November 22, 2012, 7:00 am
The low point came on Dec. 24, 2005. Christmas Eve seven years ago.
While the rest of the world was snuggled up around the Christmas tree or watching a fire roar in the fireplace, 19-year-old David Sims was hanging onto the back railing of a grimy garbage truck as it made its regular rounds around the streets of Gainesville, Florida.
The one-time star tailback at Gainesville High School wasn’t playing football anymore, wasn’t going to college, wasn’t doing much of anything with his life except picking up peoples’ trash and dumping it in the back of the truck. House after house, block after block.
“I had to be at work at 6:30 in the morning and work all day,” he said. “Hanging on the back of the truck. Then, after that, I started doing yard trash and that was even worse. Bunch of bags you got to bust open and dump the weeds in the truck. It was pretty bad.
“But I never complained. You’ve got to have some money in your pocket, right? So I stuck with it.”
Sims knew what everybody was thinking. Another Gainesville schoolboy star athlete wasting his life.
He was thinking it, too.
“I was letting it all slip away,” he said. “Everything.”
Sims had seen them come and go before. Hotshot running backs. Phenom basketball players. Star athletes from Gainesville who waste their skills and never amount to anything. Never get out of Gainesville. Ride that trash truck all their lives.
“Nobody ever said anything to me,” Sims said. “But I can guarantee you, people who knew me were saying, ‘Oh, there’s another wasted talent who just got stuck in Gainesville. Just like the rest of them.’ I knew what they were saying about me.”
But Sims wasn’t going to let it happen. He wasn’t going to let reality steal his dream.
Even during those endless days working for Gainesville Waste Management, he never stopped believing in himself, never let go of that dream.
And that Christmas Eve, while hanging onto the back of that truck, he made up his mind that no matter what, he would find a way to play football again
“That night was the turning point,” Sims said Wednesday. “I was like, ‘Is this really what I’m going to do? Is this how I’m going to spend my life?’ I just got determined not to let that happen.”
Sims had been a stud in high school, but he tore his ACL as a senior and all the colleges that were knocking down his door suddenly disappeared.
So he got a job. The garbage truck. He got out of Gainesville and spent a couple months living with his grandmother in San Pablo, Calif., near Berkeley. Then it was back to Gainesville and another job, this time as an overnight stockboy at Sam’s Club.
But he knew time was running out.
“It was 2006, and I just told myself, ‘OK, that’s it,’” he said. “No more. I had to find a way to play football. I got to go back to school. I got to go to college. The only thing was, how do I go about it?”
Sims enrolled at Butte Community College in Oroville, Calif., in the fall of 2006 and enjoyed a successful year as a rotational running back and returner. Desperate for a chance to stay on the field all the time, he asked the coaching staff to move him to defense, and he earned all-conference honors in 2007 at safety.
He committed to Oklahoma and spent the fall of 2007 in Norman, Okla., but never gained his eligibility. He transferred to Iowa State, where he overcame an arrest and one-game suspension for using an unauthorized credit card to have two pretty good seasons.
But his journey was just beginning. He spent last year out of football after the Giants released him following training camp, and once again he wondered if he’d ever get another opportunity to play the game he loves.
“You just stay positive,” he said. “When everybody doubts you, you just have to stay positive. All you have to do is prove them wrong. That’s it. Football is what I love to do, so why would I give up on what I love to do? I wasn’t going to let anybody get me discouraged.”
Sims, now 26, has played in his first nine NFL regular-season games this year with the Eagles. Seven years after working on a garbage truck, he’s now earning $394,495 this year to play football.
And Thursday, on Thanksgiving Day, he’ll make sure he takes a moment to reflect on his journey to the NFL and the challenges he overcame along the way.
“I’m sure I will reflect on it, but I reflect on my path every day,” he said. “I don’t pick out one day to reflect on everything I’ve been through.
“But on Thanksgiving, I’ll just be thankful that I’ve been put in the position that I’m in now after coming where I came from. I’m definitely thankful and humbled. I always treat people with respect because I’ve been on the bottom and I know what it’s like to not be treated that way.”
The Eagles, 3-7 and in last place in the NFC East, try to end a six-game losing streak Monday night when they face the Panthers at Lincoln Financial Field.
“Everybody wants to be a winner,” Sims said. “Everybody wants to win games and be the best, but I think this every day I wake up, I have to be thankful that I’m one of just a few that made it to play in the National Football League. That’s a big deal. There’s thousands of guys who want to be in our shoes, even though we’re losing. I’m just thankful I’m one of the few.”
This has been a miserable year for the Eagles. They haven’t won a game in nearly two months, and they’ve lost four straight games by 13 or more points for the first time in 36 years. If they lose to the 2-8 Panthers Monday, they’ll be the worst team in the NFL.
But on Thanksgiving Day, Sims hopes his story serves as a reminder that if you believe, if you persist, if you don’t give up, anything really is possible.
“There’s no obstacle that’s too big to climb over, no wall that’s too high to climb over to get to where you want to go,” he said. “You know, if you have hope and believe in yourself and have the drive, if you want to do something, stick with it, have patience, whatever it is, and don’t let anything stop you.
“For me, it came from the inside. I wanted to play football. That’s all it was. I do this better than anything else I do, and I wasn’t going to let anything stop me from playing football.”
E-mail Reuben Frank at firstname.lastname@example.org