by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

The morning is cold and rainy. Wilbert Montgomery rises at 7, feeds his infant daughter, heads out. No breakfast. Billy Sims rises about the same time, makes a few phone calls, heads out. They meet in the training room, where shattered knees go for resurrection.

Once they were two of the best running backs in the NFL. Different teams. Same status. Montgomery shouldered a load that helped the Philadelphia Eagles to the Super Bowl in 1980. And Sims was the Detroit Lions. That simple.

When Sims went out with a terrifying knee injury last season — it required six hours of surgery — a huge void occurred in the Lions’ offense. The Lions acquired Montgomery, unhappy with the new management in Philadelphia, early this season to fill it. High hopes. But he never really clicked. Maybe it was the way the Lions used him. Maybe he needed more time. But in the seventh game he was hit going for a first down and that did it. The right knee.

When Montgomery first hobbled into the training room, Sims chuckled.
“I’ve been telling people how great a running back you are,” he said, “and now you’re in here with me.” Montgomery, painfully shy, only shrugged. Their routine began. Leg curls. Weight machines. The leading rusher in Lions history. The leading rusher in Eagles history. Grunting and groaning.

They have fallen from grace with NFL front-runners. On a recent local TV sports show, an announcer declared that Sims, 30, “is never coming back. His money is guaranteed.” And Montgomery, 31, is “in the old-age home.”

Absence makes the heart grow cynical. Different attitudes

But you can find Billy Sims and Wilbert Montgomery. They are not dead. Just rehabilitating. Check early on a rainy morning. Training room. Where the road back begins.

Sims relaxes in a chair as if he owns the joint. His cowboy hat is in place, his gold belt buckle catches the light. Montgomery fidgets, folding and unfolding his arms, looking down when he speaks, like a teenager waiting for his date to come downstairs.

Their differences are in attitude, not destination. Both were once the dazzling heroes of their teams. Both want to feel a football slammed in their guts one more time. But Montgomery silently bleeds for it, while Sims loudly announces that it doesn’t mean a damn if it happens or not.

“It wouldn’t bother me at all if I never play another football game,” he says. “Football was never my first love. I viewed it as a business.

“I want to come back. But if I’m not here, the stadium will still be full. Those same people will be cheering for somebody else. I’ll just be another Lion who played the game.”

He laughs. “Ain’t nobody gonna really care about you but yourself and your family.”

With that in mind, Sims took out an insurance policy on himself in 1980. It’s paid off. He is now guaranteed most of his salary through 1988 should he quit the Lions, or should they quit him — which has raised doubts as to whether he really cares to return. Sims hasn’t played in 14 months.

“Let people say I’m sitting on my money,” he says. “Even if I was, so what? The money belongs to me, not them.”

He leans forward. “But tell me something. If I was just sitting on it, why would I be here, rehabilitating for a year and a half? I could have quit a long time ago. I’m doing this for me.”

Sims has set a target of July to make a final decision. Return or no. Judgment Day.

Montgomery hopes to know something sooner. No insurance policy here. If he doesn’t make the team next year, his income stops. Age is a factor. When he left Philadelphia — his NFL home for eight years — the doomsayers already had branded him too bruised ever to be great again.

He swallows visibly at the suggestion. “If I had to,” he says softly, “I’d take a pay cut to come back. I just want to play again.” No guarantees

Recoveries are tough to call. But if one were betting, the chips might be on Montgomery. Money is one reason. Heart is another. After rehab, he often hangs around the Lions’ practice for hours. Sims no longer attends practices
— “I know what’s going on,” he says — nor does he travel to away games.

“Why should I pay for a plane ticket,” he asks, “to watch a game from the stands?”

OK. There is more than one way back to football. No one says you have to love it. If Sims wants to be crisply businesslike, so be it. He still drags himself through therapy. Morning after morning. With Montgomery. The Breakfast Club.

You need not feel sorry for them. They are paid well. But it tells you something about the game when you realize that these two men combined for more than 2,800 rushing yards in 1981. And today, 50 yards without pain would be glorious. “Football players come and go,” says Sims, slowing the words for emphasis. “They come . . . and . . . go.”

The two runners walk gingerly toward the door. To the weights and the trainer’s table. To the road back, which offers no guarantees.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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