Billy Sims isn’t the only Heisman Trophy winner to sell his award for financial reasons. But he is the first Heisman winner to have a sandwich named for the trophy in a restaurant that bears his name.
The Heisman sells for $8.99 and is stacked high with a choice of chopped brisket or pulled pork along with slice of bologna and a hot link.
The gut buster is one of the featured items at Billy Sims BBQ. This weekend’s grand opening, at Metcalf and 92nd Street in Overland Park, is the 61st in the chain but the first in the Kansas City area. Sims knows what that means.
“I always said if you want to be with the best you’ve got to go where the best is,” Sims said. “I know Kansas City is one of the best. Now, Memphis, Tennesee, might disagree with that. But I definitely know about the barbeque in this area.
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“People like choices. We’re giving them one more choice they can try.”
Sims, 61, and business partner Jeff Jackson, who grew up in Overland Park, know how seriously Kansas City takes its barbeque. It’s a welcoming market but one with a high barbeque IQ.
“We’re coming into an area … this is going to be the most criticized we’ve ever been,” Jackson said. “The bottom line is we’re a fast, casual concept, and we’re a good quality product.”
With a Heisman winner’s name attached. Sims won the Heisman in 1978 when he led college football in rushing and Oklahoma to the Big Eight title. At the time, he was the sixth junior to win college football’s most prestigious award. Sims finished second in the voting as a senior.
The Detroit Lions made Sims the top pick in the 1980 NFL Draft, and he was named a Pro Bowler in his first three seasons.
But a knee injury derailed his career during his fifth season. Sims retired in good financial shape, including a $1.9 million insurance settlement. He appeared set, but a series of bad business decisions forced Sims into bankruptcy in 1990.
“I went through some tough times,” Sims said. “But everybody goes through tough times.”
In 1995, Sims sold his Heisman for $50,000 “to help my family,” he said. “I had kids going to college. It was more important to help with that than keeping the trophy.”
On this day, Sims greeted visitors, city officials, autograph seekers and anyone who wanted to pose for a photo. He talked to anybody about anything from Bob Stoops’ retirement to his days growing up a Cardinals and Bob Gibson fan in St. Louis.
“I met him once and could barely contain myself,” Sims said. “Baseball was our sport growing up. That was my dream, to play for the Cardinals.”
That changed when Sims moved to live with his grandparents in Hooks, Texas, when he was in the eighth grade. Football took over, and Sims excelled. He was working in a gas station when he took his first recruiting call from Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer.
In his first game as a pro, Sims rushed for 153 yards and three touchdowns. Two of his Lions teams reached the playoffs, the only two postseason appearances for the franchise in a 20-year stretch.
He averaged 85 rushing yards per game as a pro, and he might have been able to extend his career, but he attempted to come back too soon. The financial issues soon followed.
“I had a game plan coming out of football because every offseason I would think about what I was going to do when my career ended,” Sims said. “But I made some mistakes that I had to learn from.”
In 1999, Jackson owned a sports card and memorabilia store in Tulsa, Okla., and Sims became a popular draw. The two became friends and got into the restaurant business. The first opened in 2004 in Tulsa, and in 2008 Billy Sims BBQ began franchising.
There is a handful of Billy Sims’ BBQ restaurants in Michigan but mostly the restaurants follow a Big Eight trail: Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas, Iowa and Colorado. Sims’ Sooners beat Nebraska five out of six, including the Orange Bowl after the 1978 season, so perhaps the Cornhusker State isn’t on the expansion list.
But is there a larger restaurant chain in the nation named for an athlete? For somebody who experienced enough financial hardship to sell his Heisman Trophy, Sims has found redemption. He said he’s working on getting the trophy back. Until then he can walk into any of his restaurants and see the Heisman, stacked high with brisket or pork.