State Your Case: Billy Sims

The NFL Rookie of the Year in 1980

(Published October 2018)

The Detroit Lions used a high first-round draft pick on a Heisman Trophy winner from the state of Oklahoma and Barry Sanders rewarded them with a Hall of Fame career.

By all rights, Sanders should have been the second such running back drafted by the Lions with that same profile with a bust in Canton.

All that Sanders achieved in his career was there for the taking for Billy Sims. The two Heisman winners from the state of Oklahoma – Sanders was an Oklahoma State Cowboy and Sims an Oklahoma Sooner – even wore the same jersey number (20) with the Lions.

Detroit claimed Sims with the first overall selection of the 1980 NFL draft. Sanders was selected third overall in 1989. Sanders was the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year. So was Sims.

Sims rushed for 153 yards in his NFL debut against the Los Angeles Rams and kept right on going from there. He finished the season with 1,303 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns and also caught 51 passes for 621 more yards and three scores, catapulting the Lions from a 2-14 finisher without him in 1979 to 9-7 with him in 1980.

Sims was even better in his second season, rushing for 1,437 yards, 13 touchdowns and catching 28 passes for 451 yards and two more scores. The player strike in 1982 slowed Sims down — and everyone else in the NFL, for that matter. That season was shortened to nine games and there wasn’t a single NFL back that rushed for 1,000 yards. Sims did rush for 639 yards and four touchdowns to power the Lions to their first playoff berth in 12 seasons.

Despite missing three games with an injury, Sims still rang up another 1,000 yards rushing in 1983 to help deliver the Lions their first division title in 26 years. He gained 1,040 yards and caught 42 passes. Then Sims posted his 14th career 100-yard game in the playoffs at Candlestick Park, rushing for 114 yards in a 24-23 loss to the San Francisco 49ers.

Sims was well on his way to the fourth 1,000-yard season of his five-year career in 1984 with 687 yards, 31 receptions and five touchdowns through the season’s first eight weeks. But he tore up his right knee in that eighth game against the Minnesota Vikings, which ended his season.

And, tragically, his career.

Sims spent two years rehabilitating his knee but never made it back. He never played again – and a career on a Hall of Fame track came off the rails.

Sims led the Lions in rushing all five of his NFL seasons and was voted to the Pro Bowl each of his first three years. He posted 24 100-yard rushing days, including games of 189 yards against Green Bay, 185 against Denver, 159 against Washington, 157 against Minnesota and 155 against Kansas City. He also had a 100-yard receiving games against the Rams in 1982.

Billy Sims was a special back. He set a single-season record for yardage at Oklahoma in his Heisman season in 1978 that stood for 25 years until another great back, Adrian Peterson, broke it. There’s a statue of Billy Sims on the Oklahoma campus and a plaque of Sims in the College Football Hall of Fame.

If gold jackets and Canton busts are going to be determined on the basis of snapshots of short careers, as was the case with Terrell Davis, then Billy Sims deserves a look. With healthy knees, he was a Hall of Fame talent.


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