Building More Than Muscle | Global Down Syndrome Foundation
Justin Simmons Denver Broncos Player

Building More Than Muscle

Building More Than Muscle

From Down Syndrome WorldTM 2021 Issue 3 of 4

Denver Bronco Justin Simmons and GLOBAL model Leeon Grullon share how balance is the key to good health and a good life.


This article was published in the award-winning Down Syndrome World™ magazine. Become a member to read all the articles and get future issues delivered to your door!

“WHEN LEEON WAS BORN, I could tell something was different about him from his physical features. It wasn’t until a few days later, when Leeon was in the ICU unit, that I received his Down syndrome diagnosis. The nurse who told me said it was best to give him up for adoption,” says Florida native and mother of two, Karla Cubilla. “It was a confusing and emotional time, but I was strongly bonded to Leeon and determined to move forward in life with him, whatever it took. All my efforts went into making sure he was healthy.”

As a professional nutritionist, Karla understands the huge impact that a person’s health makes on their overall quality of their life. Leeon (now 25) and his big sister, also named Karla (26), were raised to prioritize wellness and self-care to live a well-rounded healthy lifestyle. The goal is to find balance in all their activities. This includes a focus on the usual health elements like eating a nutritious diet, incorporating adequate supplements, and exercising regularly, while also keeping up with other important elements that often get overlooked, like social activities, mental stimulation, and emotional wellbeing. Today, the family is living happily in San Antonio, Texas. Karla, the mother, met her fiancé John in San Antonio and is currently building her own nutrition company for athletes. Her daughter Karla is now a licensed occupational therapy assistant in the city, while also managing her own family business. Leeon is a competitive powerlifter and athlete in Special Olympics. In his free time, he enjoys lifting weights and playing sports with friends, while also working on his other talents like DJing, cooking, and Karate. The family has found a variety of fun social activities in their new city, allowing them to continue their balanced lifestyles.

When Leeon was selected as a model for Global Down Syndrome Foundation’s Be Beautiful Be Yourself Fashion Show in 2018, he brought his bright, positive spirit into the spotlight. Leeon’s energy filled the room, and eventually caught the attention of Denver Broncos’ Justin Simmons. Leeon was thrilled to hang out with Justin. The two posed for photos together, where smiles for the camera quickly became a show of muscle flexing and laughter.

“Events like GLOBAL’s fashion show provide an opportunity to learn from amazing people and give back. We all need a community of support and love to be our best selves,” says Justin, who is a dedicated GLOBAL supporter and a regular attendee of the event. He has a similar outlook to Leeon on creating a full, balanced life. “When everything in your life is in line, it allows you to welcome and seize opportunities as they come your way.”

Leeon Cubilla

EARLY INVESTMENT

To create a supportive environment for Leeon, his mother Karla had to create a community from the ground up. “The biggest challenge in raising Leeon was the lack of supportive resources. Sure, I was directed to programs and specialists, but it was up to me to find within and around, that heart-centered emotional support.” At the time Leeon was born, there was no local Down syndrome organization in the area, so Karla used the online community to connect with other parents raising a child with Down syndrome. One common theme Karla learned from the stories she read was the importance of having a strong support team starting at early childhood. Before Leeon was one, he was already enrolled in specialized educational and therapy programs.

Leeon’s teachers have played a big role in his journey so far, influencing both his cognitive progression and at times, regression. “Leeon has had some amazing teachers in his life, ones who really challenged him and pushed him to get to the next level, and then there were others who lacked patience and understanding, which is disheartening to see in the field,” Karla explains.

Leeon and Karla Cubilla

With varying levels of teacher support from year to year, Leeon’s academic career had ups and downs. To get Leeon back on track with school, he and his mom developed a structured home-school schedule. “For anyone, and especially for people with Down syndrome, repetition is important because it reinforces learned behaviors and allows you to build upon that and grow,” Karla says. The schedule followed the same guidelines they used in their healthy lifestyle planning: establish a balance and create healthy habits in multiple areas of life that all feed into accomplishing a bigger goal.

Leeon’s home-school routine included time blocks for homework and studying, family time, physical exercise, social activities, and pursuing his hobbies. Karla’s goal was to bring balance while reinforcing the things Leeon was learning through tutoring, which his previous school had not provided enough of. Establishing a routine creates a work-life balance that allows Leeon to easily manage all the things he wants to do, rather than feeling too overworked in one so another is deprived. For example, after a study session with tutors, Leeon would do something that he enjoyed even more and was both fun and healthy, like lifting weights and doing cardiovascular-friendly routines at the local gym with his friends. “It’s all connected. There was a beautiful integration of Leeon’s growth, while he was becoming a better athlete and a teammate, it was at that same time that his reading and language skills excelled,” Karla says proudly.

Leeon’s lifestyle allows him to center his day around doing what makes him happy. According to Leeon, “I lift weights, that’s how I’m so good looking! I bench press, do push-ups, and lift dumbbells. I like to go to Karate. All the time my mom has me doing yoga. I like it too.”

At just 25 years old, Leeon has accomplished a skill that many people spend their lives trying to master and don’t: discipline.

ROAD TO THE NFL

In 2016, the Denver Broncos selected Justin Simmons in the third round of the NFL draft, and Justin has been the team’s free safety since. The Virginia-born, Florida-raised athlete attributes his success to his faith and a supportive community of friends and family. “I grew up in a Christian home with a white mother and a black father, and I was the oldest of three boys. At times, it was difficult to get both sides of the family to agree on things. But in the face of arguments or disagreements, my parents taught us to unite by putting our faith first. This devotion to our faith allowed us to turn those challenges into opportunities for growth and love.”

This philosophy has guided Justin through his career and his life. “My parents always let me make my own decisions and supported me whether they agreed with them or not. With that strong support from them and my faith in God, I knew everything would be okay,” Justin adds.

Justin Simmons

In high school, Justin preferred basketball as his top sport and had dreams of playing in the NBA. When he began to receive college scholarships for football, he reassessed his options and started to focus on finding his intended path. He was thrilled to get a full scholarship offer from Boston College and eagerly accepted the opportunity.

“Playing college football was extremely humbling. You go from being the best player in your high school to playing in college, where every guy was the best in their high school,” says Justin. “The first couple years were really tough. You’re tempted to get discouraged and doubt yourself, but you have to keep grounded and just earn your spot.”

Justin explains how in these moments, your faith and discipline are being tested and it’s your job to call upon yourself to rise above it and prevail. “Be mindful of what you’re giving your attention to, don’t get caught up in other people’s negative perceptions. There’s a reason you’re driven to do certain things and a reason you’re presented with opportunities to do them. All you have to do is do those things to the best of your ability.”

Entering the NFL, where the competition, criticism, and pressure is magnified times 100, is just another test of strength and character. “As athletes, we’re constantly picked apart and criticized. Mental health is so important because without it, you may start to believe those negative perceptions reflect who you are. What’s most important is being confident in who you are, and knowing you are much bigger than football.”

Outside of football, Justin loves spending time with his family. He is married to his high school sweetheart, Taryn, and together they have a beautiful three-year-old daughter Laney, and another baby girl on the way. Justin and Taryn’s goal as parents is to love their girls and raise them to be the best versions of themselves.

Justin has been recognized locally and nationally for his leadership in the community. He was recently elected a Broncos team captain for the 2021 season. Justin has received the Denver Broncos’ Community Ambassador Award, the Darrent Williams Good Guy Award in 2017 and 2019, and was selected as the team’s Walter Payton Man of the Year Award nominee in both 2019 and 2020.

Justin and Taryn launched the Justin Simmons Foundation in June 2020. “I know that if my community of support hadn’t invested in me, I wouldn’t be where I am today. We need to invest in our youth. They are the future,” says Justin. The foundation provides various services to young people, including opportunities for mentorship, education, athletics, and more. “Launching during a pandemic was definitely not what we expected, but we’re proud of the work we’ve done so far. Now with COVID restrictions lifting, I am really looking forward to getting together with the kids and meeting them face to face!”

As Justin has experienced firsthand through his work with GLOBAL and other Down syndrome organizations like Best Buddies, children who are differently-abled are key members of our youth. “There’s so much we can learn from people with Down syndrome. Their attributes of kindness, generosity, and love are a blessing to everyone around them. They are super smart and capable of accomplishing great things when given a chance to reach their potential.”

As a son, brother, husband, father, friend, and teammate, Justin aims to be a source of inspiration, hope, and support for others.

Justin Simmons with wife and daughter

COMMUNITY OF LOVE AND SUPPORT

Leeon and Justin have learned that having a good life is easy, all you need to do is build yourself to be the best version of you. GLOBAL’s Be Beautiful Be Yourself Fashion Show, where Justin and Leeon met in 2018, embodies that exact philosophy. The event brings people together from all over the world, united to celebrate and support people with Down syndrome.

Justin recalls, “My first time attending GLOBAL’s Fashion Show, I went in thinking it would be a fun, good thing to do with my teammates. You walk in excited to see these big stars like Jamie Foxx and Shia LaBeouf, but then you realize, it’s not even about them. The entire night is about the people with Down syndrome, and everybody knows it. You’re focused on how much fun the models have on the runway and learning about the advocacy efforts to support them. I left feeling so humbled and inspired.”

Leeon loved every minute of being a GLOBAL model. “The whole thing was amazing. It was one of the best nights of my life. My favorite part was waking up that morning, getting dressed up and ready to model for the big show. Taking pictures with professional athletes backstage was another favorite moment,” he says, keeping it cool and just happening to leave out that he walked down the runway with a Broncos cheerleader on each arm!

The Be Beautiful Be Yourself Fashion Show is the largest fundraiser for Down syndrome in the world, having raised over $22 million for life saving research and medical care. The event has received 17 national awards and continues to attract over 1,400 people each year, including featured celebrities such as John C. McGinley, Beverly Johnson, Peyton Manning, Queen Latifah, Natasha Bedingfield, Alec Baldwin, Eva Longoria, and more.

“Quincy Jones set the stage for using his celebrity platform to promote important causes, like Down syndrome awareness. When it comes to philanthropy and giving back to the community, Quincy is the ultimate role model and a living legend,” says Justin. Every year, GLOBAL gives the Quincy Jones Exceptional Advocacy Award to two strong leaders in the community, one leader with Down syndrome who can speak directly for their community and another person with a celebrity platform who can share GLOBAL’s message to the masses.

Leeon Cubilla and Justin Simmons Posing

“The event itself is a huge awareness-raiser featuring over 20 models with Down syndrome some of whom are celebrities in their own right,” says GLOBAL President and CEO Michelle Sie Whitten. “The evening actually changes you, especially if you are new to the Down syndrome community. You walk away understanding what discrimination and struggles we face, but also celebrating our advances in inclusion and life-changing research and medical care.”

Karla’s main takeaway was a common one that many parents have: good health is the common denominator for a good life. Karla tells, “As parents of children with Down syndrome, we’re always asking questions. Information is a vital part of our journey. It is with information that we can better understand the unique physiology of our children with Down syndrome and learn how to best assist them. Information makes us aware of choices that could enhance our child’s life. My continuous search for information is what led me to the Global Down Syndrome Foundation. GLOBAL is a valuable source for information, they have answers to our questions, even for the ones we didn’t know to ask. We need to help GLOBAL advocate for increased funding for Down syndrome research.”


SAVE THE DATE! To buy tickets for GLOBAL’s 2021 virtual Be Beautiful Be Yourself Fashion Show, visit bebeautifulbeyourself.org

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