In fact, it has been retired twice.
Cornerback Lem Barney wore the number from 1967-1977 and was an All-Pro and seven-time Pro Bowler.
Running back Barry Sanders was number 20 from 1989-1998 and became one of the best backs in the history of the NFL.
Between Barney and Sanders was Billy Sims.
Sims, also a running back, arrived in Detroit in 1980 from the University of Oklahoma where he was a Heisman Trophy winner.
During his five seasons in the Motor City, Sims proved that winning the Heisman was not a jinx.
Kung-Fu Billy#Lions stud Billy Sims karate kicks the Oilers' Steve Brown at the Astrodome.
November 13, 1983 pic.twitter.com/OFm29hR8GV
— Kevin Gallagher (@KevG163) March 4, 2022
He rushed for over 1,000 yards in three seasons and was poised to pile up even more yardage.
Unfortunately, mid-way through his fifth season, Sims sustained a knee injury that ended his career.
This is the story of Billy Sims.
Sims Gets “Hooked” on Football
Billy Ray Sims was born on September 18, 1955, in St. Louis, Missouri.
Had to break out the throwback highlights for Billy Sims' birthday! #TBT
Happy belated birthday, @billysims1978. pic.twitter.com/fynBio3LkC
— Detroit Lions (@Lions) September 19, 2019
He was a big fan of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team and envisioned himself playing the game professionally someday.
“I thought I’d be the next Bob Gibson,” Sims said, referring to the Cardinals’ Hall of Fame pitcher. “In St. Louis, most black kids played baseball. I wore No. 20 because of Lou Brock.”
That goal changed when he moved to Hooks, Texas during his eighth-grade year to live with his grandmother.
As most people know, football is king in Texas, and it didn’t take Sims long to catch the bug.
He slowly gravitated toward the sport and signed up to play for Hooks High School when he entered ninth grade.
Sims had speed and agility, so the coaches at Hooks tried him at running back.
That decision proved to be wise as Sims quickly found his rhythm and began slashing through opponents.
He announced himself to the public as a sophomore when he single-handedly won a playoff game for Hooks.
In a contest versus Rockwall, Sims scored five touchdowns including one on a punt return.
He also made two clutch tackles on defense and kicked three extra points.
Hooks won the game 45-35.
By the time he wrapped up his senior year, Sims had carried the rock 1,128 times in three years (a state record at the time) for 7,733 total yards.
Additionally, Sims had an astounding 38 games of 100 or more rushing yards in his prep career.
Sims Spurns Baylor for the Sooners
As a high school player, Sims was a two-time all-state selection as well as an All-American and All-South pick as a senior.
His stats as a senior also led the Amarillo, Texas Chamber of Commerce to select Sims as their award winner for the state’s most outstanding player.
Bona fides like that were hard to keep secret and many of the South’s major colleges came calling.
At first, Baylor University looked to be Sims’ choice.
“I was headed to Baylor to play for Grant Teaff,” Sims recalls. “My grandmother fell in love with Teaff. They were Baptist, we’re Baptist, so I was going to Baylor.”
Their plans changed when University of Oklahoma head coach Barry Switzer called Sims during halftime of a game against the Colorado Buffaloes.
“I thought they were pulling my leg,” Sims recalls with a laugh. “I mean, what coach in their right mind would call a kid in the middle of a football game?”
Sure enough, the caller really was Switzer who explained that he had some time to kill.
“I asked him why he was calling me in the middle of a game and he tells me Oklahoma is up by 30 points and he didn’t really have anything more to say to the team. Then I actually heard the ref come in and tell him he had to get back out on the field because the second half was about to begin,” said Sims.
Before heading back to the field for the second half, Switzer made his recruiting pitch to Sims.
“He made me two promises. He said I would get my degree and I would win a Heisman and I did both,” said Sims in 2011.
Such a bold statement from a renowned coach convinced Sims that he wanted to be a Sooner.
He de-committed to Baylor and headed to Norman, Oklahoma for the next stage of his life.
Slow Start at OU
When Sims arrived in Oklahoma, he realized that he wasn’t the only one Switzer made big promises to.
“He made the same promise (Heisman and degree) to Thomas Lott and Kenny King,” Sims recalled with a chuckle.
As a freshman in 1975, Sims barely stepped foot on the field and only rushed for 95 yards.
He was still buried on the depth chart as a sophomore in 1976, was injured in the first game of the season, and missed the rest of the year.
Because of his injury, Sims was granted a redshirt to get another year of eligibility.
Despondent, he briefly quit playing football and returned home, only to be coaxed back by Switzer.
'Froback Friday! Heisman Trophy winner Billy Sims of Oklahoma. pic.twitter.com/DM9yTl6ePC
— Jay Bilas (@JayBilas) October 2, 2015
In 1977, Sims gained 413 yards and six touchdowns before another injury derailed his season.
After three seasons at Oklahoma, Sims was looking like a bust.
He had only rushed for 552 total yards and six scores.
Thankfully, Sims’ fortunes would soon change for the better.
Sims stayed healthy in 1978 and regained the form he entered college with.
The Sooners began the season with nine straight wins before losing to Nebraska on November 4, 17-14.
That dropped Oklahoma’s ranking from first to fourth in the nation.
After crushing rival Oklahoma State the following week, the Sooners and Cornhuskers were picked to play each other again in the Orange Bowl.
This time, Oklahoma emerged victorious, 31-24, and ended the year ranked third in the country.
One of the primary reasons for the team’s success in ‘78 was Sims.
During the regular season, he rushed for 1,762 yards and averaged 7.6 yards per rush.
Including the Orange Bowl, Sims rushed for 1,896 yards and also scored 22 total touchdowns. Both marks led the NCAA.
Oklahoma Sooners running back Billy Sims took home the Heisman Trophy in 1978. pic.twitter.com/tjRlQnWiOq
— Miles Commodore (@miles_commodore) June 29, 2022
Sims’ rushing total also set a conference record.
During the season, he rushed for over 100 yards 11 different times and also had four games with over 200 yards rushing, which set a school record.
Sims was the top vote-getter over Chuck Fusina of Penn State for the Heisman Trophy, becoming the third Oklahoma player (and sixth junior) to receive the award.
Near repeat in 1979
In 1979, Sims and the Sooners had another great year.
The team only lost one game and defeated Florida State in the Orange Bowl.
During the season, Sims humiliated Missouri and Nebraska with huge rushing days.
20 DAYS until the release of our annual CFB Season Preview — #20 Billy Sims, Oklahoma (1978 Heisman) pic.twitter.com/F7lIsQASAE
— Pick Six Previews (@PickSixPreviews) July 12, 2015
Against the Tigers, he busted loose for 282 yards.
Then, against the Huskers’ number one ranked rush defense, Sims tallied 247 yards to help Oklahoma win 17-14.
He would end his final season as a collegian with 1,506 yards during the season and 1,670 yards total including the bowl game.
Sims also added 23 total touchdowns.
Numbers like that should have given Sims a second Heisman Trophy.
Instead, the award was given to USC running back Charles White.
Most college football historians believe Sims should have been a repeat winner.
However, many Heisman voters had mailed in their ballots before Sims’ two big games to end the season.
Regardless, Sims ended his college career with 4,118 total rushing yards, 50 touchdowns, and a final yards per carry average of seven.
Did you know? Billy Sims has the most 200-yard rushing games in a career at Oklahoma with seven. pic.twitter.com/ghwpH85Hmo
— Gilbert Sam (@GSamSB) June 21, 2016
He set program records with total yards, 200-yard rushing games (7), single-season rushing total (in 1978), and single-season rushing touchdowns (23).
Both his single-season and career rushing marks have since been passed.
He was also a two-time All-American.
First Round Pick
In 1979, the Detroit Lions suffered through a 2-14 season.
On the flip side, their poor record gave the Lions the first pick in the 1980 NFL Draft.
Without overthinking it, the team selected Sims.
Detroit immediately rebounded as Sims led the team in rushing with 1,303 yards and co-led the NFL with 13 rushing scores.
42 years ago! Billy Sims had 153 yards in his first NFL game on 9-17-80 and the Lions beat the Rams in Anaheim, 41-20. The Lions started out 4 and 0 and I was dancing to Jimmy Allen's "Another One Bites the Dust" then you know the rest of the story… pic.twitter.com/o0QzerxiMv
— Iffy The Dopester (@IffyTheDopester) September 22, 2022
He also added a career-high 51 catches for 621 yards and three more touchdowns.
The Lions went 9-7 and Sims was voted as a second-team All-Pro as well as the league’s Offensive Rookie of the Year while also being selected to his first Pro Bowl.
Detroit Returns to the Postseason
Occasionally, NFL stars suffer a sophomore slump after a great rookie year.
That wasn’t the case with Sims.
In 1981, he rushed for 1,437 yards (a career-high), 13 touchdowns, and had 28 receptions for 451 yards and two more touchdowns.
— NFL (@NFL) September 12, 2019
Sims was voted a first-team All-Pro and was selected for his second Pro Bowl as Detroit went 8-8.
The NFL players went on strike in 1982 and played only nine games for the year.
However, Sims went to the Pro Bowl again on the strength of his 639 rushing yards, four touchdowns, 34 receptions, and 342 receiving yards.
Detroit went 4-5 but was the 8th seed in the re-figured playoff format.
For the first time since 1970, the franchise returned to the postseason where they lost 31-7 to the eventual Super Bowl champion Washington Redskins.
Sims Signs Two Contracts
In 1983, the United States Football League began to play and several NFL players signed with the upstart league.
Looking to market their new toys, many USFL owners promised big contracts to players.
Sims’ agent, Jerry Argovitz, became the owner of the Houston Gamblers franchise.
— Ray Hagar (@RayHagarNV) September 28, 2016
At the same time, Sims was looking for a new contract extension with the Lions.
Argovitz had an idea, one that was steeped in secrecy.
While Sims waited for his new offer from Detroit, Argovitz quietly signed him to a 5 year, $3.5 million deal with the Gamblers.
Sims continued to play with the Lions in ‘83 and ran for 1,040 yards and seven touchdowns and added 42 receptions and 419 receiving yards.
The Lions returned to the postseason after finishing 9-7 and losing to San Francisco in the Divisional round by a point.
In December, the Lions offered Sims a four-year extension worth $4.5 million and Sims signed on the dotted line.
Court Rules in Detroit’s Favor
Not long after, the jig was up and Sims was forced to answer why he had signed two contracts.
“I signed both of them, to tell you the truth,” Sims said. “But my heart is right here. I was going to contact Jerry before this came out but I never got the chance.”
The Lions believed they had Sims locked into a new deal.
“We feel we have a binding contract with Billy,” Lions owner William Clay Ford said. “I guess it (the two contracts) means a problem for somebody . . . We never saw the contract but our lawyers said go ahead and have Billy sign it.”
That was news to Argovitz, who was convinced that his contract offer with Sims came first and that Detroit was trying to act in bad faith.
“I am convinced Billy Sims has signed a bona fide contract and the Detroit Lions have broken the law in inducing Billy Sims to sign another contract,” said Argovitz. “Mr. Ford may have a lot of money,” Argovitz continued, “but there’s no way the law will uphold his contract with Billy Sims.”
The matter went before a court, and Sims testified that Argovitz was not completely honest with him before he signed the Houston deal.
Houston Gamblers' #USFL Time Capsule: February 10, 1984
Billy Sims' contract with the USFL Houston Gamblers was voided in court, subsequently the running back re-signed with the NFL Detroit Lions. pic.twitter.com/MxRAF5UE7f
— The USFL Project (@theusflproject) February 10, 2021
Eventually, the court ruled in Detroit’s favor and Sims returned to play with the Lions.
“I’m glad the whole thing is over,” Sims said by telephone from Hooks, Tex. “I was prepared to do whatever the judge said–even go with Jerry (Argovitz) and Gene (Burrough, GM of the Gamblers).”
Sims’ Career Ends Suddenly
Sims put the ugliness of his court appearance behind him and began the 1984 season on fire.
Seven games into the year, he was averaging 85.9 yards per game and looking to go over 1,000 yards for the fourth time.
My boyhood Thanksgiving memory: Eric Hipple handing off to Billy Sims 30 times, Lions losing to someone. pic.twitter.com/i8vaKBrA7v
— Jeff Pearlman (@jeffpearlman) November 28, 2019
Before a Week 8 game against the Minnesota Vikings, Sims voiced his displeasure about the turf used in the Metrodome.
“I was complaining about the turf. It was terrible,” recalled Sims in 2015.
The contest started well enough when he broke the Lions’ career rushing mark on his first carry of the day.
In the third quarter, Sims scored a touchdown to cut into the Vikings’ lead.
On their next offensive series, Sims took a handoff and headed to the right side of the line.
In an attempt to cut back, Sims’ foot caught in the turf and he was simultaneously hit by Minnesota linebacker Walker Lee Ashley.
Once he hit the ground, Sims grabbed his right knee and didn’t get up.
Billy Sims NFL Films video. Great back who was cut down in his prime with a major knee injury. Young dudes should watch to see how good he was, probably should have won 2 Heisman trophies at OU.https://t.co/lrkAvqsK1C pic.twitter.com/6VsMxF6lhd
— FB_Helmet_Guy (@FB_Helmet_Guy) November 27, 2019
He felt a pain that was even worse than the injuries he sustained in college.
“I knew once that happened, I had never felt pain like that in my life,” recalled Sims. “I’m like, ‘Oh, man.’ It was so bad I just let the ball loose. Forget this ball. I was grabbing my knee.”
The next day, Sims underwent surgery and was lost for the season.
At that point, he had 687 rushing yards and five scores along with 31 catches for 239 yards.
Unable to Return
When Sims woke after surgery, he was stunned by what he saw.
“No one told me (how bad it was after surgery), but I remember one thing, I woke up and I saw this contraption where my leg was taped to or, I don’t know, it was moving my leg for me and it scared the (crap) out of me. I didn’t know what the hell was going on,” said Sims.
Dr. Robert Teitge, who performed the surgery on Sims, later explained the extent of the running back’s injuries.
“…as far as the injury goes there’s two main things, perhaps,” said Teitge. “One is the extent the ligament is damaged, and two is the extent of damage to the joint services. He had both. Had a combination of severe injury and quite an injury to the joint surface as well.”
Still, Sims was optimistic that he would return to the Lions in 1985 and he shared that optimism with the press.
“I’ll be ready in 1985, you can count on that,” said Sims. “I’ve been throwed and kicked by horses and cows and I’ve always come back. I’ll come back from this, too.”
Unfortunately, even after working hard in rehab, Sims’ knee was damaged to the point where he could not cut, which is essential for a running back.
Billy Sims. Had arthroscopic surgery existed in '84, might've rivaled Payton/Dickerson as best RB of 1980s. Also with Lions: Reggie Brown https://t.co/PJuUjyjK0v
— Matthew B. Mowery (@matthewbmowery) August 5, 2017
He retired in 1986 after realizing that his injuries were too severe.
In 1989, he announced to the press that he was fully healthy and ready to return to the game.
By that time, Sims had been out of football four full years, and the Lions had drafted Oklahoma State’s Barry Sanders.
Sims never did play another down of football and retired with 5,106 rushing yards, 42 rushing touchdowns, 186 receptions, 2,072 receiving yards, and five receiving scores.
He was a three-time Pro Bowler, first-team All-Pro once, second-team All-Pro once, NFL rushing touchdowns co-leader, and NFL Rookie of the Year in 1980.
Sims’ number 20 was retired by the Lions, and he was voted to the franchise’s All-Time Team as well as its 75th Anniversary Team.
The number was un-retired when Sanders joined the organization in 1989.
It was retired again when Sanders left football after the 1998 season.
After his retirement, Sims tried to fill the void by investing in numerous businesses including a nightclub and radio station.
The business ventures failed, and soon Sims was out of money.
He sold his Heisman Trophy to pay some bills but continued to struggle.
Sims failed to pay child support and spent time in jail.
Thankfully, he would get his life back on track when he partnered with an Oklahoma businessman in 2004 to open Billy Sims Barbeque.
— Billy Sims BBQ (@BillySimsBBQ) September 23, 2022
The restaurant eventually grew into a successful chain that operates in seven states and includes 54 locations.
While operating his restaurant chain, Sims also started the Billy Sims Foundation.
The foundation was created to help Oklahoma students attend college.
In 1985, Sims was inducted into the Texas High School Football Hall of Fame.
Then, in 1994 and 1995, Sims was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame and College Football Hall of Fame respectively.
He more than likely would have been a Pro Football Hall of Famer if not for his injury.
“He’d be in Canton. No doubt he would have been in the Hall of Fame. Look at the numbers. Look at his numbers in his first, what’d he play, four years? Five years? Look at his numbers. His numbers were as good as anyone in that era in his first five years,” said former Lions teammate Rob Rubick.
Now 67 years old, Sims doesn’t show any regret over how his career ended.
“I was blessed to play those five years,” said Sims in 2020. “I was a lot older as a rookie than most guys. As a running back, I didn’t have long to play. If I could play five years, that was a blessing. I played four and a half.”