On Good Friday, a cool and cloudy day in Austin, Kenneth Sims ran two 40-yard dashes on the University of Texas baseball field. With him was Dick Steinberg, director of player personnel for the New England Patriots, who held a stopwatch and his breath, not necessarily in that order. Meanwhile, inside the Texas locker room, representatives from several other NFL teams cooled their heels, would-be suitors all. In the NFL, good things come to those who go 2-14, as the Patriots did in 1981.
Because NFL teams protect 40-yard-dash times with the zeal of the CIA, Sims's were not made public. But they were both in the neighborhood of 5.0 (one reportedly a 4.9), only a little slower than his best (4.8) clocking, even though at 279 he was about 15 pounds over his playing weight. Good enough, in short, to assure that "Kenneth Sims, Defensive Tackle, University of Texas" will be the pick of the Pats, who have the first choice in next Tuesday's NFL draft.
Whether Sims had recovered from the injury he suffered in Texas' ninth game last year—a fracture of the right fibula and ligament damage to the right ankle—was the only question mark about his supremacy in a rather thin draft. Over the past few months Sims has been probed, pinched and poked more times than an astronaut, and he's passed the physicals given by the NFL scouting combines.
"If we were playing on Sunday you could put him on the field," says Steinberg. "He's physically ahead of where we expected him to be."
Sims's physical condition prompted more than the usual interest from NFL teams that tailed him even when it became all but certain that he was going to New England. There was always the chance that the Patriots would somehow blow the pick. The Pats have already rejected a cash offer from Washington to trade drafting places, an offer the Redskins reportedly made to Baltimore back when it appeared the Colts would be picking first. The Colts lost their chance at Sims when they beat the Patriots in last year's season-ending Stupor Bowl. Steinberg said the Redskin offer was the only one they've gotten for Sims, but New England was never interested in making a deal. The Patriots need muscle for the defensive line and spirit for the locker room. The 6'5" Sims can supply both in immense quantities.
He is already a better player than anyone on New England's Red Sea (you know, it parted) defensive front. He probably was during the five weeks he spent on crutches, too. Sugar Bear Hamilton, always too small and now slowed by injuries, may be finished at nose tackle. Richard Bishop can play that spot, but at 32 he's a year older than Hamilton. Tony McGee, a solid pass-rusher, is ill equipped to play four downs as he did last year. The most consistent Patriot defensive lineman is still Julius Adams, and he turns 34 the day before the draft. From Day 1 of training camp, Sims should be a starting defensive end. And the precedent of Texas defensive linemen failing in the pros—Scott Apple-ton, Steve McMichael, Brad Shearer, Bill Acker, to name four—is being discounted. Sims is better, a lot better.
In short, he's everybody's No. 1. "He's not going to be around by the time we get to pick, but he's the top-rated player on our board," says Tony Razzano, chief scout for the Super Bowl champion 49ers, who pick 28th.
"He's one of the most talented defensive linemen since I've been scouting," says Bobby Beathard, general manager of the Redskins. "He has the highest grade of any player this year, a grade similar to that of an O.J. Simpson."
"He's a pillar of strength on the run and he has that initial quickness and lateral movement you need for pass rushing," says Mike Hickey, director of player personnel for the Jets. "I don't know, but I think a player of this magnitude doesn't come out that often."
Green Bay's chief scout, Dick Corrick, puts it more bluntly: "It's a one-man draft."
The sign is on the right side as you drive west on Route 7 into the hometown of the one-man draft, KOSSE. POP: 484. "Hmm, they jumped it up a little," says Sims. "Used to be 471." Sims's story is a familiar one. The town is small, the family poor, the siblings many, the mother strong, the father gone. Sims makes a left onto Narcissus, unpaved until a few years ago. The street sign is relatively new, too. "I never knew what my address was when I was growing up," says Sims.
William Grover Hurst left his wife and her eight children and went to Detroit when their son, Kenneth, was five years old. Kenneth changed his name to Sims, which was the maiden name his mother had started using again, when he was in the ninth grade. His relationship with his father is distant if amiable, but he feels a deep debt to Doris Sims. "I'm glad that my mom raised me," he says. "I would've been a totally different person, because mothers go about things differently than fathers. She didn't spare the rod, I can tell you that. Without her, I might've been a jerk."
Sims isn't a jerk. Instead, he's the most seductive of species, the urbane country boy, the natural. You have to love a guy who, when asked in airports if he's an athlete, responds with, "No, I'm Ben Crenshaw's caddie." Put him on a talk show and he'll tell you about the time an old man in Kosse gave him an authentic pig bladder, dried and blown up, and he and his brothers kicked it around. Let him discourse on the proper method of castrating a pig ("You've got to get him up the seam") or skinning a coon ("You can rip it off just like a T shirt"). You can't take Kosse out of the boy...particularly if he doesn't want it taken. Even in Boston, where fans have been known to be cold to black athletes, Sims should be popular, because he's smooth enough to stay with the city slickers (speech courses were his favorite at Texas) and smart enough, too—his cumulative average was about 2.7, though postseason trips cut into his clasroom time and he's still 28 hours short of graduation.
In short, he's intelligent and articulate, not to mention cheerful, accommodating, friendly and interesting, qualities that are often worn away in the pros. But pray for him in Foxboro, Mass. where discontent is a way of life.
Doris Sims will be praying for him. After attending Easter sunrise service by herself at the Mount Zion Baptist Church in Kosse, she proudly returned to the 11 a.m. service with Kenneth and several of his brothers and sisters who came home for the holiday. She had been up early the day before, too, preparing turkey, stuffing and assorted trimmings, yeast rolls, two cakes and five—count 'em, five—pies for Easter dinner. "We call her Wonder Woman," said brother Randy, 24, a Houston accountant.
Kenneth Sims was no Wonder Mar for most of his youth. Like his brothers and sisters, he spent much of his time out of school working; at 12, he started paying for all of his own clothes. He liked baseball but Little League was a $1.20 Trailways ride to Groesbeck, 16 miles away, and he couldn't always come up with the fare. School at Groesbeck was a 32-mile round trip, but Sims claims to have missed only four days in 13 years "That's because when you stayed home from school in Kosse it was like being in jail," he says. "There was nothing to do."
Sims quit football his junior year al Groesbeck High because he was tired of practicing with a shoulder injury. When he tried to come back later the coach told him to forget it.
But his arrival as an athlete was inevitable. "Kenneth did his work but he liked to play games more than any of m> other boys," says Mrs. Sims. "Looka here. I still got his baseball bat behind the refrigerator. The day he left for college he told me to keep it for him." Kenneth, two brothers and a neighbor used to play two-on-two everything. "You better know you'd become an athlete when you play two-on-two baseball," says Sims. "You ever try to pitch and play the outfield at the same time?"
Basketball consumed much of his time. He and his brothers built a full-court basketball area behind their house, smoothing the land and chopping down trees in some nearby woods for the standards. Kenneth started at center and was the leading re-bounder for two years for the Groesbeck High basketball team. Three years ago, he and some football teammates, calling themselves the Jocks, won Texas' intramural basketball championship. Before Sims was injured last November, he had thought seriously about playing basketball for Texas this past season and he remains a close friend of ex-Longhorn Coach Abe Lemons. Lemons, in fact, used to call Sims his "bodyguard" because Sims often accompanied the team on road trips. Lemons would have welcomed a tryout by Sims; he kids him about not wanting to jeopardize his lucrative future in football on a basketball court. "The money came between us," he jokes.
One of the Kosse locals told Doris Sims a long time ago that her son was destined for greatness. "I didn't pay him no mind," she says, "because he was a drinking man. But I guess he was right, wasn't he?" He was. The biggest and best of the Groesbeck Goats—the Sims brothers exaggerated some and told people they played for the Rams—became one of the top defensive players in the state his senior year. By then his strength, quickness and agility were as obvious as his size, which was then about 6'5", 245 pounds. "He was one of them 20-foot-ers," says Texas Coach Fred Akers. "All you had to see was 20 feet of film and you wanted him."
Texas didn't get him easily. College Station, home of Texas A&M, is only 47 miles from Kosse (Austin is about 120 miles away) and the Aggies recruited Sims more actively than Texas, whose scouts never saw him play in person. The tide started to turn when Texas' defensive tackle coach, Mike Parker, paid a visit to Kosse and found a friend and ally in Doris. But for Sims himself, it wasn't Parker, it wasn't Akers, it wasn't Hook-'em-Horns, it wasn't the chance to go to four Cotton Bowls. It was three brothers named Campbell—Earl and the twins, Tim (a defensive end) and Steve (a linebacker-running back)—he met on his recruiting visit. "They were country boys just like me," says Sims. "We were in our comfort zone together."
Sims was no instant star. For one thing, he was, according to Akers, "just pitiful" in the weight room. He bench-pressed only about 235 pounds, which is what Texas expects from incoming quarterbacks. Under Akers' learn-now-play-later defensive system, Sims sat most of his first two years behind McMichael and Acker. In his sophomore year he injured a hamstring, and some of his teammates, Sims claims, told the trainer he wasn't really injured. "It was my lowest moment at Texas," he says. Further, there was a general feeling that Sims wasn't quite putting out. "It just has to do with the way I am off the field," he says. "People think a nice guy can't play this game. I used to hear people say, 'Oh, if he was only mean.' But I was always a rough guy on the field. As far as that old macho, redneck, hard-drinking, mean stuff, I think it's a lot of bull. I'm not like that and I don't have to be like that to be a good football player."
He became a very good football player his junior year, when he made 131 tackles (100 unassisted) and was selected by his teammates as Most Valuable Player, and a great player his senior year, when he really earned his nickname, "Special K." He says there was no change in his off-the-field demeanor—"I haven't had a fight since eighth grade"—but he did become more highly motivated in the weight room (where he's now a legend with a 260-pound behind-the-neck press; he has bench-pressed 400 pounds, considered excellent for a 6'5" man with long arms) and on the field. It also helped, of course, that Kenneth Sims and not Steve McMichael was the main man. "I guess it was a matter of realizing I had to get more consistency," Sims says. "Jeff Smith [a scout from the Seahawks] helped. He talked to me in the summer before my senior year and told me that sometimes I ran the whole show and at other times it looked like I was just going through the motions. I thought a lot about that. I took a new attitude into my senior year."
And teams took a new attitude toward Sims. Before his injury he had nine sacks and a team-high 110 tackles, 81 unassisted, even though he was often double-teamed and most teams ran away from him. One Southwest Conference coach said this about him: "He's a dominant, dominant player, particularly when he wants to be. I don't know the effect one individual can have on a game, but you'd have to go back to Earl Campbell for a comparison." The comment came from then SMU Coach Ron Meyer, now the rookie coach of the Patriots. Said Meyer last week, "We look for Sims to do for us what Lawrence Taylor did for the Giants last year."
In the first quarter of the TCU game last Nov. 14 Sims was engaged with the opposing tackle when the Frogs' center hit him low with a chop block, thereby injuring his leg and ankle. Most Long-horns, Akers included, felt it was a cheap shot, but Sims says he can't even remember the name of the man who blocked him. "Several people offered to go down and shoot him, though," he adds.
The doctor's first words were ominous. "I'll never forget them," says Sims. " 'Exploration and internal fixation.' That sounded like he wanted to cut." But two days later surgery was ruled out. Sims spent about five weeks on crutches, then slowly began lifting, jogging and running striders. His 40-yard dashes on Good Friday were his first speed work since the injury, and the stiffness in his legs the next day had him mildly worried. "But," he says, "even with my weight being up and not being 100 percent—I'm probably at about 90 to 95—I still feel I'm ahead of what the other big linemen are doing."
What is Kenneth Sims worth? Asked that very question, Sims mentions New Orleans Running Back George Rogers, last year's No. 1 pick. Rogers' contract reportedly called for $125,000 last year, $175,000 this year and $225,000 next year, along with a $1 million signing bonus with deferred payments through 1990. New England management is close-mouthed about Sims's worth, but the penurious Pats aren't in the habit of paying boxcar figures to anyone.
Sims's agent is Witt Stewart of Austin, who primarily works with singers Carole King, Jerry Jeff Walker, Christopher Cross and Joe Ely. Stewart has only two other sports clients, but they are Earl Campbell and Tony Dorsett, so he knows pro football's top salary level. Stewart refuses to say what he will demand for Sims, but he does say the word "deferred" isn't in his dictionary.
"The Patriots'll have to give Sims a contract the size of Rogers'," said an NFL executive last week. "It's come down to the No. 1 pick getting that kind of money whether he's a defensive player or a quarterback."
Doris Sims wants her son in Dallas or Houston for obvious reasons of proximity, but she also worries about the Patriots' cheapskate reputation. "Do you think they're going to pay him what he's worth?" she asks.
Doris, they'll have to.
Hey, Dr. Z, What Do You Foresee?
1. NEW ENGLAND
Kenneth Sims, DT, Texas
The only question was his right leg, and it tested O.K.
Johnie Cooks, LB, Miss. State
A two-way shot. Can play in the middle or outside.
3. NEW ORLEANS
Used in supplemental draft for QB Dave Wilson, Illinois.
Gerald Riggs, FB, Arizona State
Defense is the No. 1 need but this chip is too blue to pass up.
5. BALTIMORE (PROJECTED TRADE WITH L.A.)
Art Schlichter, QB, Ohio State
To replace Bert Jones, who goes to L.A. Colts also get Rams' No. 2 this year or No. 1 next. Bypassed Jim McMahon: bad left knee and shoulder, difficutt agent (Jerry Argovitz).
Jim McMahon, QB, Brigham Young
Unless the Bears trade the pick to L.A. for Vince Ferragamo.
Mike Munchak, G, Penn State
They'd like defense but Jim Zorn needs another bodyguard.
Darrin Nelson, HB, Stanford
His 4.45 speed will be dynamite on new artificial turf field.
Marcus Allen, HB, USC
Still could switch to HB Walter Abercrombie.
Chip Banks, LB, USC
Pass rush crumbled when LB Joel Williams hurt last year.
Walter Abercrombie, HB, Baylor
Surprised he was available. Figured on a wide receiver.
12. ST. LOUIS
Sean Farrell, G, Penn State
It went down to the wire between Farrell and T Luis Sharpe.
Luis Sharpe, T, UCLA
If St. Louis takes him, Steelers will go for Farrell.
14. NEW ORLEANS (FROM GREEN BAY THROUGH SAN DIEGO)
Anthony Hancock, WR, Tennessee
Conceded him to Oakland and were ready to go for defensive line help, but switched gears when he became available. If he's gone, will take DE Glen Collins.
15. LOS ANGELES (FROM WASHINGTON)
Glen Collins, DE, Miss. State
Rams could go any of three ways but Ray Malavasi's first love is defense. WR Perry Tuttle is a posssbility.
James Burroughs, CB, Mich. State
Strictly a need pick. Weak secondary requires shoring up.
17. KANSAS CITY
Barry Redden, RB, Richmond
Marv Levy coached vs. him in Senior Bow, his biggest day.
18. TAMPA BAY
Roy Foster, G, USC
Might like a tackle but his numbers too good to pass up.
19. N.Y. GIANTS
Butch Woolfolk, HB, Michigan
Speed, strength and relief for workhorse Rob Carpenter.
Gerald Willhite, HB, San Jose State
Small and swift. Dan Reeves wants speed in his offense.
Perry Tuttle, WR, Clemson
One of the fastest players on the board. Eagles need offense.
Jimmy Williams, LB, Nebraska
He and Tom Cousineau to provide great LB strength.
23. GREEN BAY (FROM SAN DIEGO)
Bubba Paris, T, Michigan
Offensive line the priority. Linebackers and defensive backs in later rounds. Pass-catch game could be sensational.
24. N.Y. JETS
Bob Crable, LB, Notre Dame
Would like a WR, but this is Walt Michaels' type of LB.
Robert Weathers, HB, Arizona State
A computer guy; size and speed. Need the keynote runner.
Orlando McDaniel, WR, LSU
Speed edge over Georgia WR Lindsay Scott.
Lester Williams, DT, Miami
Bengals ended the '81 season thin in the defensive line.
28. SAN FRANCISCO
John Meyer, T, Arizona State
Tried to trade up for Darrin Nelson, but need help here, too.