Jimmy Allen, the elder statesman of the Detroit Lions secondary, sat in front of his locker, reading from an imaginary primer. "See Billy run," he singsonged. "Billy runs fast. Run, Billy, run. Billy can run pass routes. Billy can run draws. He can run uphill, he can run downhill. He can run faster than you. Run, Billy, run."
Then Allen threw back his head and laughed. And why shouldn't he? The Lions had just won their second laugher in a row, 29-7 over Green Bay in Milwaukee County Stadium, a place that had been a jinx house for Detroit. The Lions hadn't won there since 1975; they'd won only two games there in the last 38 years. Jinxes? Forget it. They've got Billy. Run, Billy.
Billy Sims has broken out of the gate like a wild man. In Detroit's two wins—which happens to have been the Lions' victory total for all of 1979—his numbers look like this: 287 yards rushing on 42 carries for a 6.8 average after Sunday's 20-for-134 effort against the Packers. Four passes caught for 158 yards after he grabbed a little one (seven yards) and a big one (87 yards) Sunday. Five touchdowns were as many as anybody scored for the Lions all last season.
Steady now, let's not get carried away. Let's maintain some perspective. At 5'10¾" and 208 pounds, Sims isn't physically overpowering, and there will come a day when he gets stopped, when the Lions' offensive unit is flat and the other guys' defense is gang-tackling. When? Who knows?
September 21, 1980
"I still can get better," Sims said after ripping through the Pack. "I have to get better. Today I don't feel I ever got loose. It was kind of cold out there."
How much better can he get? Can we whisper some of the numbers he ran up at Oklahoma, the three 200-yard games in a row in his junior year, the 282-yarder against Missouri as a senior? Hey, that's college stuff, remember? The wishbone, Boomer Sooner, 80 running plays a game, five passes. You don't do that in the NFL. They eat up rich rookies there.
"I believe those 200-yard days will come," Sims says. "They always have. They have ever since I've been playing football. Even though the league is bigger and tougher now, those days are really possible. But you get yourself in trouble going into a game figuring on 200 yards."
He says it matter-of-factly. There is nothing boastful about this rookie. He works at his job, and the linemen work at keeping the way open for him.
"He's not lazy," Allen says. "You see him in the weight room, working. You see him on the practice field, working. The veterans, well, we hear so much about a new guy, we want to check him out. He checks. In two games he has made believers out of us. He's going to have a nice career with this club."
Going into the 1980 draft there were some questions about Sims. First there was his age. On Sept. 18 he'll be 25. "You know, it's a funny thing, but since he got here I don't think I've heard that mentioned at all," says Lions' Coach Monte Clark. "It's not the years that matter, it's the NFL years. That's what shortens a runner's career, those years of taking all those shots."
Then there was his pass catching. At Oklahoma they threw only two passes to him in five years. Sims says that ought to be nine years, because in four years of high school they threw zero to him.
That question was answered on May 3, in rookie camp, when the Lions' staff put Sims through a pass-catching drill and he dazzled them. He was in negotiations then, working toward a contract that's worth between $1.3 million and $1.7 million, depending on whom you listen to. He ran a 4.45 40 that day, bench-pressed 390 pounds and caught everything they threw to him. "Today," said Clark at the time, "he did one heck of a negotiating job."
Still, it's one thing to catch the ball in sweats in the May sunshine and another to catch it in full pads, through a picket fence of linebackers. But it has been two games now, and the people in the secondary are still trying to find him.
Gary Danielson, the Detroit quarterback, has thrown five passes to Sims in two games. One fell short. Two were little ones, four and seven yards. In the Lions' 41-20 season-opening victory over the Rams he ran a crossing route. Bob Brudzinski, the linebacker, stumbled, and when he got his bearings Sims was 15 yards away and unreachable. Johnnie Johnson, the Rams' million-dollar rookie, waved at Sims as he went by, and what figured to be a 10-yard completion became a 60-yarder.
Sunday's 87-yard TD was even more stunning. The play was designed as a deep pass to the split end. The linebackers dropped back to help in the covers. Danielson looked downfield and what he saw was a hole in the middle being filled very rapidly by No. 20. Danielson isn't short on IQ. He knew where to put the ball. About nine seconds later he had the longest completion of his career. "Who says I can't throw the bomb?" he said.
The best thing about the play was that it wasn't a routine catch. The pass was a little low, but Sims scooped it in with one fluid motion as he raced across the field.
"In camp I could tell right away that he was a natural receiver," Danielson says. "Sometimes when we run our seven-on-seven passing drill in practice you see a guy catching the ball, but it's not natural. He's fighting it. With Billy it's very smooth and easy. I have a theory about that. I think wishbone tailbacks have an advantage as receivers because they get so many pitchouts. They're used to seeing the ball in the air. A guy who spends his college career taking handoffs doesn't get that."
There was another question about Sims. Fumbling. At Oklahoma he'd been known to cough it up on occasion. But in two games and 42 carries with the Lions—zero. "He fumbled because he got hit from so many different directions," Oklahoma Coach Barry Switzer says. "That's when fumbles usually come. Guys who never fumble are usually the ones who go down on the first hit."
Sims has been hit plenty so far. He's been running inside, and he's showed power when he's had to. Perhaps his prettiest run Sunday was on a trap play up the middle when he hit a hole that closed rapidly, bounced a quick yard to his left, ran through a couple of tacklers and turned a minus-one into a plus-25. "I honestly don't remember that one," Sims said. "You know, people ask me after a game about some of the runs I've made that day and I can't remember most of them. I can't tell you how I did it. It was just instinct.
"I remember looking at movies of one run I made against Vanderbilt my sophomore year. I started right and things were closed off, and I leaped to my left—five yards into the end zone. The guy who was watching the film with me said, 'Damn, how'd you do that, Billy?' and I couldn't tell him. I just did it."
There is so much he can do that Clark must fight a very human urge to overwork him. Injury is the great finisher for NFL runners. Knee injuries brought Gale Sayers and O.J. Simpson to earth. Larry Brown's body was used up by the time he was 28.
Sims is aware of this rather ominous historical fact. His sophomore year in college was washed out because of a banged up shoulder. When the NCAA awarded him a rerun, an injured right ankle cut that one short, too. In answering What Do You Consider Your Biggest Thrill in Football? on the Lions' rookie questionnaire, Sims wrote, "Able to remain healthy my last two years." And as he neared the end of his 87-yarder against the Packers he slowed down and seemed to tantalize Safetyman Johnnie Gray, whom he knocked off with a stiff-arm, but there was a very logical reason for what he did.
"I felt a slight twinge high up in my leg," Sims said. "I didn't want to risk pulling anything by running full-out, so I relied on the straight-arm."
So far the Lions' approach to Sims' work load has been sensible. "We'll put in a special play or two for him," says Danielson, "like the little misdirection reverse he ran today [two carries, 22 and 24 yards, the second one fooling everyone on third-and-one], but you won't see us just giving the ball to Billy on first and second down.
"We're not going to burn him out. I think it's a mistake Chicago has made with Walter Payton the last three years. You can't run your whole offense around one person. We've got a lot of offense. Be patient. He'll get his chances."
Detroit's offense has seen things from the underside. There are few superstars. Last year the Lions were fourth from last in rushing in the NFL. Now they're running away with it, with 560 yards in two games. Danielson, out of Purdue, broke in as a pro in a dimly lit stadium on Randalls Island as a backup quarterback for the New York Stars of the WFL. The Lions found him working in a sheet-metal plant in Detroit. Until this year his highest NFL salary was $45,000.
He's not lacking in courage. On Thursday night his nine-day-old baby girl died in an incubator. The Lions' office was flooded with calls from the bettors. Will he play or won't he? With Danielson there was never any doubt.
"Her heart stopped two times and each time they brought her back," he said on Sunday. "She fought so hard, and she was too little to even know what she was fighting for. No, I don't think it's such a courageous thing, just to play in a football game."
The offensive line is a proud group, underpaid for the most part, very conscientious in their work. "I looked at Billy in the huddle today," said Right Guard Russ Bolinger, "and it was like he was possessed. He just wanted the ball. Last week, after the Rams game, I was walking off the field with Jack Youngblood, and I said to him, 'I don't know about your million-dollar rookie, but ours is worth every penny.' "
Clark is a bit guarded when people ask him about Sims. "He's helped us, but our whole offense has improved," Clark says. When someone inquired why the Lions didn't throw a pass to Sims in the first half Sunday, he said, "Didn't we? I thought we threw one."
A few days before the game someone asked him if he could compare Sims to an NFL runner, Sayers, Simpson, whomever. "Leroy Kelly," said Clark, who was Kelly's teammate on the Browns. "Same quick takeoff. Same knack of running close to the ground, with great balance."
"Is he a mudder, like Kelly was?" Clark was asked.
"Don't know," he said. "We'll find out on Sunday."
He found out. On a soggy field that had groundskeepers rushing out and replacing patches of turf at each time-out, Sims averaged 10.4 yards each time he got his hands on the ball. "I liked the heavy turf," he said. "I like natural grass fields. I like Astroturf, too."
In a far corner of the locker Jimmy Allen began again, this time softly, to himself. "Runs uphill, runs downhill. See Billy run. Run, Billy...."