In today’s edition of 100 Days, 100 Detroit Lions, we honor the third greatest Lion to ever wear the most hallowed number in franchise history.
16. Billy Sims
Running Back. 1980-84 Detroit
He burst onto the NFL scene with a spectacular, 153-yard, three-touchdown debut versus the Los Angeles Rams in 1980. He never let up until suffering a career ending knee injury in 1984. Through it all, Billy Sims etched a place in the hearts of all Lion fans who saw him perform.
Sims came to Detroit as the NFL’s number-one overall pick in the 1980 draft. The 1979 Lions had endured one of the worst seasons in franchise history, going 2-14. That same year, the San Francisco 49ers and their first-year head coach Bill Walsh had also gone 2-14. The 49ers, like the Lions, also coveted Sims. It would come down to a coin-flip to decide who would get the opportunity to select him. Of course history shows that it was the Lions who won the toss, and they laid claim to the high-stepping 6-foot, 212 pound Heisman Trophy winner from the University of Oklahoma.
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.”
Walsh found out first hand just how dominant Sims could be in big games when Billy almost single-handedly led the Lions to an upset win over the ‘Niners in the 1983 Divisional Playoff at Candlestick Park. Sims finished the day with 114-yards and two touchdowns, on only 20 carries, but it was his leadership and determination that would mark his finest hour as a Lion.
The Lions trailed 14-9 at the half, with the 49ers’ scores coming off of two, of Gary Danielson’s four, first-half interceptions. With the Lions reeling, Sims went to coach Monte Clark at the half and asked for the ball. With the ‘Niners adding a third-quarter field goal, the Lions went into the final period trailing 17-9. It was then that Sims exploded, scoring on two fourth-quarter touchdown runs of 11 and 3 yards, respectively, putting the Lions into the lead at 23-17 with five minutes to play. However, a Joe Montana to Freddie Solomon TD pass, coupled with Eddie Murray’s 43-yard field goal miss with five seconds to play, gave the Niners a 24-23 victory. The game remains one of the most heartbreaking losses in Lions’ history, and in a way symbolized the frustration of Billy’s years in Detroit.
Sims was a three-time Pro Bowler, and finished his career as the Lions’ all-time leading rusher with 5,106 yards, on 1,131 attempts (4.5 avg.). He scored 282 points on 47 career touchdowns. He was also a skilled receiver, once catching 11 passes in a game as a rookie versus Walsh’s 49ers. Many of his team records have since been eclipsed by another #20 – a fella named Barry Sanders. But, leave there no doubt that during his time Billy Sims was the heart and soul of the Lion franchise and he was more than worthy of sharing the most hallowed jersey number in Detroit Lions’ history.
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