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Knee Injury, Age, Forces Sims to Rethink Priorities At 30, Ex-OU Star Braced for Life After Football

Mike O'Hara Published: July 28, 1985

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."

Sims laughed.

"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."

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