Billy Sims, wearing a charcoal suit and a silk white shirt, crossed his arms on the sidelines and waited for his legend to die. The New Kid took a handoff and scampered for eight yards.

“Runs like he’s from Texas, don’t he?” whispered Jerry Ball, sliding up to Sims.

“Uh-huh. He does.”

A few plays later, the New Kid again. Another cut left. Four more yards.

“Simbo,” whispered Ball, “that’s a bad boy.”

“Uh-huh. You’re right.”

Finally, the moment they had been waiting for. Second down. A delayed handoff. The New Kid, Barry Sanders, with a smooth- skinned face and a body like concrete, jiggled right, gulped up eight yards and slipped between two defenders for a few more. The crowd erupted. Someone pushed Sims toward the field. “That’s it! He broke your record!”

Coach Wayne Fontes grabbed Sims and hugged him. “All great backs go by the wayside eventually,” Fontes whispered in his ear. They laughed. Then Sims trotted on the field and found Sanders. He hugged him, too. “Congratulations, man, I love you,” Sims said. The scoreboard flashed the message. “BARRY HAS .
. . BROKEN BILLY’S . . . ROOKIE RECORD . . . OF 1,303 YARDS.”

Thank you.

And it’s about time. Good old days weren’t so good

Don’t get me wrong, Billy Sims was a fantastic player. But teams cannot play in the past. There are few things more demoralizing than an old ghost that haunts a franchise.

And that’s how it has been here for a long time. Too long. Running backs have come and gone. “They’re not like Billy,” fans would grumble. Coaches have come and gone. “They didn’t have Billy.” For years, a shadow has hung around the Silverdome, a mark on the roof that seemed to say: “Here is the highest the modern-day Lions have gone. The Billy Days. We’ll be lucky to get there again.”

Well. Let’s set a few things straight. During Sims’ career (1980-84), the Lions had just two winning seasons, by the slimmest of margins (9-7 records each time). And back then, the Chicago Bears were weak, the Minnesota Vikings were average, and the Green Bay Packers had no Majik.

Two winning seasons. Those were the Billy Days.

“Billy is gone,” said the legend himself Sunday, looking very much like a post-football businessman. “Barry Sanders will make folks forget about me.”

And that, forgive me, Billy, is exactly what the franchise needs. Did you watch the Lions Sunday? They demolished the Bucs, 33-7. Ran over them, passed through them, crushed their quarterback, stole their footballs. When was the last time you were bored at a Lions game — because they were so far ahead?

Hey. This team has won five of its last six. And not against pushover teams. It has beaten Cleveland, which could win its division, and Green Bay, which could win its division, and New Orleans, which was fighting for a playoff spot, and Chicago, which was fighting like a wounded animal. Fact is, the Lions and Bears are tied right now. For third place.

If we could figure a way to extend the season, the Lions could end up in the playoffs.

“What did I tell you when we drafted this kid?” said Fontes, with his arm around Sanders, who finished with 104 yards. “I said he’d make everyone forget the other guy who wore No. 20. He would restore the roar.”

Hey, folks?

It may be time to start believing him. Could it be the Lions are winners?

Now. Don’t be alarmed. I am not surrendering the God-given right to be a pro football skeptic in Detroit. But look at this team. It has a nose tackle, Ball, who is making Pro Bowl lists across the country. It has a linebacker, Chris Spielman, who is leaving welts all over NFL bodies. It has a quarterback, Rodney Peete, who shows nothing but promise. It has the best combined kicking game in the league. And it has Sanders, who leads the NFC in rushing and is a lock for rookie of the year.

And lookie here. On Sunday, there was Lawrence Pete getting the first sack of his career, and knocking Vinny Testaverde out of the game. There was Terry Taylor, acquired in the James Jones deal, making his first interception as a Lion. There was Jimmy Williams, who a few months ago didn’t want to play here, now inspired, sacking the quarterback.

That is what winning will do for you: Even the second-level players start coming up big.

It is time to recognize that this Lions team is not some leftover failure. It is not rotten fruit. Guys like Ball, Peete and Spielman do not deserve the weight of previous losing seasons on their shoulders. They’re doing OK. They deserve some credit.

And Sanders? He deserves the most of all. Give him an eraser. Let him rub out all the Sims records. Not because Billy wasn’t great. But because time marches on, and so should we.

Out on the field Sunday, after the historic moment, Sims raised Sanders’ hand, waved, then pointed at the rookie, as if to tell the crowd, “This is your football team now.”

What a fitting way to end the decade at the Silverdome. Detroit, I’ve always felt, was a football town at heart, more than basketball, maybe more than baseball. It just lacked a team to love. Could we be finding one in the stocking this year? Hmm. How long till next September?

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