Thirty-two years ago, a Heisman Trophy Winner from Oklahoma gave Detroit Lions’ fans a reason to cheer again.
As all Detroit Lions fans know, the #20 has long been taken out of service. From 1967-thru-1998, three players, Lem Barney, Barry Sanders and Billy Sims, wore the number. All of them are now Motor City immortals; and two of the three, Barney and Sanders, are now in the Hall of Fame.
If not for a career-ending knee injury versus the Minnesota Vikings mid-way through his fifth NFL season (1984); Billy Sims might have earned a bust in Canton by now too. Those Lions fans old enough to remember Sims in his prime recall an ultra-fast, 6-foot, 212 pound, big-play performer, who always seemed to step up when the stakes were the highest.
The game that most Lions fans of the era bring up when Billy’s name is mentioned was his debut performance versus the then-Los Angeles Rams. Below is a recap of Sims’ historic Honolulu Blue and Silver debut.
September 7, 1980
Los Angeles 20
It was one hell-of-a-debut by one-hell-of-a-halfback. A premiere that Lions’ fans had been waiting a decade for. The 1970’s had not been kind to the Motor City.
The decade began with the city still in a daze following the rebellion June, 1967. While the Detroit Tigers’ third world championship a year later brought the city and its residents back together for a short while, the racial tensions, white flight and violence soon returned.
Between 1964 and 1966, an average of 22,000 whites had left the city each year. 47,000 departed in 1967, 80,000 in 1968 and another 46,000 in 1969.
Former Wayne County Sheriff Roman Gribbs succeeded Jerome Cavanagh as Mayor in 1970. Gribbs’ Police Commissioner, John Nichols, instituted an anti-crime unite called STRESS, which stood for “Stop Robberies, Enjoy Safe Streets,” in January 1971.
STRESS came about in response to the violence of 1967 and the acceleration of homicides — many fueled by the influx of heroin and other hard drugs – that came in the late 1960s. As always, Detroit’s history of racial tension added fuel to the fire.
In 1960, the year that then-Mayor Louis Mirani had instituted a state of emergency, Detroit had 150 homicides. By 1972, the number had exploded to 601.
Three years after STRESS was put into operation, 22 citizens, most of them black, had been shot dead by STRESS officers. What was advertised as a crime fighting unit had become a government-sanctioned death squad.
The city’s 1973 mayoral race pitted Police Commissioner Nichols against State Senator Coleman Young. Young won the race by 14,000 votes and ushered in a series of police reforms. He abolished the STRESS unit. And for the first time in Detroit history, the city government put integration of its police force as a top priority.
However, just as Detroit’s black population had elected the city’s first black mayor, the backbone of Michigan’s economy, the auto industry – with a major assist from the OPEC oil embargo of 1973 – took a turn for the worse has remained in a bout of fits and starts ever since.
While the city as a whole stumbled through the decade of the seventies, the once proud Detroit Lions had also fallen on hard times.
After their 10-4 playoff season in 1970, the Lions compiled a record of 56-71-3 for the rest of the decade. During that time, the Lions also had five different head coaches and starting quarterbacks. They had also moved out of the Detroit proper, from Tiger Stadium to the Pontiac Silverdome in 1975. Needless to say, the 1970s stunk all over for Lions’ rooters, and after the low-water mark 2-14 record in 1979, folks were simply praying things wouldn’t get any worse.
In that same 1979 season, the San Francisco 49ers and their first-year head coach Bill Walsh had also gone 2-14. The 49ers, like the Lions, also coveted Billy Sims. Sims had just completed a dazzling career in Norman, Oklahoma. He had won the Heisman Trophy as a junior in 1978 and had led Barry Switzer’s Sooner squad to Orange Bowl Championships in 1979 and 1980.
It would come down to a coin-flip to decide who would get the opportunity to select Sims. History shows that it was the Lions who won the toss, and they laid claim to the flashy ball carrier who they hoped would turn the franchise around.
The Sims pick was a no-brainer for the Lions, just as it would have been for the 49ers. In his 1990 book, Building A Champion: On Football and the Making of the 49ers, Bill Walsh wrote: “the Lions won the coin flip and selected Billy Sims . . . We would have done the same. It would have been impossible to pass up Sims. He was a great runner and probably would have been in the Hall of Fame if he hadn’t injured his knee late in his career.”
Once in Detroit, after a lengthy and very public holdout, Sims signed a three-year deal with Detroit for a reported $2 million. He didn’t take long to make a positive impression. “I’m Billy Sims from the University of Oklahoma, and I am the reason most of you guys haven’t gotten raises.” Those words caused an eruption of laughter at the team’s “Meet the Lions Banquet.” It also showed his teammates that he had a sense of humor and understood the pressure that was being placed on him. “He’s a super person to get along with. . . . He’s just one of the guys,” said veteran linebacker Charlie Weaver. In practice, he quickly solidified his place among the squad with an unparalleled work ethic. “Billy has great work habits, and he has great pride,” said Lion head coach Monte Clark. “He’s very alert and always aware of what’s going on, and he doesn’t hold back with anything.”
The Sims’ era began with the Lions facing off against the defending NFC Champion Los Angeles Rams on the road in Anaheim. It was the Rams first game in their new home, as they had made the offseason move to the suburbs after their 33-year stay at the LA Coliseum. The Rams christened their new pad quickly when Drew Hill returned the opening kickoff 98-yards for a touchdown. Frank Corral’s PAT was blocked by Detroit’s William Gay, giving the Rams a 6-0 edge.
The Lions answered later in the opening period with a 52-yard field goal off the foot of another Leo rookie named Eddie Murray. Then after a LA punt, Detroit marched 91-yards to Billy Sims first NFL touchdown, a 10-yarder, putting the Lions up 10-6. The Rams responded in the second stanza with dual one-yard TD blasts from Cullen Bryant and Elvis Peacock, respectively. With LA now leading 20-10, Detroit, with the help of three costly Ram penalties, rode Billy’s back to another score. Sims’ second touchdown came from a yard out, and cut the Ram lead to 20-17 at the break. Sims finished his first NFL half with 14 carries for 82 yards and two scores. . . . He was just getting started.
The Lions tied the game early in the third period on a 38-yard Murray boot, and then took the lead when Dexter Bussey carried the pigskin 15-yards to paydirt. Bussey’s score capped an 84-yard Lion drive that was highlighted by a Gary Danielson pass to Sims that covered 60 yards. It was Sim’s first NFL reception. Murray’s PAT put Detroit on top to stay, 27-20. The Lions rounded out the memorable day with Billy scoring on a 41-yard off-tackle sprint, and a Horace King 4-yard with 29 seconds to play.
The Lions ground game was devastating. They rolled up a combined 46 carries, for 330 yards and 5 touchdowns. Sims carried the ball 22 times, for 153 yards and three scores. Dexter Bussey also went over the century mark, gaining 111 yards on 14 carries and a TD. The Lion defense held the Rams to 16 first downs and only 255 yards in total offense. They also picked off three Pat Haden passes, two grabbed by Jimmy Allen and the other by James Hunter.
The Lions’ postgame lockeroom celebration was rocking with their newly adopted theme-song “Another One Bites the Dust,” as their quarterback Gary Danielson talked about his new backfield mate. “If you think he’s good now, wait until you see him in our eighth game. I said in preseason how he was holding back. What I’ve said all fall is that he’ll make everybody else better.”
It was clear that the Lions were a different team with their new running back. The Billy Sims’ era in Motown was a debut smash, and Lions’ fans everywhere began to wonder just how far they could go with their new superstar in 1980.
Detroit 10 7 10 14 – 41
Los Angeles 6 14 0 0 – 20
Los Angeles – Hill 98-yard kickoff return (kick blocked)
Detroit – FG Murray 52
Detroit – Sims 10-yard run (Murray kick)
Los Angeles – Bryant 1-yard run (Corral kick)
Los Angeles – Peacock 1-yard run (Corral kick)
Detroit – Sims 1-yard run (Murray kick)
Detroit – FG Murray 38
Detroit – Bussey 15-yard run (Murray kick)
Detroit – Sims 41-yard run (Murray kick)
Detroit – King 4-yard run (Murray kick)