The Rise and Fall of Billy Sims

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Billy Sims is a name that many NFL fans, specifically Detroit Lions fans, know and love. He helped lead the Lions to back-to-back playoff games during his short career in the NFL. But Sims’s career was cut short when he suffered a devastating injury in 1984. Sims did not get the career many anticipated while watching his immense success in his college and NFL career. If you are one of the many people who view Sims’ as a beloved NFL figure or someone who just wants to know who Sims is, here are five things you need to know about the infamous NFL player. 

The Rise and Fall of Billy Sims

1. Billy Sims did not always have an interest in playing football

Sims was originally from St. Louis, Missouri, and had no interest in playing football during his youth. Instead, he spent most of his time practicing baseball. Eventually, when Sims’ life was uprooted and he found himself in Texas, he picked up the game he previously had no interest in.  While attending Hooks High School in Hooks, Texas, Sims played three years of varsity football, ending his high school career with 7,733 yards rushing. 

2. Billy Sims did not intend to commit to the University of Oklahoma

After spending many years in Texas, Sims wanted to spend his collegiate career playing in his home state and intended to spend game days at McLane Stadium. Although Sims’ was set on attending Baylor University, that did not stop Barry Switzer, head coach of the Oklahoma Sooners, from trying to change Sims’s decision. 

During Sims’s official visit, Switzer tried to show him the level of success becoming a Sooner could give him. But even after an official visit, Switzer could not change Sims’ mind. What ultimately led Sims to attend Oklahoma was a phone call he received from Switzer while at work.

Switzer had two guarantees: “First of all, I’m going to ensure you get your degree and graduate… And, two, you’re going to win the Heisman Trophy”. Those two promises were enough to leave Sims’ dreams behind of playing college football in Waco, Texas, and instead in Norman, Oklahoma.

3. Billy Sims’ college football career was anything but smooth

During Sims’ freshman year in 1975, he only appeared in one game, finishing his rookie season as a Sooner with 95 yards rushing, averaging 6.3 yards per carry. Although Sims intended to use his sophomore season to prove he was highly skilled in football, injuries got in the way of ever making this happen. Sims’ appeared in only a handful of games, leading him to end the season with an unimpressive 44 yards rushing, averaging 14.7 yards per carry.

Although Sims’ first two years playing football at the collegiate level did not go as planned, his injuries during his sophomore season in 1976 allowed him to gain an extra year of NCAA eligibility. During his red-shirted Sophomore season, Sims still missed half of the season due to injuries. Although Sims’ performance was hindered due to injuries, he ended the season with 406 yards rushing, averaging 6.2 yards per carry and six touchdowns, a significant improvement from his previous two seasons. 

During Sims’ red-shirt junior season, he proved that he had what it takes to be a Sooner and be one of the best running backs in college football. Sim’s ended the season with 1762 yards rushing, averaging 7.6 yards per carry, 35 yards receiving, and twenty touchdowns. But Sims’ accomplishments did not stop there, as he won the 1978 Heisman trophy, one of the most esteemed honors in college football. This win is even more impressive because he is the 6th junior to ever win this award. Not only did Sims win the Heisman, but he led the Sooners to the 1979 Orange Bowl against Nebraska. Sims finished the game with 134 yards rushing, two touchdowns, and a 31-24 win against the Nebraska Huskers. 

Sims’ final year at Nebraska lived up to the previous year, ending the season with 1,506 yards rushing, averaging 6.7 yards per carry, 42 yards receiving, and 22 touchdowns. Sims almost won the Heisman for two consecutive years but closely trailed running back Charles White of the University of Southern California. Sims successfully won the Sooners a second Orange Bowl when they faced Florida State University, beating the Seminoles by a wide margin of 24-7. 

4. Sims spent his whole career with the Lions

To no one’s shock, Sims was picked first overall in the 1980 NFL draft by the Detroit Lions. The Lions hoped that Sim’s talent would be able to save the franchise, as the previous year, the Lions finished the season 2-14 and had not appeared in a playoff game since 1970 where the Lions had lost 0-5 to the Dallas Cowboys. During his rookie season, Sims’ was able to help the troubled franchise, leading the Lions to a 9-7 season. During his rookie year with the Lions, Sims’ concluded the season with 1,303 yards rushing, averaging 4.2 yards per carry and 13 touchdowns. His impressive stats are a huge reason why Sims won Offensive Rookie of The Year during the 1980 season. Sims was also allowed to display his talents during the 1980 Pro Bowl. 

In 1981, Sims helped the Lions end with an 8-8 record. Sims completed the season with 1437 yards, averaging 4.9 yards per carry and 13 touchdowns. Sims was also chosen to be featured in the 1981 Pro Bowl. The Lions’ performance significantly decreased the following year, ending the 1982 season with a 4-5 record. Sims showed inconsistent football abilities this season, with only 639 yards rushing, averaging 3.7 yards per carry, and only four touchdowns.  But, for the first time since 1970, the Detroit Lions were able to clinch a wild card spot in the playoffs, where they would eventually lose 7-31 to the Washington Commanders. Sims was invited back to the 1982 NFL Pro Bowl for the third year.  The Lions were back in the playoffs the following season, coming first in the NFC North with a 9-7 record. Unfortunately, the Lions could not outperform Bill Walsh’s San Francisco 49ers, losing the game by just one point. Much like the Lions’ progress between the 1982 and 9183 seasons, sims got his act together and finished with 1040 yards rushing, averaging 4.7 yards per carry and seven touchdowns.  

During the offseason, Sims found himself in a bit of drama. While trying to agree upon a new contract with the Lions, Sims’ agent, Jerry Argovitz, was heavily involved in expanding the USFL team, the Houston Gamblers. In July of 1983, Sims signed a contract with the USFL team worth 3.5 million dollars, and the big issue was he did not inform the Lions. The trouble began when Sims signed a five-year contract worth 4.5 million dollars with the Detroit Lions just six months later. Sims found himself in court in 1984 when the judges voided the Houston Gamblers contract and sent him back to Detroit. 

Sims’ NFL career ended in the middle of the 1984 season when he injured his right knee against the Minnesota Vikings. This game not only marked the historic end of Sims’ football career but also the moment when Sims set the all-time Lions rushing record, which is now held by RB Barry Sanders, of 5106 rushing yards through 1131 carries, averaging 4.5 yards per carry. Sims’ career did not officially end for two years as they hoped his knee injury would be able to heal with time, but in 1986, Sims made the official decision to retire from the NFL as it appeared his knee was not getting better. 

5. Billy Sims attempted to make a comeback in the NFL

After four years of not playing football, Sims announced via Detroit Free Press that he would attempt to make a comeback into the NFL for the following season. His desire to play football was so strong that he was willing to play the season with a blank check. Although there was some interest from General Manager Russ Thomas and owner William Clay Ford Senior, Sims’ resurgence into the NFL would never happen.

Although the end to Sims’ football career was highly unsatisfying, it is impossible to deny the sheer talent and success that the running back had not only during his NFL career but also his collegiate career. Not many football players have the honor of winning the Heisman Trophy, two Orange Bowl wins, Three Pro Bowl appearances, and the Offensive Rookie of the Year award in six years. That is why, although Sims’ career was cut short, he will be one of the greats to come out of the Detroit Lions program. 

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