“Sims, through no fault of his own, isn’t anywhere near the top of the list of all-time leading rushers. That’s because there’s a lot of Gale Sayers about him.”


Billy Sims and Charlie White were rivals, of sorts, in college football. At least, they were media-created rivals, which isn’t always the same thing, I realize. And one of them was deemed to be the best running back to enter the 1980 draft.

Sims, or White?

Sims was the flashier of the two – galloping with his long, high-step kick for the University of Oklahoma. Sims’s style was one of avoidance; and he had the moves to back it up. Billy Sims chose to run around people rather than through them.

White was physically tougher, in the sense that he didn’t always bother with the fancy twist and turn to dodge tacklers. White played for that football factory on the Left Coast – the University of Southern Cal.

In 1979, Sports Illustrated ran a cover of Sims and White – each clutching the Heisman Trophy in a mock tug-of-war. Who would win the coveted trophy for being the best college player in the country? Sims had already won it in 1978. And White ended up winning it in ’79, after all.

The Lions didn’t win much of anything in White’s Heisman year. The ’79 Lions went 2-14 – the worst team in the NFL. We might be kind of desensitized to such a distinction nowadays, but in 1979, it was still a shock to the system in Detroit, to have the worst professional football team in the land.

The 1970s ended with a thud. The Lions looked toward a new decade with new hope.

Two crown jewel runners would be available in the 1980 draft: Billy Sims and Charlie White. The Lions had the no. 1 overall pick off the board, just like they do in 2009. It was widely agreed that a brilliant skill position player such as Sims or White was just what the doctor ordered for the moribund Lions.

Sims, or White?

As the draft grew closer, a previously-ignored factor emerged: Sims’s age. He would be 25 years old in September, due to a late start in college and being red shirted due to injuries. Charlie White was just 22. The three extra years were thought to maybe dissuade the Lions from drafting Sims.

But in the days prior to the draft, word leaked: the Lions were leaning toward the flashy, whirling dervish Sims over the quick, more bulldozing White.

Turns out that Charlie White wasn’t thought of as highly in NFL circles as the media folks assumed. Imagine.

The Lions snatched Sims off the board, as leaked – the first player chosen in the 1980 NFL Draft. But Charlie White didn’t go second overall. He didn’t go third overall. In fact, 25 more teams made their picks, and White’s name had still yet to be called.

The Cleveland Browns finally ended White’s consternation, grabbing him with the 27th overall selection.

The Lions of 2009, it’s been said, are faced with the “most important draft in their history”. Not sure about that, but it’s certainly the most curious, because even the 1979 Lions managed to win two games. What does an 0-16 team look for, anyway, with a cache of draft picks and more holes in its roster than a pound of Swiss Cheese? What does it do with the no. 1 overall pick? It’s the highest pick possible, but you can still only use it to draft one player.

In 1980, the choice was pretty much limited to Billy Sims or Charlie White.


SI’s September 10, 1979 cover, depicting the rivals White (left) and Sims

In 2009?

There is no shortage of opinions, each trumpeted by the opinioned as being, unequivocally, the best thing for the 0-16 Lions.

The Lions badly need a franchise quarterback, some of the opinionated say. So who better than Matthew Stafford, the flawed but talented QB from the University of Georgia?

No, other opinionated experts say. Defense wins football games, and the Lions have the worst defense in the NFL, by far. So who better than Aaron Curry, the wrecking machine linebacker from Wake Forest?

But wait! What good is a franchise quarterback if he’s under constant attack? You need blocking, so who better than Jason Smith, the wall of a left tackle from Baylor?

It’s not a Sims-or-White thing for the Lions this April.

The Lions better hope that they have as much success with this no. 1 overall pick as they did back in 1980, when they drafted Billy Sims.

Sims, through no fault of his own, isn’t anywhere near the top of the list of all-time leading rushers. That’s because there’s a lot of Gale Sayers about him.

Sayers, the Kansas Comet, was in the NFL and gone, just like that. Just like his running style. Sayers was drafted by the Chicago Bears in 1965, and by 1970 he was toast, his knee irreparably damaged. He was the James Dean of pro football; we only got a teaspoonful of his potential before the spoon was snatched away entirely.

Sims burst onto the scene with the 1980 Lions, and immediately he proved the team correct in drafting him first overall.

The Lions played the Rams, on the road, to open the ’80 season. The Rams were defending NFC Champs, and the 2-14 Lions were daring to take them on, in the Rams’ backyard. Sims torched them, rushing for over 150 yards and three touchdowns. The Lions won, 41-20.

The 1980 Lions started fast and faded, but not Sims personally. He finished with 1,303 yards and 13 rushing touchdowns. The next season, Sims rushed for over 1,400 yards with a 4.9 yards per carry average, and scored 13 more TDs. He slumped slightly in the 1982 strike-shortened season, but bounced back with another 1,000-yard season in 1983.

In 1984, Sims got off to a terrific start. Halfway through the season, he was nearing 700 yards rushing and his yards-per-carry average spiked to 5.3.

I was at home, watching the game in Minnesota on the tube – the Lions’ eighth game of the ’84 season. It was the week after the Tigers clinched the ’84 World Series. The Lions were rassling with their old nemesis, the Vikings, in the Metrodome.

Sims took a toss from quarterback Gary Danielson and swung to his left. It was a signature play the Lions had been running ever since drafting Sims in 1980. And, also signature, Sims swerved away from the aggressive Vikings pursuers. But Walker Lee Ashley – I’ll never forget his name – crashed into Sims’ left knee and the force of the blow caused the knee to burst like a popping kernel of corn.

Billy Sims’s career was over. Just like that.

The Lions may have gotten shortchanged on their 1980 no. 1 overall pick, but it wasn’t because they chose the wrong guy. Billy Sims proved himself worthy of his draft status. Charlie White was pretty much a dud of an NFL player.

Now, 29 years later, they need to get it right again. It’s one of the few times you hope Lions history repeats itself.

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