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Where are they now: Billy Sims

Billy Sims is still on the run, and still looking for openings to make gains.

Overseeing his business interests, which include the popular Billy Sims Barbecue chain that he launched a decade and a half ago, is a different competitive world than running around, through and over would-be tacklers the way Sims did playing running back for the Detroit Lions from 1980-84.

Sims' playing career was shorter than expected. He sustained a career-ending knee injury in the eighth game of the '84 season.

It's been the opposite for the restaurant business. What began with one restaurant in Tulsa in 2004 has grown to about 50 restaurants in seven states. Four are in Metro Detroit – and one opened recently in Wisconsin.

"This is something that I never saw coming," Sims said. "I've been in it for 15 years. I never thought it would last that long."

One quality he wants to come out of his kitchens is similar to what football teams try to build.

"I want to be like McDonald's," he said. "Anywhere you go, the French fries taste the same. I want consistency. I want to make sure the food is good."

As he said, the opportunity to open the barbecue restaurants wasn't something he sought. The opportunity was presented to him.

It was the same with football, at a relatively advanced age.

Growing up in St. Louis, Sims' sport of choice was baseball. He also participated in gymnastics, but he did not play football until 10th grade – and then only because of a family move.

"I thought I'd be the next Bob Gibson," Sims said, referring to the Cardinals' Hall of Fame pitcher. "In St. Louis, most black kids played baseball. I wore No. 20 because of Lou Brock."

All that changed when his family moved to Hooks, Texas, a small town (population about 2,500) near the Arkansas border.

Sims started playing football for the first time as a 10th grader after the move. Football is king in Texas, and Sims became football royalty.

His size (6 feet, 212 pounds as a pro) and raw athletic ability made him a natural on the gridiron. He was a star at every level. He was one of the most prolific runners in high school history, won the 1978 Heisman Trophy at Oklahoma and made the Pro Bowl his first three seasons with the Lions.

Sims, 64, divides his time between Dallas and Norman, Oklahoma. He came to the Lions as the first pick in the 1980 draft. The No. 1 pick was a product of a 2-14 won-loss record in 1979.

After a lackluster rookie preseason, Sims felt pressure to perform when the Lions opened the regular season on the road against the powerful Los Angeles Rams, who'd lost to the Steelers in the Super Bowl the previous season.

"I remember that," Sims said. "I hadn't shown much in the preseason. I was trying not to make mistakes, instead of running like a running back."

He was off and running in the opener to lead a 41-20 win over the Rams and never stopped until the injury that ended his career.

Against the Rams, Sims carried 22 times for 153 yards and three touchdowns and caught two passes for 64 yards.

It was more of the same the next week in a road win over the Packers. Sims rushed for 134 yards and a TD and had two catches for 94 yards and another TD.

For the season, he rushed for 1,303 yards – then the rookie record. He led the league with 13 rushing TDs and 16 total TDs.

Sims knew he'd have a short pro career because of the change in school districts from the move from St. Louis to Hooks, and from being a five-year player at Oklahoma. He turned 25 in the first month of his rookie season.

He was still at the top of his game when he sustained the career-ending knee injury against the Vikings. He had 22 carries for 103 yards and a TD.

On his last play, he planted to cut to avoid a tackle from Vikings linebacker Walker Lee Ashley. It was a non-contact injury – but one that shattered the rest of his career.

He finished with 687 yards for that season and 5,106 for his career, then the franchise record since surpassed only by Barry Sanders.

Sims doesn't look back on what might have been, except for how he got hurt.

"The thing about that injury, it wasn't a tackle," he said. "It was turf. I was complaining in the warmups about the turf – the seams and stuff.

"I look at my career, I was very fortunate and blessed. A lot of guys didn't get the opportunity to get that far. I'm very appreciative of the Lions' organization to this day.

"I was blessed to play those five years. I was a lot older as a rookie than most guys. As a running back, I didn't have long to play. If I could play five years, that was a blessing.

"I played four and a half."

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