Sims: Detroit Lions' spark

For almost two seasons now, National Football League defenses have been trying to put Detroit Lions'running back Billy Sims on hold. Billy is what most pro scouts call a plateau player, meaning his normal game is not subject to a lot of peaks and valleys.

Yet for a while Detroit wasn't sure that in making Sims its No. 1 pick in last year's college player draft it hadn't made a bad mistake. Instead of coming off in training camp as something extra special, the way he had when he won the 1978 Heisman Trophy as a junior at Oklahoma, Billy looked ordinary. In fact, he seemed to work harder in the team's weight room than he did on the field.

That feeling lasted only until the Lions' first regular season game, when Sims exploded for 153 yards and three touchdowns against the Los Angeles Rams. By the end of the season, Billy had gained more than 1,300 yards, scored 16 touchdowns, and been named NFL Rookie of the Year.

It was probably a wise thing that Sims got himself an agent to deal with Detroit, because he almost never talks about himself and usually diverts credit to his offensive line.

Billy is low-key out of uniform; married a young woman from his hometown, considers a big night going out to eat in a quality restaurant, and still tools around in a four-wheel-drive truck.

However, after getting a three-year contract from the Lions estimated at between $1.3 and $1.7 million, Sims bought a 40-acre ranch near Hooks, Texas, where he grew up. In addition to a well-equipped barn for his horses, there is also a swimming pool and tennis court.

While it might be pushing things to call Sims a diplomat, he does have a sense of humor and he knows when to use it. During the usual rookie hazing period that goes on in all pro football training camps, he was told one night at dinner by his peers to stand up and identify himself.

Billy broke the tension by saying: ''My name is Sims and I'm the reason most of you guys aren't getting raises this year!'' He couldn't have done better if Bob Hope's writers had been on hand for the occasion.

At 5 ft. 11 in. and 200 pounds, Sims is not considered a power runner. But he does have the quick takeoff that most great backs possess, stays close to the ground, has great balance, and runs almost as well inside as he does outside. But when he does break a long gainer, it is usually to the outside as the result of putting a move on somebody one-on-one.

At Oklahoma he caught only three passes playing for a run-oriented, wishbone-formation team. But once he got to Detroit, and then-starting quarterback Gary Danielson began throwing to him regularly in practice, he added a whole new dimension to his career.

''Sometimes you can tell right away when a guy is a natural receiver and that's exactly the way I felt about Sims the first time I saw him,'' Danielson told reporters. ''The instincts were there and he never once fought the ball; he just caught it.

''Maybe the fact that a halfback gets so many pitchouts from the quarterback in the wishbone is what made him so sure-handed,'' Gary continued. ''I don't know. But I do know that he caught 51 passes last season.''

Trying to get Sims to recall some of his past runs, even the most spectacular ones, is almost hopeless. ''I operate so much on instinct,'' he says, ''that I don't usually remember what happened at the time. Usually I can only tell by going back and looking at game films.''

So far Lions' coach Monte Clark has used Billy often, but wisely, not burning him out the way some pro football critics think the Chicago Bears have done with Walter Payton, who sometimes seems to be that team's entire offense.

Detroit's attack has done the job, too, first with Danielson at quarterback and even more more successfully in recent weeks with second-year man Eric Hipple taking over after an injury to Gary. The Lions are currently tied for first place in their division with three weeks remaining in the regular season.

Although there are similarities in Sims and running back Tony Dorsett of the Dallas Cowboys, probably not many valid comparisons can be made at this point.

For example, Dorsett is with a better team, has been around much longer, and even now is occasionally mentioned as a future Hall of Famer, despite being only an average pass blocker.

The one thing Sims and Dorsett do have in common is their ability to disappear once they get into the secondary. There is no defensing them, planning for their arrival, or catching them. And only the great ones have this quality!

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