CEDAR RAPIDS — A Heisman Trophy winner was in a Cedar Rapids restaurant bearing his name Friday morning, joining fans of the Oklahoma Sooners and Iowa Hawkeyes in gazing a photograph of himself playing against Iowa 38 years ago.
“That picture is real big in Oklahoma,” Billy Sims said.
The shot is of Oklahoma senior running back Sims darting to his left with the ball, while Iowa freshman safety Bob Stoops appears suspended in the air after getting blocked off his feet by a Sooner lineman.
“He made some tackles in that game,” Sims said, “but not on that play. I told him ‘Coach, you missed that tackle.’ He said ‘I was a freshman.’ ”
Sims once said Stoops told him “All I remember is the back of your jersey.”
Today, both men are Oklahoma icons. Sims won the Heisman in 1978 and was runner-up to USC running back Charles White in 1979. Stoops is entering his 19th year as the Sooners’ head football coach, with a 190-48 record.
Iowa lost 21-6 to Oklahoma in that 1979 game, Hayden Fry’s second as Iowa’s coach. The Sooners fumbled seven times, and lost five. The Hawkeyes trailed by just 7-6 entering the fourth quarter.
Sims had 23 carries for 106 yards, a nondescript total for the player who averaged 149 rushing yards per game over his last two seasons.
“We were pretty potent,” Sims said, “Iowa did a good job. It’s not like we blew them out.”
Here we are 38 years later, in Cedar Rapids. Sims spent Friday and Saturday greeting customers at the newly opened Billy Sims BBQ restaurant at 5300 Fountains Drive NE. It’s part of a franchise that will open its 60th store later this year.
It goes to show the enduring power of the name of a sports star. Sims’ playing days ended in 1984, when he suffered a career-ending knee injury in his fifth season with the Detroit Lions.
But at 61, many who came to try his restaurant’s food also came to meet him. Some wore Oklahoma caps or shirts. He went from table to table, telling lots of stories, posing for photos, signing whatever they wanted him to sign, even busing a table and bringing napkins to customers.
He looked and sounded happy. He survived life after football and seems to have gotten ahead of it.
Things weren’t always so good. In 1986, Sims collected a $1.9 million insurance payment from Lloyd’s of London that he had purchased in case of a premature end to his football career.
But from there he got involved in several business ventures that failed. He declared for bankruptcy in 1991. He sold his Heisman Trophy to a longtime friend in 1995, eventually getting it back. He spent a month in jail in 1998 after failing to pay $32,900 in child support.
A 1998 Detroit Free Press story on Sims portrays someone who had to figure out how to turn his life around, and it didn’t sound promising. Almost 20 years later, he’s selling ribs and brisket and “Billy’s Chili,” and he’s smiling.
A friend named Jeff Jackson approached Sims with the idea of opening a barbecue restaurant in Tulsa. It opened in 2004. They began franchising four years later. Most are in Oklahoma and Kansas. Several are in Michigan. Iowa’s first one opened in Burlington last year.
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“I never saw this coming,” Sims said. “I never saw all these stores coming.”
Sims also is a spokesman for a charter school company in Texas, and is a co-founder of Michigan-based Billy Sims-China Food Group, which exports whole milk powder and skim milk powder to China.
Watching him Friday, bouncing from table to table to make diners feel appreciated and fans feel delighted, he seemed like a running back who had turned a 5-yard loss into a 15-yard gain.