When Billy Sims debuted for the Lions

The arrival of Billy Sims in 1980 turned the fortunes of the Detroit Lions around immediately.

The arrival of Billy Sims in 1980 turned the fortunes of the Detroit Lions around. After the team started hot, Sims was on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

On the second play of the fourth quarter Gary Danielson spun to his left and did an almost 360, tucking the ball into the arms of his running back. The back burst through a big hole and barreled into the open field. He galloped past the secondary and with one man in pursuit he high-stepped his way into the end zone, kicking his knees up high like a Rockette. It was a 41-yard touchdown that sealed a victory for Detroit over the Rams, but it did more than that. It set off a frenzy on the Lions’ sideline and it signaled the dawn of a new era of football for the franchise.

Billy Sims had arrived and nothing was ever the same again.

After Sims scored on his thrilling run, the third touchdown of the day for the rookie running back in the season opener, his teammates couldn’t hold back their glee. Several hopped and hugged and hollered their lungs out. The Lions, who had won just two games the year before to earn the right to draft Sims, were no longer a laughingstock. It was evident that #20 made them a legit team. The Lions felt that with Sims on their side the sky was the limit.

The Rams were no pushovers. They had been to the playoffs eight straight seasons as the preeminent team in the NFC’s western region. Their defense was no slouch. But with his massive thighs, quick stride, and unbelievable ability to burst for speed, Sims knifed and slammed his way through the opposing eleven. He showed off all his skills in his first game in the NFL. His first score was a ten-yard scamper that featured a shake-and-shimmy that froze a defender. He utilized a stiff arm that sent an overmatched defender on his ass. Later Sims scored on a one-yard plunge, pummeling the defensive line. Then he humiliated the Rams with the 41-yarder, zooming past Nolan Cromwell, one of the fastest defensive backs in the game. Cromwell desperately attempted to reach out to trip Sims, but Billy (as if he had eyes in the back of his legs) started his high-step and eluded the tackle. The run stunned the LA crowd. In the video of the play (shared below at the 30:25 mark) you can basically hear the Lions bench over the silenced Hollywood football crowd.

People thought Sims would be a good player. But many of the experts thought it would take a little time for him to get used to the National Football League. But it was the other way around. The NFL was put on notice: Billy Sims was here and he was more than ready to be a superstar.

The Lions knew they had something special in the first summer practice session. Sims was different from the very start.

“He ran faster than any big man I ever saw, and he was a big back,” said linebacker Ken Fantetti, who had the enviable task of having to track down Sims in practice.

“Every time he’s in the backfield, the other team is watching him,” fellow running back Horace King said, “They really don’t know what to do with him.”

Sims knew what to do with the football: carry it into the end zone. He scored three times in week one, twice more in week two, and once in week three. In the second game, against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field, Sims scored on a play that was designed to get about eight yards. Instead, #20 went for 87 yards and at one point he shrugged off a linebacker who seemed to have a hold of his right arm. He seemed unstoppable.

The Lions rolled over the Packers and proceeded to defeat the Cardinals and Vikings at home in the Silverdome to improve to 4-0. Detroit had football fever and their marvelous rookie running back was the reason for the sickness. The team and the city was so enamored with everything that they didn’t seem to realize how silly the “Another One Bites The Dust” record was (which was recorded by strong safety Jimmy “Spiderman” Allen after the team finished September undefeated). But who could blame the Lions for getting a bit excited? It had been nearly a decade since the team had made the playoffs. Their head coach Monte Clark was far from inspiring, he seemed more like a social studies teacher than a football coach, and in his striped sweater and khaki pants he looked more like a candy corn on the sideline than a leader.

But Clark was right about at least one thing in 1980: the Lions were a new team.

“We’re not a two-win football team and we’re going to open some eyes this year,” the head coach told gathered reporters on the eve of the ’80 season.

Sims rolled to more than 1,300 yards and a league-leading 13 touchdowns, for which he was named the NFL’s offensive rookie of the year. The Lions stumbled after the 4-0 start but still won nine games, a huge improvement over the previous season. Two years later the team would be in the playoffs for the first of two straight seasons, with Sims as the center piece of the offense. When he was healthy Sims was the most dynamic running back in the league not named Walter Payton. He could run over you or around you, and 35 years ago when he arrived on the NFL scene he helped turn around a losing franchise.