‘The guardian angel’: Friends recall heroic final minutes in life of former Central High star Corvel Simmons

(Video by Ruby Arora/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – In late July of 2021, Corvel Simmons found himself discussing his greatest fears with Matt Allen, his former football coach who was also a father figure.

Allen revealed he recently had a nightmare about one of his worst: drowning.

A big wave crashed into him, Allen said, pulling him deep into the waters where his foot got wedged between two rocks. Memories of his life played in his mind.

“I woke up sobbing because I was about to die,” Allen told Simmons.

Simmons, 17, a standout athlete who had recently graduated from Central High School, admitted he had similar nightmares.

“I don’t wanna go by drowning either,” he said

A week later – exactly one year and one day ago – he did, dying after a tragic paddle board accident at Canyon Lake. But the story goes far deeper, as Allen later learned from Simmon’s girlfriend, Ariza Cañez.

“A tragedy is never going to make sense,” Allen said, “but Ariza helped me make sense of that day.

“He sacrificed himself in the end, and that does not … didn’t surprise me whatsoever. Whatsoever.”

July 31, 2021

On what seemed liked a typical Arizona summer day, Allen was on his computer at the kitchen table designing plays for the upcoming football season next to his wife Lauren, who was skimming through a magazine.

It was an unusual weekend for the Allen family because they had little going on, a rarity for a family with five kids.

“It was a good day,” Allen said.

Until the phone rang.

“Corvel fell off his (paddle) board,” said the voice on the other end of the call. “He went in the water, and they’re looking for him. It’s been like an hour, and Ariza told me to call you.”

Before Allen could ask any questions, the line went dead due to poor cell service.

Allen’s mind raced as his heart rate escalated.

‘What the hell did I just hear?’ he thought.

He was frantic and wanted to call Simmons’ mother, Misty, but he lacked information.

“Should I call Misty right now?” he thought. “Should I wait until I have more details?”

“We gotta go,” Allen told Lauren. “We have to go now!”

Corvel Simmons was more than a standout athlete at Central High School. He was someone who impacted lives before, and after, his death. (Photo courtesy Matt Allen)

Allen and Lauren left their Phoenix home and started driving, unsure of the call’s origin, but drove north toward the lakes they knew.

Soon, the phone rang. It was the same person who had called the last time: Cañez’s mother, Salena.

Simmons and Ariza Cañez were sharing a paddle board in a narrow creek off Canyon Lake, away from the rest of the group they came with, and had removed their life jackets at some point.

They fell overboard and both struggled to swim in the open water, the current challenging their stamina.

As Allen would later learn, Simmons saw Cañez struggling for the board, so he pushed her onto the board with great effort and was submerged underwater.

Allen believes Simmons expected to bounce off the lake bottom and return, not knowing how deep the water was.

He never resurfaced.

Public safety officers searched for Simmons and Cañez but could only found Cañez during their initial search.

No one knew it at the time, including Simmons and Cañez, but Cañez was pregnant.

Simmons had sacrificed himself and saved his girlfriend and unborn son.

“I’d like to think he knew,” Cañez said, “because of some things he did.”

Cañez has a picture from prom (a few months before the accident) that shows him holding her belly like she was pregnant. He was talking about having kids. She would tell him she wasn’t pregnant and he would just smile at her response.

The wait

It took an hour and 20 minutes for Allen and Lauren to arrive at the scene. Search and rescue teams were exhausted from previous daytime rescues and could only adequately search for two or three more hours, they were told.

“I’ll stay overnight if I have to,” Allen told them. “I’m not leaving until I know what happened to my son.”

The diving team then ascended into the waters, and the helicopters went airborne.

The helicopters flying over the designated areas couldn’t see more than 6 inches below the water because the branched-off waterway that Simmons and Cañez had traveled on was murky. The diving team faced similar challenges below the water due to the lack of sunlight.

The diving team searched for two hours until they decided to release a drone into the water. Soon, they came across a body, and Allen was asked to describe what Simmons was wearing.

“Does he have two chain necklaces on?” he asked the team hesitantly.

Simmons was once given a chain from his mother and he always wore it with one he bought himself.

The team confirmed he did.

Simmons’ girlfriend, Ariza Cañez, delivered their son in April: LevRoc Jamaal Cañez Simmons. (Photo courtesy Matt Allen)

Lauren started crying, something she would do for days, while Allen tried to fathom the loss and also search for the words to tell his mother, Misty, that she had lost her only son.

“(Misty) was screaming at the top of her lungs,” Allen said. “And I know that scream because (of) my mom. … It’s the same type of scream with my brother’s death. And it’s a scream that you don’t ever wanna hear, especially when you’re a parent. It was very, very hard to hear that.”

Family isn’t only blood

Simmons was raised by his single mother. Although Allen isn’t Simmons’ biological father, he often felt like one.

Simmons was quite the athlete. He was Central High’s 2020 male Athlete of the Year. He was an outside linebacker on the football team. He planned to attend Phoenix College that fall and work toward a psychology degree.

When Misty received an appealing job offer to work in California during Simmons’s junior year of high school, he didn’t want to leave and experience his senior year in another state.

Simmons expressed his concerns to Allen, who told Simmons he was like family. He would talk to Lauren to see what she thought of him moving in with them until he started college.

“Corvel is amazing,” said Lauren, who thought he would be a “great influence on Carter and Cameron,” her two youngest sons.

After Allen talked to Misty, she said, “If he doesn’t abide by the rules of the house, you just let me know, and I’ll lay the mommy laws from California over the phone.”

Misty agreed with the arrangement, and it proved to be a healing moment, too, for Allen, who had lost his younger brother Kyle, 31, to suicide two years earlier.

“I was dealing with a lot of sadness,” Allen said. “(Corvel) brought me out of that sadness. He rejuvenated me as a father and a father figure.”

The blessing

Although the intention of Simmons moving in with the Allen family was to offer him a home after his mom moved, he became much more to the family.

The family had struggled after the death of Allen’s brother and his mother’s cancer diagnosis.

Cameron (Cam) Allen, the youngest Allen family son, felt it so profoundly that he started closing himself off from the world. His two older brothers, Carter and Logan, and his father were struggling as well, so it was hard for them to be what Cam needed in the moment.

Enter Simmons.

He became a brother to Cam. The brother, Allen said, that “never judged and was always present for and attentive” to Cam.

“He’s brought light into my life,” Cam said. “He made me happier.”

Whether it was playing video games or wrestling, Simmons was always there for Cam, even though Cam often lost because Simmons would refuse to take it easy on him.

Additionally, the only daughter of the Allen family, Olivia, was contending with bullying and inappropriate advances from an individual, and the rest of the family was unaware of the situation.

Simmons caught wind of it, confronted the person and prevented it from advancing further.

“You don’t ever have to worry about that ever happening again while I’m in this house because I got you,” Simmons told Olivia.

Olivia connected with Simmons.

“She was unsure of people,” Allen said, “and she melted with Corvel. He loved and protected her.”

Learning to adjust

Simmons’ legacy lives on. His son, LevRoc Jamaal Cañez Simmons, was born April 5.

And Misty has become part of the Allen family.

“When she hugs my kids, and they hug her back,” Allen said, “it’s a very deep embrace, and it’s a special moment for all of us.”

He added that, “Corvel was the guardian angel for my family through our darkest hours. And I thank God for placing him in that role every day.”

Sunday marked exactly one year without him. His friends and family are still healing.

“(I want to tell Corvel) that I miss him,” Allen said. “And I’m sorry that he’s not able to become an actor, a doctor or a ruler of all worlds as he was anticipating, but I know he’s in a better place, and God has a lot of rooms.

“Corvel built a room for all of us, and I’m sure he still has a bunch of Swedish Fish wrappers and juice boxes all over the floor of the room God built for him, so he should probably take care of that.”

Although Simmons passed away a year ago, his spirit lives on, and the Allen family exemplifies just that.

Ruby Arora(she/her)
Sports Broadcast Reporter, Phoenix

Ruby Arora is working on a second master’s degree in sports journalism. Arora has interned under NBA managers and NFL affiliates, most recently Pacers Sports & Entertainment. Her first master’s degree is in sports management; she also has a business marketing degree. Arora has a graduate assistantship at the Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism at ASU.