MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Never mind what Charles Sims told the media Tuesday, which wasn’t much, considering he may go down as the most introverted 1,000-yard rusher in college football history.
Instead, read the text message Sims sent from WVU last week to a former high school coach in Houston: “COACH-I LOVE THIS PLACE.”
Stephen Hill couldn’t have hoped for a more reassuring report. Having worked as offensive coordinator at inner-city Westbury High School during Sims’ junior and senior seasons, Hill understood what a “mama’s boy” the running back was. And he saw how that desire to stay tethered to home led Sims to spend four years at the University of Houston.
Now that Sims has shifted his fifth college season to West Virginia—some 1,300 miles away from mom—Hill was giddy over his ex-player’s giddiness.
“Charles is so tight with his mother, I wondered how he would do over there,” Hill said. “That’s why the text made me feel so good, because it meant he made the right decision.”
Sims turns 23 soon. He doubts he could have coped with such a cross-country move at 18.
Heck, he couldn’t bring himself to move to Lubbock—or even take a weekend visit—when Texas Tech offered a scholarship in 2009.
“Nebraska offered too, but Charles didn’t take a single official visit,” Hill said. “I encouraged him to at least go for the free plane ticket and the food, but he wasn’t interested. He wanted to stay close to home.”
Boise State and UTEP constituted Sims’ only other offers, but Hill understood why powerhouse programs overlooked a player who didn’t travel to camps or attend junior days. “The only thing anyone knew of him was what they saw on film,” said Hill, noting how the violent and overcrowded post-Katrina atmosphere at Westbury High wasn’t exactly inviting for recruiters.
DISREGARD WHAT YOU know about the Friday Night Lights version of big-budget high school football in Texas, and listen to Hill set the scene at Westbury.
“We lifted weights in a small portable building where the floor was caving in. And the field we practiced on hardly had any grass—it was basically just dirt,” he said. “Our total football budget was $2,500 for the year.
“There were 45 to 50 kids in some classrooms with only 35 desks, so you had to get to class early just to get a seat. It was tough.”
Yet the lack of resources built Westbury into a close-knit team, said Hill, who in 2011 became head coach at The Kincaid School, a private campus where he coached WVU quarterback Ford Childress.
“Our time at Westbury was rewarding because the kids made it that way,” he said.
The night that made Hill proudest, and highlighted Sims’ playmaking ability, came in Week 2 of the 2008 season as Westbury visited Class 4A power Brenham.
“We’re behind 22-8 at the half, playing at one of these schools where they shut the whole town down on Friday night,” Hill said. “Charles is usually so quiet, so shy—he just doesn’t talk—but this night he comes up and says ‘Coach, we can beat these guys.’ Then he tells me we should be running these rub routes where we dump the ball to him when he’s isolated on a linebacker.”
As Westbury stormed back in the second half, Sims made plenty of catches in space before tying the game on a 32-yard touchdown catch with 21 seconds left. By the time Westbury pulled off an incalculable 43-36 upset in OT, Sims had compiled 202 yards on 20 carries and also thrown a touchdown pass.
“That,” Hill said, “was really Charles’ coming-out party.”
NEVER MIND ALL the times the shy kid didn’t speak up. Rather, rewind to a Westbury practice when the inattentive yapping of three players in the secondary led the docile Sims to detonate.
“You three—GET OVER HERE!” Sims blasted. “I’ll beat all three of y’all!”
Sims told Hill to throw a deep pass, and he dared the three jabberers to stop him from catching it.
“Now, these were three starters—two corners and a safety,” Hill said. “But Charles got through all three of them at the line, and I floated a pass that he caught 15 yards behind them.”
Sims spiked the ball in the dirt and yelled back, “All you guys ever do is talk! Why can’t you just shut your mouth and work hard!”
Hill was as shell-shocked as the players, whom he noted “kept their mouths shut for the rest of practice.”
FORGET FOR A moment all the compliments heaped upon Charles Sims for his touchdowns and dodged tackles. Instead, absorb what one Westbury teacher imparted when the newly-hired Hill began checking on players’ classroom behavior.
“I was just making sure Charles wasn’t acting out or getting involved in any BS,” Hill recalled. “And the teacher told me, ‘If this school was on fire and I had to race in to save one kid, Charles Sims would be the one. He’d be the one.”
SIMS MIGHT HAVE spent his final season playing at Texas Tech—and on Oct. 19 playing against WVU—if not for Houston coach Tony Levine restricting the back from transferring to American Athletic Conference programs, teams on UH’s 2013 schedule and any FBS school in Texas. Unable to play for former Cougars offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury, Sims turned his eye toward reuniting with another ex-Houston coordinator, Dana Holgorsen.
He also considered Cal, though upon visiting Morgantown in June, Sims said he felt comfortable enough to commit on the spot. Six weeks later, he’s growing comfortable in Holgorsen’s system and feeling comfortable amid preseason practices on 75-degree afternoons.
“Down there in Houston it’s 105,” Sims said, “but this weather here’s lovely. I can go all day in this.”
Like the text message showed, he loves this place.