Detroit Lions fans wait patiently to meet legendary running back Billy Sims on Feb. 3 at a meet-and-greet event at his restaurant, Billy Sims Barbecue, in Troy.

Detroit Lions fans wait patiently to meet legendary running back Billy Sims on Feb. 3 at a meet-and-greet event at his restaurant, Billy Sims Barbecue, in Troy.

Photo by Erin Sanchez

Lions legendary running back Billy Sims talks Lions, ’83 playoff loss to 49ers

By: Jonathan Szczepaniak | Metro | Published February 6, 2024

 Oklahoma Sooners fans throw up the “Horns Down” with Sooners and Detroit Lions legendary running back Billy Sims.

Oklahoma Sooners fans throw up the “Horns Down” with Sooners and Detroit Lions legendary running back Billy Sims.

Photo by Erin Sanchez


METRO DETROIT — Between the Jahmyr Gibbs fumble, Josh Reynolds drops, or the Brandon Aiyuk catch off Kindle Vildor’s face mask, there seemed to be many moments during the NFC championship game Jan. 28 where the palms of Detroit Lions’ fans met their foreheads in disbelief.

For legendary Lions running back Billy Sims, who led the Lions to a division championship in 1983 for the first time since 1957, it was another ever-so-close effort of knocking off the San Francisco 49ers in the National Football League playoffs that ended in heartbreak.

“I still see that ball floating, but the wind,” Sims said, reminiscing on the Lions’ 24-23 loss to the 49ers in the 1983 divisional round. “We would’ve beat them if it wasn’t for the wind pushing that ball. Eddie (Murray) was a great kicker. So great, he kicked for the (Dallas) Cowboys and got them a Super Bowl ring. In my next life, I’m coming back as a kicker.”

Sims ran for 114 and two touchdowns on 20 carries in the playoff loss, but 20 carries back then was nothing.

Some Lions fans remember the ’83 playoff loss based on a disappointment with the lack of attempts Sims had in the first half, especially with Lions quarterback Gary Danielson throwing five picks in the game, and Sims himself said he had some choice words with Lions head coach Monte Clark at the half.

“I got pissed off,” Sims said. “Not at Gary (Danielson), but at the fact that we weren’t running the ball. At halftime, I think we were down 14-9, and I’m going in at halftime kicking trash cans around and throwing things because we ain’t running the damn ball. I’m telling coach Monte Clark, bless his heart, I said, ‘Coach, we gotta do what got us here.’ He said, ‘Yeah, I know. We’re gonna switch over.’”

Sims, a three-time Pro Bowler in his five seasons (1980-1984) for the Lions, was back in the Detroit area Feb. 3 for a meet-and-greet event at his restaurant, Billy Sims Barbecue, in Troy.

Lions fans packed the outside of the restaurant over an hour before the start of the event on Feb. 3, waiting patiently to see their childhood icon and have various jerseys, footballs, photos, and bobbleheads signed.

The barbecue chain, with over 40 locations in six states to its name, is going on 20 years in 2024 with Sims and co-founder and CEO Jeff Jackson at the helm, holding locations in Michigan, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Iowa, Missouri and Kansas.

Billy Sims Barbecue offers ribs, smoked barbecue sandwiches, sliders and signature sandwiches such as “The Heisman,” which is a sandwich stacked with bologna, hot links, and pulled pork or brisket.

“We started in 2004, and I was just thinking of a couple stores in Oklahoma because of the football name and all this,” Sims said. “In about 2006, we started franchising, and it just took off.”

Sims sat from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Feb. 3 and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Feb. 4 signing autographs, taking pictures, speaking with fans, and hearing fans reminisce on his playing years, especially his karate kick against the Houston Oilers,

“The following week, the NFL watched the film and fined me $500 for it, but it was worth it,” Sims said.

Something different than in years past, there was excitement from fans about Lions football in February, talking to Sims about the season and the recent loss in the NFC championship game, and more importantly, on the play calling and aggressiveness of Lions head coach Dan Campbell.

“The thing about it is that every play is a good play when it works,” Sims said. “Some of the fans are blaming the coach, but that’s the way he coaches. That’s what got them there. If a couple players didn’t drop the ball or this or that; it’s a lot of things. I think he’s done a great job since he’s been here. You know how we are as fans. We forget that part.”

But now Sims, a St. Louis Cardinals fan since he was a child, can direct his fandom to the approaching Major League Baseball season.

Sims, who wore No. 20 because of Cardinals outfielder Lou Brock, was a left-handed pitcher throughout his childhood when he grew up in St. Louis.

“I used to go to the baseball games because during those time periods, most Black kids played baseball,” Sims said. “We didn’t play football. When I moved to Texas, s---, everybody played football. I didn’t want to play because I thought it was a crazy game. Who would want to get the s--- beaten out of them and all that?”

Sims would relocate to Hooks, Texas, in eighth grade to live with his grandmother, not playing football until 10th grade as the third-string running back.

A couple of injuries in the running back room and 7,738 rushing yards later, which was second in national high school football history at the time, Sims would receive the infamous halftime call from University of Oklahoma head coach Barry Switzer at the gas station Sims worked at, eventually joining Switzer at Oklahoma.

Before his Heisman season in 1978 and Heisman runner-up season in 1979, Sims quit football at Oklahoma due to an injury his sophomore season, but Switzer convinced him to stay.

It was a decision Sims couldn’t possibly regret after getting selected first overall in the 1980 NFL Draft, until he found out where he was headed.

“First round, first pick, sounds pretty good until they tell you where you’re going,” Sims said. “I said, ‘Detroit? They hadn’t won but one game.’”

But over his years wearing the Honolulu blue and silver, Sims was able to experience the passion and loyalty Lions fans have for their team, and continue to have.

That passion was even more evident when a running back now in his 40th year of retirement continues to draw a massive crowd from Lions fans, and Sims said he’s happy the fans were rewarded for their loyalty this season.

“It’s well overdue and a long time overdue,” Sims said. “Even when I got drafted and I came here, the state of Michigan, not just Detroit because we were at Pontiac, they were very, very loyal fans. They had been losing forever, but they always showed up for their team.”

Currently residing in Texas and staying busy as a grandfather to seven grandchildren, Sims said he hopes to make it back to Detroit for the upcoming NFL Draft, which is scheduled to take place in late April at Campus Martius Park in downtown Detroit.

With his grandchildren ranging in age from 4 to 18, it’s a good thing he learned how to do a “Ticky Tok” in the recent Nissan Heisman House commercial alongside Oklahoma State University Heisman Trophy winner Barry Sanders and University of South Carolina Heisman Trophy winner George Rogers.

“I have a lot of good fun with them,” Sims said. “Yeah, ‘Ticky Tok.’ A lot of people thought that was pretty good.”