Between them, total, they gave us about ten seasons. Ten seasons filled with oohs and aahs and making cases for why they were the greatest running backs in their respective franchises’ histories.
Gale Sayers, the Kansas Comet — a Chicago Bear from 1965-71 officially, but you can forget the last two seasons, when he gamely tried but failed to come back from a mangled knee.
Billy Sims, the high-stepping runner from Oklahoma. Heisman Trophy winner and a Lion from 1980-84, until a hit applied by the Vikings’ Walker Lee Ashley mangled Sims’ knee, too — in the middle of a fruitful ’84 season. Fitting that Sims’ career-ending injury should come at the hands of the Vikings, a team that’s tormented the Lions more than any other in the Bill Ford Era.
Note the abbreviated careers. Five seasons for Sayers, essentially, and not quite five for Sims. Each exploded onto the scene. In Sayers’s rookie season, he scored six touchdowns — in one game, in just 14 touches, against the 49ers at a rain-soaked Wrigley Field. Among his six scores was a kickoff return for a TD, AND a punt return for a TD. For the season, Sayers scored 22 touchdowns: 14 by ground, six by air, and the kick returns. He was the easiest choice for Rookie of the Year ever, in any sport.
Sims helped lead the Lions out of the gate with a 4-0 start in his rookie season by scoring from all over the field, on long runs and even fly patterns. On Opening Day in Anaheim, he blitzed the heavily-favored Rams with three TDs as the Lions pulled off the upset. His trademark was to leap over the pile at the goal line, somersaulting into the end zone. And the high step, of course.
Sims doesn’t get quite the nod that Sayers does as one of the game’s greatest runners, but for his time, few were better. And Sayers, of course, crammed a 10-year career’s worth of highlights into his five seasons.
Gale Sayers, running away from the Lions’ Alex Karras, ran for 867 yards (5.2/att) and scored 22 TDs in all sorts of ways in his ’65 rookie campaign
Sims rushed for 1,303 yards in his rookie year (1980) and scored 13 rushing TDs
Then the Bears offered up Walter Payton for public consumption, and the Lions would eventually counter with Barry Sanders.
Sayers-Payton versus Sims-Sanders. Which duo would YOU take?
This weekend, the Lions travel to Chicago, and the men running the football for each team — and no disrespect intended — are nowhere near the class of their predecessors. It just so happens that the Lions and Bears were each blessed with two of the most wonderful running backs in their time, or anyone’s time. So no shame in falling short of those players.
And hey — I haven’t even mentioned Bronko Nagurski or Doak Walker.