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Sunday, March 29, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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A Most Desperate Option Play: Sims Once Sold His Heisman

Detroit Free Press

HOOKS, Texas - Bob White could hardly bear to see Billy Sims do this. It was awful, like watching a friend search storefronts for a pawn shop to sell his wedding ring.

Desperation drives people to horrible things. And Sims was just about every shade of desperate. He had no money, no steady job, apparently no other quick solution.

Sims approached White with an offer to sell his Heisman Trophy and other awards. They had known each other most of their lives, from the time Sims was a kid playing high-school football with White's son in Hooks. In those days, Sims looked up to White as a father.

Sims needed White's help now. Though reluctant, White knew Sims would sell the trophies and memorabilia to a collector in Houston if White didn't want them. Better to end up with a friend, White figured, than some stranger.

So they agreed on a price, $50,000. And with a one-page purchase agreement, Sims handed over many of his football treasures in April 1995. Among them were his Oklahoma University football helmet, his Orange Bowl Hall of Fame trophy, the Walter Camp Trophy and, most stunning of all, the Heisman.

The Heisman?

How could he?

Desperate times, desperate measures. At least Sims had a promise from White that he could always buy the items back, with interest.

"I told Billy I'd keep it in storage for him," White recalled. "And if he ever decided he wanted it, I'd have it for him. Otherwise, I'd give it to his kids someday."

Sims borrowed the Heisman when he needed it, mostly for autograph signings at sports shows. Before long, the two reached an agreement, which they choose to keep private. Sims got the Heisman back.

The same can't be said for everything else in his world.

For Sims, life has been a slow tumble into a black hole since his blazing Lions career flamed out too soon, the result of a knee injury in 1984. His story is hard proof that life doesn't wait for you to catch up if you fall behind and break the rules.

Today Sims is pretty much broke, painfully embarrassed and bound for jail. He was required to report to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons by Feb. 27 for a one-month jail stay. It was part of his punishment for failing to pay overdue child support to a daughter born when he starred in the high-powered Oklahoma Sooners wishbone offense in the late 1970s.

The bad catches up

Sims left pro football rich, but naive - trusting people who had ideas of how he should spend his wealth.

Bad business sense, bad luck, bad choices. They all caught up with him. He slid in and out of bankruptcy, raided his NFL pension to pay recent debts and struggled through a series of failed business ventures. Sims popped in and out of Detroit at times, seeming to be a big player in highly touted development plans downtown. But Sims, it turns out, was merely lending his name for a fee on projects that never lived up to their billing.

Sims wasn't eager to talk about his troubles recently.

"There's not really anything I want to say," he explained.

Sims now lives in a small, $550-a-month rental house in Norman, Okla., home of the Sooners. His tone was stoic but friendly, as he acknowledged having regrets. Wearing blue sweats and a Nike cap, he looked as if he could still drop a jarring shoulder into a linebacker and come away grinning, even at 42.

His answer was brief when asked what he would like to tell Detroiters: "Just tell them I'm doing fine. I'll be OK."

It began in Hooks, where a rusted street sign now stands in the withered grass beside a muddy ditch. Billy Sims Road, the sign says on one side. Painted on the other are the numbers for Texas Farm Road 2105. The town renamed it after Sims won the Heisman in 1978 as a college junior.

On down Sims road, the house where he grew up is graying and abandoned. Weeds rise up around the porch and windows where Grandma Sadie, the woman who raised him, used to watch Billy romp with neighbor kids in the pine-shaded yard.

Sims straddled a rock and a hard place early in life, bouncing between his grandmother's house and his mother in St. Louis, where life with a stepfather was not the stuff of fairy tales.

In high school, Sims became part of recruiting lore. Oklahoma wanted him so badly that one of its assistants moved to Hooks for Sims' senior year to remind him of OU's undying admiration.

At Oklahoma, Sims had to overcome a setback on his way to fame. He roared back from an injury his sophomore year and won the Heisman as a junior. He narrowly lost to USC's Charles White in his final season.

Thunder in Detroit

Sims rolled into Detroit like thunder from the plains, full of hype and hope, when the Lions made him the NFL's first overall draft pick in 1980. While fans hoped for a cowboy-booted rescue of a team that limped to 2-14 the previous year, Sims underwhelmed teammates at his first training camp.

"He really didn't show much," former quarterback Gary Danielson recalled. "The feeling was, `Yeah, he's a good player. But we still have Dexter Bussey and Horace King.' You could tell Billy was special, but not all that much of a difference-maker, it didn't seem to us."

The thunder soon clapped loud and hard, stunning the team and city. In the Lions' season opener against the Los Angeles Rams, Sims ran for 153 yards and three touchdowns, flaunting his signature airplane move by extending his arms as he scampered into the end zone.

"It was just electrifying to all of us," Danielson said. "We couldn't believe what a talent he was."

His football career, with its brilliance on the field, also showed flashes of puzzling judgment off the field that later dogged his business ambitions. His contract maneuvers were headline material.

In 1983, while negotiating a deal with the Lions, Sims caused an uproar by signing a $3.5 million contract with the USFL's Houston Gamblers, partly owned by his agent, Jerry Argovitz. The Lions went to court, convinced a judge that Argovitz had a conflict of interest and won back their star attraction - for the price of a $4.5 million contract.

On the field, Sims ran with a bone-cracking, cutback style that seemed destined for a short NFL life. He broke the club rushing record in just 4 1/2 seasons, with 5,106 yards. But it all came crashing to an end at Minnesota in October, 1984 - in the game he broke the record.

On a Sunday afternoon, Sims took a handoff from Danielson over the right side, planted his right leg and felt the knee collapse as Viking linebacker Walker Lee Ashley hit him. Nearly two years later, in July 1986, Sims held a press conference to make official what everybody already knew: The knee never rebounded from surgery.

"I had a great career," Sims said. "I am very fortunate to come out with my health, and I was in the right position at the right time to become somewhat of a businessman.

"I'm not leaving the game broke, as a lot of players have."

Future crumbled quickly

By then, however, his future was already crumbling. He was piling on a load of crushing business debts.

Sims walked away from the game with a lump-sum payment of $1.75 million from Lloyd's of London, thanks to an insurance policy against career-ending injury. He also received another $150,000 lump sum for a workers compensation policy, plus $1,100 a month in workers compensation benefits from the state. Sims later recalled that he also collected $2.25 million from the first two years of his second Lions contract, renegotiated in 1983.

Outwardly, everything appeared to be bliss for the Sims family. Billy, his wife, Brenda, and their children moved to Hooks, where they lived on a ranch outside town. The rambling home, with a tennis court in back and white rail fence around the property, overlooked a scenic pond in the front yard. They drove nice cars and kept horses.

Billy tended to his growing business interests, jetting between Detroit and Texas, while Brenda oversaw a restaurant and catering service in town. It was a simple country life.

Sims invested in oil, gas and real estate, the seeds of boom and bust. He also bought interests in a furniture store and a nightclub near Texarkana, Texas; a radio station and a supermarket in Shreveport, La.; a dry cleaning business in Fort Worth.

In the Detroit area, he and a partner saw big money in the water purifying business. They formed Nu-Water Inc. and tried to sell devices that home owners could install on their faucets to clean tap water.

The bigger Sims got, the thinner his dreams spread. His impending failure was exemplified most clearly with the purchase of an apartment building in Texarkana, Ark. And it happened just before Sims announced his retirement from football.

In March 1986, Sims and two partners obtained a $1.4 million loan, at 10.75 percent interest, from Texarkana Federal Savings and Loan. They used it to buy an apartment building, known as the Diplomat Apartments, in the oil refinery town split by the Texas and Arkansas state lines.

The note was "due and payable in full" by the following Sept. 24, just six months away, which suggests that Sims and his partners expected to turn a quick profit, possibly by reselling the property.

Left on the hook

What happened, though, remains unclear from bankruptcy and other records. Sims would not discuss it; the partners could not be located.

In any event, Sims was still on the hook for the loan four years later. It was the biggest liability cited by Sims when he and his wife sought bankruptcy protection in July 1990 in federal court in Beaumont, Texas.

By then, Texarkana Savings and Loan had collapsed, taken over by the federal Resolution Trust Corp. as part of the costly taxpayer-funded bailout of failed savings-and-loans nationwide.

A Texarkana businessman who knows about some of Sims' dealings said Sims overpaid for that property and others. Worse yet, he and his partners bought the building just as demand for apartments in Texarkana began to slide.

"He really got led down the Primrose Lane on the deal," said the business associate, who did not want Sims to know he talked. "And that's really a shame. He should never have had to worry about another thing the rest of his life."

Sims' debts totaled $2.263 million, bankruptcy records show. Among those debts, Sims owed nearly $1.5 million from the Diplomat Apartments loan; $110,629 to the U.S. Small Business Administration for the failed grocery venture in Shreveport; $102,811 to Comerica Bank in Detroit for unspecified reasons; and $87,000 to Capitol National Bank Business and Trade Center in Lansing for Nu-Water debts.

The Simses said they had $150 in a checking account, $1,500 in clothing and other personal belongings, a 1989 Astro Van worth $12,000 (but not paid for), a 1982 Ford truck, four horses valued at $1,200 and a tractor valued at $1,500. The Simses told the bankruptcy court that their bare-bones needs just about matched their monthly income of $4,900, which included Billy's $1,100 in monthly workers compensation still coming from Michigan.

A federal judge discharged the debts in June 1991.

Brenda Sims, now divorced from Billy, declined to comment. She now teaches at the junior high in Hooks, where she lives with their four children.

Difficulties trouble friends

Billy Sims' financial woes have troubled his friends. They say he was taken advantage of in many cases by people with bad ideas.

Mel Farr, a former Lions running back who became a megadealer in the automobile business, tried to warn Sims after his playing days ended. Farr was concerned because he knew what kind of tempting offers would be waiting for Sims.

The two had become friends when they starred in commercials during the 1980s for Mel Farr Ford, appearing on screen in suits and capes, promoting the Farr Superstar image. Farr laughs now about the TV spots.

"We looked like we didn't have legs," he said.

But the laughing ended as he thought of Sims' plight. Farr said he advised Sims, after the big insurance settlement from Lloyd's of London, to sink the money into a mix of mutual funds and safe investments. And if he wanted to try his hand in business, use only the interest he made on the other investments.

"I begged him," Farr recalled. "But Billy, because he was trusting and really did believe in people, got taken advantage of. And it's a shame. He's just a great guy. Billy Sims is probably one of the nicest human beings I've ever met in my life.

"But that niceness was to a fault. It cost him his financial stability."

Danielson, likewise, saw Sims' trusting nature as a part of his downfall: "I always felt that the people around Billy were taking advantage of him. Like a lot of these superstars, Billy was making a lot of money, and I don't know if he had the best people around him, advising him about his long-term future.

"Billy was not a dummy. But the smartest of us - and I include myself - have all gotten bad advice from the wrong people who were very good at it. I don't think Billy should be looked down upon, like he wasn't smart enough to understand. Some of these people target people like Billy and us because you make a lot of money fast."

Stopped child-support payments

While his financial troubles dogged him, Sims stopped paying child support for Shawnte Sims, a daughter born when he was in college.

Sims made regular payments throughout his NFL playing days and afterward up through 1988. But he went to the girl's mother, Vicki Smith of Tulsa, Okla., and told her he was strapped.

"I'm having difficulty," Sims was quoted as telling her, according to court records in Oklahoma. "I'll try as soon as I can."

Sims also was under court orders from his divorce to pay $700 a month for his children in Texas. The combined obligations were stiff for a man not holding a steady job.

In May 1991, the delinquent payments for Shawnte Sims came to haunt Billy. A district judge in Tulsa ordered Sims to pay $2,900 in past-due child support and resume regular payments. Sims ignored the order.

Making matters worse, he did so after receiving a $77,351 refund from the Internal Revenue Service in 1993 for 1986 taxes. Sims gave half the money to his former wife, Brenda, but spent the rest on himself and mounting bills.

It would prove to be a costly mistake.

In October, 1995, federal authorities caught up with Sims as part of a new mandate from Congress to crack down on deadbeat parents. Sims was charged in federal court in Tulsa with willfully failing to pay child support, a misdemeanor.

Even so, prosecutors tried to give him a break.

They persuaded U.S. District Judge Sven Erik Holmes to let Sims try to make good on the debt, which had grown to more than $32,000, by making payments under a special diversionary program. If he paid, the charge would be dropped.

Sims promised the judge that he would pay $5,000 immediately and make monthly payments on the rest.

Sims took an early withdrawal from his NFL pension, taking out the maximum he could, about $18,000, and made an immediate payment. But he failed to live up to the rest of his pledge.

Another indictment

Last July, federal prosecutors went after him again. He was indicted on the same charge. Appearing before the judge, Sims said he didn't have enough money to pay for a lawyer.

Sims said he had no job and $300 in a checking account. He listed only two assets: a 1992 Mazda 929, with an estimated worth of $10,000, and the Heisman Trophy. On a form he filled out for the court, Sims listed a question mark on the line that asked for the Heisman's value.

Sims pleaded guilty to the charge in October.

This time, the judge was angry. Sims had made no effort to notify the court or prosecutors about problems making the payments, records show.

Sims' lawyer, Stephen Knorr, tried to offer explanation to the judge when Sims appeared for sentencing last month in Tulsa. Knorr said Sims had counted on getting money from his ties in real estate ventures in Detroit.

Sims had expected a fee for "the lending of his name and his promotional activities for Xanadu, the company," his lawyer said. But Sims never saw any money, Knorr said.

Prosecutors recommended five years' probation so Sims could get a steady job.

Sims expressed remorse: "I would like to say to the court that if I had it to do all over again, I'd definitely do it different, especially with the tax return that I got back then. I could have gave some money to my daughter, and I chose not to, which was a bad judgment on my side.

"And I regret that, not only for myself, for her sisters and brothers having to put up with all of the bad publicity that I - it - caused them. And from this day forward, definitely I'm going to meet my obligations to all my kids."

No mood for leniency

But the judge was in no mood for leniency after he had given Sims one break in the case. He ordered Sims to spend a month in jail and pay more than $14,000 in restitution.

Vicki Smith, the mother involved in the case, said the sentence surprised her. She also said she feels no ill will toward Sims.

"I'm not going to say anything that's going to reflect negatively on Billy," she said. "That's not the way I feel about him. He's still the father of my child.

"Billy loves his children. I'm sure he does what he can."

Indeed, his lawyer told the court that Brenda Sims was satisfied that he was meeting his obligations.

But Sims has one more child support problem on his hands.

Two months ago in Oklahoma City, a district judge ordered him to begin making payments to another child, a 3-year-old son born in December 1994 to Denise McDonald, 38, of Norman.

Sims has had a month in jail to figure out where he'll come up with the money.

And how he'll turn his life around.

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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