WEDNESDAY, JULY 28, 2004
Julius Sims - Still a Big Man
By Jim Steele
When Julius Sims left McKenzie 35 years ago, he was
revered as one of the best football linemen ever to
lace up the cleats for the Rebels.
After all, McKenzie was 10-1 in 1973, ranked No. 1 in
the state and recently named the best McKenzie team of
the 20th century.
Sims wasn’t inordinately large, even for the day. He
was 6-1 and about 250 lbs. Yet he earned a football
scholarship to Virginia State when football
scholarships just weren’t passed out to rural
To make an impact in an anonymous position as a
lineman must tell you something about the man.
Still, Sims, who recently returned to McKenzie to
mourn the passing of his mother, former McKenzie
schoolteacher Erma Sims, wasn’t sure what to expect.
His visits to his hometown were sporadic and sometimes
the passage of time can obscure a legacy.
Sims was walking on the Bethel College campus and
encountered Wildcat baseball coach and long-time
McKenzie athletic booster Glenn Hayes.
“There’s the legend,” Hayes said to Sims.
Sims looked at Hayes with stunned amazement and a bit
“I can’t believe he said that,” Sims said, almost
hiding his face with humility. “There were a lot of
great players on that team. I told Glenn that I wasn’t
Husband, Father, Pastor,
Julius Sims was
born July 24, 1956 into a family of
educators. "Indirectly one could say I was
destined to become a teacher," he says
today. "My life was just surrounded by
In addition to his mother, Erma Sims, and
father Julius, several aunts and uncles
were also teachers. His father, who died
when Julius was five or six years old, was
a teacher of agriculture while his mother
taught math, though her degree was in
When Webb School closed with desegregation
in 1966, Julius enrolled in the McKenzie
school system, where his mother began
Says Julius, "I remember finishing fourth
grade at Webb, and in the 5th grade Mrs.
(Elizabeth) Dinwiddie was my teacher, and
she was sure a precious lady. Her
attention, her personality, made me and
probably all the black and white kids feel
welcome. Mrs. Dinwiddie made that
transition for me a little easier; I came
to visit her every time I was in McKenzie
before she died."
In high school, Julius was president of
his 1973-74 senior class and a four-year
band member. He excelled in sports,
participating in track as well as
football, his senior year named All State,
All Conference, and All West Tennessee.
Julius played football for Virginia State
University, receiving honors his junior
and senior years. His mom would drive to
his homecoming game every year, he shares:
"She felt very proud she had a son playing
With a degree in industrial arts
education, Julius moved to St. Louis to
become a teacher in January 1979, where,
he says, "I didn't know a soul." A few
years later, he met his wife, Cathy, at
their apartment pool party. The couple
married in 1984 and have two sons: Julius,
19, a sophomore in college, and Jeremy,
18, who is a high school senior.
"So marriage has been good, and education
has been good," he says.
In 1988 Julius attended the Army of the
Lord Training Center where he achieved his
master's and doctoral degrees in ministry.
Cathy is also a licensed minister. In 1993
he founded the Word of Life Christian
Church, an inner city, non-denominational
ministry in North St. Louis where he
serves as senior pastor. He considers
himself a preacher-teacher, striving to
give listeners "something they can take
"I believe in making the Bible very plain,
very plain," says Julius, who illustrates
truths of contemporary life through
He earned a master's degree in curriculum
and instruction in 2000. "And now I'm
persuaded to get back in school and get my
PhD," Julius says. Always striving for
higher goals, he plans to eventually teach
at the college level.
Although, he admits, "With the church,
family and school sometimes my plate gets
kind of full," he is also involved with "
an organization that deals with academics
all the way to gang activity."
Every summer Julius attends FCA
(Fellowship of Christian Athletes)
activities, which, he says, is a very,
very strong component in the St. Louis
area." At the mid-western football camp,
high school kids, college athletes and
coaches, and professional athletes gather
to reinforce values and instill purpose
into student athletes.
"I go as a motivational speaker," says
Julius, who served as a youth pastor
before founding the Word of Life church.
His focus is on "letting kids know they
have been given a purpose; whether they
know it or not, there is a divine purpose
in life. I try to bring in the importance
of having a purpose and establish an
identity that is pleasing unto God."
Aside from a continuing interest in
sports, Julius' interests reach into
philosophy, reading, and politics, and
people: "I appreciate what God has done
for me, what avenues I have been able to
make and the relationships I have."
Ah, but word of Sims prowess on the offensive front
has given him mythological status.
“I’m very humbled by all of that,” he said. “When I
hear all of those things, it’s hard because I know I
wasn’t the only player on that team. We put a lot of
very good football players on the field.”
“He is a legend,” said Hayes. “Not only because he was
a good athlete, but because he was a good person with
a great smile and bubbly personality; you don’t mind
spending time with someone like that.”
Indeed, Sims is remembered. He’s not remembered for
what he brought to the football field, but what he
brought to the classroom and community.
Former McKenzie High School principal Jerry Escue said
one of his regrets was that he didn’t get to coach
“He was a big player, but he had a quiet, gentle
spirit,” he said. “We had a great team back in 1973
and there were a lot of good players, but Julius
showed outstanding leadership and played hard, but the
thing I remember most about Julius is that he was a
That attitude seems to permeate most people you talk
to about Sims. Why is that?
Sims was always a giver. He gave 100 percent on the
football field, he took his studies seriously, and he
gave to his community. That summer of 1974, Sims was
the umpire for the fledgling girls’ softball league in
McKenzie. He wasn’t paid a dime for his efforts, but
the teams in the league pitched in and presented Sims
with a watch at the season’s conclusion. Even today,
Sims is a dedicated family man and has a strong
commitment to his church. More on that later.
There was talent on the team and the Rebels needed
something to bring it all together back in 1973. Sims
said that former MHS coach Jerry Gage was that spark.
“Jerry Gage brought us a mentality that we country
boys weren’t aware of,” Sims said. “He gave us
intensity and an offensive style – the veer offense –
that not too many people were familiar with.”
Gage said that those Rebels were full of talent, and
Julius was no different.
“Julius was an integral part of that team and he was
big size-wise for his time,” the coach said. “We
played him at guard instead of tackle because he was
quick enough. That was important when Virginia State
started looking at him because they saw he could do a
lot of things.”
The coach said he remembered Sims being a quiet
“He wasn’t a vocal guy, but when he talked, people
listened,” Gage said. “And he wasn’t adverse to
jerking someone up out of their seat to get their
attention, if that needed to be done. Julius was a
hard worker, but all those kids were.”
Former Rebel Ben Howard, who later became a captain
for the Memphis State football team, said Julius
brought levity to the team.
“It didn’t matter if we were sweaty or muddy or dirty,
Julius always had a smile on his face,” said Howard.
“Julius brought a lot of life to the team and he
always made practice fun; now matter how tough it got,
he always kept things light hearted.”
Howard said he remembered one thing in particular
about Julius the he found amusing.
“Back in those days, they really didn’t have contact
lenses,” he said. “We had to wear those black-rimmed
glasses that you strapped on. I always thought that
Julius always looked like a professor behind the
helmet with those glasses on.”
Sims has great memories of his teammates and playing
days. The 23-21 victory over Huntingdon stands out in
“We were ahead 20-0 at halftime and then we had a
meltdown,” he said.
Terry Bateman’s field goal of 26 yards sealed the deal
for the Rebel victory.
Then came the awful loss against Lexington, a loss
that cost McKenzie a playoff spot.
“That was tough,” said Sims. “I remember that game and
the Huntingdon game most of all.”
Sims earned all-state status while playing for the
Rebels and wanted to continue his football career in
college and then, perhaps, in the NFL. Sims chased a
He had a relative at Grambling who wanted him to play
for legendary Eddie Robinson. But being from
Tennessee, Sims knew of the legend of John Merritt and
Tennessee State. In his mind, he wanted to be one of
Merritt’s “babies,” a term the fabled coached used to
describe his players.
Instead, a former Lane coach went to Virginia State
and had Sims on his radar screen.
“The position coach that left Lane was wanting to get
as many good players from the area as he could,” said
Sims. “They took guys from North Side, South Side,
Bolivar and places like that, then they came to
McKenzie and interviewed me. The next thing you know,
I was headed to Petersburg, Va.”
Sims was a four-year starter for the Trojans of
Virginia State and earned all-conference honors during
his time there. He honed his skills as a football
player, but more importantly, he honed his skills as a
person and as an educator. When his football days were
done in the blue and orange, Sims had some decisions
to make. He pondered staying in Virginia to coach, he
mulled over a return to Tennessee and he entertained
notions of taking his football to the next level.
Just to hedge his bets, he signed with an agent in
North Carolina who would be caretaker to Sims NFL
ambitions. But at 6-1 and nearly 260 lbs., Sims
wouldn’t make it in the NFL as a lineman. He had to
change his thinking and position. Linebacker would
better suit the former Rebel and Trojan.
While this was going on, Sims said there was a need
for black teachers in the St. Louis area, but he had
to coach, too. For someone who has a passion for
football, that was fine with Sims.
“They made me a financial offer I couldn’t refuse,”
Along the way, Sims met a man who had connections with
the NFL and the then-St. Louis football Cardinals.
“I was looking for ways to get into the NFL through
the back door,” Sims said. Soon enough someone left
the screen door unlatched and Sims sauntered through.
He was part of the Kansas City Chiefs’ mini camp.
“I never saw so many good players in my life, but I
had my game face on,” Sims said. “I was focused and I
knew I was going to be tested. But that was fine with
me because I like a challenge.”
Sims said there was a lot of running and weightlifting
tests and he never felt like he was overmatched. The
Chiefs scrutinized 60 linebackers in camp. Sims
acquitted himself well, but was one of the 58 not
invited back. As Sims says, he gave it a shot and had
He decided to raise a family and continue his career
as a teacher and coach in the St. Louis system where
he remains today. He has had chances to become a head
coach, but wasn’t sure if that was hat he wanted to
wear. He’s coached Chicago White Sox pitcher Robert
Person (who was lost for the season in spring training
because of an Achilles injury) and rap artist “Nelly,”
known in his prep days as Cornell Haynes.
“Nelly was a fabulous baseball player and a tremendous
athlete,” said Sims.
Soon enough, however, he hung up his whistle to serve
his church and family.
“I still have a passion for football, but not for
coaching like I used to,” said Sims.
He laments the fact that he hasn’t maintained real
close contact with his friends and teammates from
McKenzie, but his hometown is never far from his
“I always wondered what direction McKenzie football
would go in and it looks like it’s doing real well
right now,” Sims said, while thumbing through a recent
MHS football media guide. “I lost track of a lot of
things, but it’s always interesting coming back. I was
here for the ’73-’74 celebration (in November of 2001)
and it was good to see the old teammates. I missed
that. It was fun to reminisce.”
Sims even said people showed up for the event who
never played football.
“That was such a special time and such a big thing, I
guess people wanted to be associated with it. I get
the feeling sometimes that we were looked upon as
gods,” he said of that magical season.
Sims is proud of his acceptance by various aspects of
society. He says he feels at home in both black and
white settings and he’s proud of that. More than that,
he’s proud that both black and white communities
accept him. He’s not sure, though, how today’s kids
would look upon him.
Still, he thought about coming back to McKenzie to
coach on a couple of occasions.
“I remember Gene Anderson calling me one year about
coming back here to coach,” Sims said. “I love
coaching and I always wanted McKenzie to do well. But
I stepped away from coaching four years ago.”
Sims gave the impression that he isn’t totally adverse
to the idea of putting the whistle back on, but again,
he isn’t sure how he’ll be received in this day and
The former MHS standout says he savors his memories in
red and gray, but bewails the fact that, despite
having given so much of his time, that he didn’t give
more back to the community.
But Sims maintains that if you can conceive it and
believe it, you can achieve it. He’s walking proof.
“I was very blessed to have played with the great guys
I played with and I’m humbled that people remember us
after all these years,” he said. “It’s overwhelming.”
Sims said he is interested in hearing from old
friends. His email is email@example.com.
Phone (731) 352-3323 or
Fax (731) 352-3322