things like this I think will go a long way to show these young people there's a life outside of the streets, outside of violence," said Simmons. "I think it will help these guys see someone who looks like them, that's come from situations like them, that have gone on to do great things in life."
A life saved, and giving back, to save others. Simmons said that he plans to continue these open conversations with area high school students and his athletes. He said gun violence in the Big Bend is an ongoing issue the community has to take control of.