It’s easy to forget that Billy Sims ever carried the pigskin for the Honolulu blue and silver of the Detroit Lions. After all, it’s been nearly 30 years since his career was cut short by a knee injury in a game against the Minnesota Vikings. And face it, Lions fans — and fans all over the NFL — were spoiled for 10 years by watching Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders leave would-be tacklers grasping at air.
But Billy Sims, who also wore #20, was Barry Sanders before Sanders came along, and many fans still wonder how the Lions franchise managed to get it right with these two first round draft picks. Sadly, neither was able to get Detroit to the Promised Land.
Sims played his college career for the Oklahoma Sooners, under Barry Switzer, but missed nearly all of his first two years due to injuries. In 1978, as a junior, he rushed for 1,762 yards on 231 carries, averaging 7.6 yards per carry. Sims was awarded the Heisman Trophy that year, becoming only the sixth junior to win the prestigious award, and was runner up the next year.
Sims led the Sooners to two consecutive Orange Bowl titles in three straight appearances, scoring two touchdowns in a 31-24 win over the Nebraska Cornhuskers, and running for 164 yards while defeating the Florida State Seminoles 24-7. Sims ended his career at Oklahoma with 3,813 yards. What’s remarkable is that he put up most of those yards during his final two seasons.
The Lions made Sims the first overall pick in the 1980 NFL Draft. Sims made Pro Bowl appearances in 1980, 1981, and 1982, and led Detroit to the playoffs in 1982 and 1983 — both first round losses. In the 1983 wild card game at Candlestick Park, against the San Francisco 49ers, Sims rang up 114 yards on 20 carries; but Joe Montana led the Niners to a comeback victory when Eddie Murray missed a field goal near the end.
On November 13, 1983, during a 27-17 loss to the Saints in New Orleans, Chris Berman dubbed Sims “Kung Fu Billy Sims” when Sims, during a run, went airborne and extended his right leg to kick a would-be tackler out of his way. In today’s game, fines would’ve be levied and a suspension given. But that was Billy. Where Barry deked and beat tacklers with his quickness and elusiveness, Sims, when necessary, ran over them.
Sims’ career would end midway through the 1984 season, with 1,131 carries for 5,106 yards (4.5 yards per carry), and 186 receptions for 2,072 yards (11.1 yards per catch). One can only wonder what his numbers might’ve looked like had he played another five years — arguably they’d be Sanders-like.
Retirement wasn’t kind to Sims, as poor investments led to bankruptcy in 1990. Following a divorce, he moved back to Norman, Oklahoma, where he worked for a time in the University of Oklahoma athletic department. He now serves as a vice-president with AmericaCan, a non-profit organization. Sims also licenses the use of his name to Billy Sims Barbecue and makes appearances for sports marketing firms.
Today, Sims and Sanders, along with Hall of Fame defensive back Lem Barney, are considered the unofficial “Triumvirate” of the greatest Lions in the modern era to wear the number 20.