Tuesday, May 22, 2018
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Ex-Lion Billy Sims runs into restaurant business

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    Former Detroit Lion and Heisman Trophy winner running back Billy Sims displays the fare at his Billy Sims Barbecue.


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    Former Detroit Lion and Heisman Trophy winner running back Billy Sims displays the fare at his Billy Sims Barbecue.



Former Detroit Lion and Heisman Trophy winner running back Billy Sims displays the fare at his Billy Sims Barbecue.


SOUTHFIELD, Mich. — Billy Sims doesn't like dirty bathrooms or sweet Boomer-Q barbecue sauce caked on tables.

That's why you see some of those Heisman Trophy moves when his restaurant isn't up to standards. Mr. Sims won't seek out an employee to make it right. He's a hands-on owner and takes care of the dirty work himself.

"I'm not going to ask employees to do something I'm not willing to do," Mr. Sims said after busing a table at his first Billy Sims Barbecue restaurant Michigan location in Southfield. “I'll mop floors. I've been doing it all my life. This is nothing new.”

The former Lions running back is businessman, busboy, greeter, and promoter of Billy Sims Barbecue, which has 20 locations in Oklahoma, two in Missouri and one in Michigan. Mr. Sims and his business partner, Jeff Jackson of Kansas City, Mo., hope to open as many as 60 restaurants in Michigan, including a second location in Lincoln Park.

“This is like me winning the Heisman,” said Mr. Sims, who won college football's biggest trophy at Oklahoma. “It is a team effort. It's like a great offensive line opening those holes up. They are the ones that make it happen.”

Shortly after he was selected No. 1 by the Lions in the 1980 draft, Mr. Sims was thinking about life after football. And five years and 5,106 rushing yards later, following a severe knee injury, it began.

But it wasn't easy.

Mr. Sims, outgoing and ambitious, had a number of failed business ventures — he made risky investments in eyeglass stores, an apartment complex, and a catfish restaurant.

Mr. Sims filed for bankruptcy in 1990. He later divorced his wife (they have four children).

Mr. Sims and Mr. Jackson met in 1999 when Mr. Sims agreed to sign jerseys and footballs outside Jackson's sports memorabilia store in Tulsa, Okla.

“I told Billy, ‘We've got to do something,’” Mr. Jackson said.

They created a barbecue sauce and opened a 1,000-square-foot restaurant in 2004. They served smoked ribs, pulled pork, beef brisket, chicken, turkey and bologna.

It's proven to be a sound business — one Mr. Sims almost didn't wade into.

“I was reluctant to put my name on it, because at the end of the day, if it wasn't good, people were going to be looking at me,” said Mr. Sims, who turned 58 on Tuesday. “They would say, ‘He can run but he can't cook.’”

Mr. Sims, who lives in Dallas, thought the barbecue business might be a fad.

Now, it's his full-time job.

The Southfield store is off to a booming start. It ran through 230 racks of ribs on its first day and Mr. Sims had to apologize to customers when he ran out.

At Billy Sims Barbecue, the Sims name brings customers in the first time.

The quality of the food brings them back.

“The bottom line is, we can build a brand in Michigan like we did in Oklahoma,” Mr. Jackson said. “People love him and they want to support him.”

Levi Johnson, who played for the Lions from 1973-79, gave the food a thumbs-up.

“I'm from Texas,” Mr. Johnson said. “And this compares with anything I have had. I think he will have success here with this barbecue.”

Mr. Sims also dabbles in other things. He has a contract with a number of Oklahoma Wal-Marts and works for a mortgage company.

“I've always been involved in a little bit of everything,” he said. “Even though I was playing ball, I was involved in other things. Football was a short-time thing. Even as a rookie I knew I had to hurry up and do something. Once I left I never looked back and I never regretted it. At least I got to showcase my talents on that level.”

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