Billy Ray Sims, the greatest runner ever to play for the Detroit Lions _ maybe their best player ever will be 30 years old Sept. 18. It is an age when most running backs begin to consider what they will do after their career ends.
Sims has played five years in the NFL. The question he faces is whether he will play in 1985.
It is not age that clouds Sims' future. It is an incident of last Oct. 21, Lions at Minnesota, eighth game of a season which already had begun to unravel. Sims had carried the ball 20 times. When Gary Danielson, the since-departed quarterback, got the next call from the sidelines, Sims barked in the huddle: "Change the bleeping play."
The Vikings had been unable to stop him but Sims thought it might be wise to try something else. Instead, he took the handoff as ordered, and ran around right end. He planted his right foot to cut back. Walker Lee Ashley, a reserve linebacker, lunged to make the tackle. Sims ducked. Ashley barely made contact.
Sims' right knee buckled. Tendons and cartilage were torn to shreds.
Sims lay on the turf for several minutes, then walked off with help dragging his right leg. He iced the knee, expecting to go back in. Two days later he underwent extensive surgery.
He has worked religiously on a rehabilitation program but is not close to being ready to practice or play. Sims may not be ready until October. He might miss the entire season.
"The knee's 75 percent," Sims said. "I had it looked at a couple of weeks ago. Everything's looking really good. I'm still going through rehab. I don't think I'll be ready until October."
Recovering patient. Spectator. They are ugly words for Sims. While the Lions practice, he'll stand on the sidelines and do drills and exercises designed to strengthen his knee. It is far different from taking handoffs and cracking through a hole in the line.
"It's going to be hard, seeing everybody running and jumping around. Something I've never had to do is watch. That's new for me."
Life without football. It's an intolerable existence for a player like Billy Sims. He never shied away from the hard work, in high school, at Oklahoma or Detroit. He didn't rise to his stature by being lazy. Some say they haven't seen a superstar runner as reckless on the field as Sims or one who practices any harder.
He is comfortable in the limelight and very comfortable at home in Hooks, Texas. He has lived there since his mother sent him to his grandparents when he was in the eighth grade. Now, with the means to live anywhere, he remains in Hooks.
"It's peaceful. I have my own little ranch. I had four calves born in the last month. I saw one of them born. I ride my horses. It is a real small town. In three hours or less, I can be to any entertainment I want. Shreveport (La.) is an hour and a half away. It's two and a half hours to Dallas. And Houston I have access to a plane from the guy I bought my ranch from.
"I just like the country better. People care about you more in a small town. The people there don't give a damn if I ever gain another yard. That's the way I like it. They'll still respect me."
Billy Sims is the biggest man in Hooks, a fact that impresses him not a bit.
"Nah . . . I never think about that," he says.
He remembers the move from St. Louis, a streetwise city kid who ended up in the country and grew to love it.
"It was great," he says. "It was like it was meant for me to be in Hooks. When I got there, I knew how to fight. They didn't mess with me. But I didn't have to fight. Everybody was related."
Big Jack Coleman was Sims' coach at Hooks.
"He was a Marine drill instructor. He was a good guy. A tough guy and a good guy. He was 5-10 and 180. I don't know why they called him Big Jack, and I didn't ask. He wore a crewcut. He didn't care one way or the other about who you were. He didn't show me any favoritism."
Sims sneaked off to the fair in Texarkana, 13 miles east of Hooks, and was caught out past curfew. Coleman benched him for the first half of the next game, and Hooks lost.
"People there still blame him for that," Sims said.
By his senior year, Sims had put Hooks on the map. He was an incredible high school athlete who dominated his division in the football-mad state of Texas. He never had as much fun playing football as he did in high school, riding the bus the Yellow Dog as they called it for as long as eight hours on trips.
Sims was a marked man. He remembers showing up in towns such as DeKalb, New Boston and Texarkana, and seeing opponents wearing motorcycle helmets, and hearing that players on the other team had been promised a day off from school if they could "get Sims."
Nobody got Billy Sims.
"I guarantee football's a big thing in Texas. High school football is big business. It's more like pro ball in the bigger schools. But you don't have any responsibilities except to go to school, make grades and play ball."
Sims was a little different. He had to work to help his grandparents. He pumped gas at Pat James' Conoco station in Hooks.
"I always had a job," he says. "I was paying bills when I was in high school. It was nothing major, just the light bill and the gas bill. I was my own man, too.
"The only thing on my mind then was to finish high school and work on cars. I'd have been just as happy as I am now, as long as I could feed my family. When I was a kid, I didn't know what broke was. My folks did. They had to struggle. But I never had to go hungry or live in poverty.
"I shoveled manure, chopped hay and hauled cotton. Even now, I'd go back to hard work. I'm not afraid of it. That comes from the way I was brought up. I think that's where the difference comes between me and some other athletes."
Recruiters made Hooks a regular stop.
"I went to Oklahoma because of (coach Barry) Switzer, and because of the challenge. He told me I'd win the Heisman and I'd get a degree."
"I'm sure he told all the good running backs that. He used to call me at halftime of his games. I'd be pumping gas, and he'd say, "We're beating so and so 40-0.' He did that several times.
"He was right. I won the Heisman (in 1978) and I graduated. I walked across the stage and everything. It made me proud, and it made my mom proud. I felt like that capped my whole career at Oklahoma. That was the most important thing."
Sims' contract is important, too. It will pay him $4.5 million through 1988. He insured himself in case of injury. He has invested cautiously. He is part of a group that owns 597 apartment units in Texarkana.
His contract with the Lions didn't come without a struggle. He signed in 1983 with the Houston Gamblers of the USFL for $3.5 million.
Just before the last game of the NFL season, Sims signed with the Lions for $4.5 million. Both were five-year contracts. Sims had to endure a long, frequently embarrassing trial to stay in Detroit.
"Now football's secondary to me," he says. "It used to be the No. 1 priority in my life. But now I'm 30, I've got a knee injury. And if I can't play, I'm in a position to do whatever I want. It doesn't take much to live. I can grow what I want. I protected myself. They won't have to hold any fund-raisers for me."
Scripps-Howard News Service BIOG: NAME:Archive ID: 237910