Before trial, Simpson charmed America
By Larry Schwartz
O.J. Simpson will be forever remembered for being accused of murdering his former wife and her friend. But long before Simpson was the defendant in the Trial of the Nineties, he was the outstanding running back of the late sixties and seventies. Long before Simpson was inmate No. 4013970, he wore uniform No. 32.
At 6-foot-1 and 212 pounds, Simpson was a record-setting back for the Southern Cal Trojans and Buffalo Bills. With the strength to break tackles and the jukes to embarrass defensive players, his movements were breathtaking. As a college junior his magnificent broken-field run in 1967 against No. 1 UCLA carried USC into the Rose Bowl and to the national championship. As a senior, he won the Heisman Trophy.
"Simpson was not only the greatest player I ever had -- he was the greatest player anyone ever had," said John McKay, his coach at USC.
With Buffalo he became the first National Football League player to crack the 2,000-yard barrier and he remains the only player to achieve this milestone in 14 games. He set records (since broken) by running for 273 yards in one game and scoring 23 touchdowns in a season. He led the NFL in rushing four times in a five-year span and finished his 11-year career with 11,236 yards, then No. 2 all-time and now No. 11.
Off the field, Simpson made a conscious decision to project a positive image, to distance himself from the teenage O.J. who was a troublemaker and spent time in a correctional center. He had an innate way of communicating warmth and charm that lifted him to an almost mythical level and made him the first African-American athlete to be merchandised on a grand scale.
His Hertz commercials pictured a dapper O.J. running to catch a Hertz rent-a-car, smiling as he hurdled the airport guardrail and flashed past the cheering old lady. He was an African-American man interacting with white men and women as if this were a natural part of our society, as if other African-American athletes were not protesting the segregation that still existed.
Overtly, Simpson sidestepped the entire issue, appearing apolitical, which was how the business community and the audiences accepted him, all of which catapulted him to a level of financial success unknown to most athletes -- black or white -- of his time.
He was an attractive man who did not thrust his fist in white society's face, but rather extended his open hand in friendship. There was this Mr. Clean image he presented, while others knew of a darker side that existed in his youth.
In 1985, Simpson was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He credited his mother Eunice with his success and she responded by saying: "I didn't really think he'd turn out the way he did, but he always said you'd read about him in the papers someday and my oldest daughter would always say, 'In the police report.' "
Orenthal James Simpson was born on July 9, 1947 in San Francisco. His aunt gave him the name Orenthal, which supposedly was the name of a French actor she liked.
At the age of two, he contracted rickets, leaving his legs skinny, bow-legged and pigeon-toed. Because Eunice, a hospital orderly, couldn't afford braces, she made him wear a pair of shoes connected by an iron bar for a few hours almost every day until he was five. Along with a brother and two sisters, he was raised by his mother (his father didn't live with the family) in the rugged, largely black Potrero Hill district of San Francisco.
Simpson was a problem child. He joined his first gang when he was 13 and his first "fighting" gang soon after.
"I never infringed on people," Simpson said in a 1976 Playboy interview. "I only beat up dudes who deserved it ... At least once a week, usually on Friday or Saturday night. If there weren't no fight, it wasn't no weekend."
One of his fights landed the 15-year-old high school sophomore in a Youth Guidance Center for about a week, Simpson said.
"He's a great guy, but he wasn't any angel," said Joe Bell, a friend from high school. "If circumstances had been just slightly tilted, instead of a football star he could have been public enemy No. 1."
While Simpson played football at Galileo High School, he had poor grades and didn't receive any scholarship offers. However, after breaking junior-college records at the City College of San Francisco, he was heavily recruited. Simpson chose Southern Cal, the only school he wanted to play for.
His most outstanding moment came against unbeaten UCLA. His scintillating 64-yard touchdown run, in which he veered toward the left sideline before angling back to the middle, gave USC a 21-20 victory and its berth in the Rose Bowl, where it defeated Indiana.
In his Heisman-winning senior season, Simpson set NCAA records for most yards rushing in the regular season (1,709) and most carries (355). Counting the two Rose Bowls, Simpson finished his two-year career with 3,423 yards. In 17 of his 21 games, the two-time All-American ran for more than 100 yards, five times (four as a senior) gaining more than 200.
The first selection of the 1969 draft, his first three years with Buffalo were frustrating as head coaches John Rauch and Harvey Johnson didn't believe in building their offense around him. When Lou Saban took over in 1972, he recognized what McKay had found at USC -- the most breathtaking facet of Simpson's ability was the more he carried, the better he got.
Simpson led the NFL with 1,251 yards rushing, but he was just warming up for 1973. He passed 1,000 yards halfway through the season and then ran for 219 in the next-to-last game, leaving him 197 short of 2,000. In the snow of Shea Stadium, Simpson slashed his way for 200 yards, giving him 2,003.
After injuries held him to 1,125 yards in 1974, Simpson had another banner season in 1975, rushing for 1,817 yards and scoring 23 touchdowns. He won his final rushing title the next season with 1,503 yards.
Injuries limited him to seven games in 1977 and then he was traded to the San Francisco 49ers for five draft choices, including a No. 1. But Simpson wasn't worth the price as he gained a total of 1,053 yards and averaged less than four yards a carry in his final two NFL seasons.
After retiring, he acted ("Cassandra Crossing," "The Towering Inferno" and "Naked Gun" trilogy), though no one ever mentioned him in the same breath with Olivier. He also became a sportscaster. While football came easy for Simpson, broadcasting didn't, and he was criticized for being inarticulate. However, his bubbling personality kept him popular with viewers.
In 1989, he was charged with beating Nicole Brown, his second wife. He hit and kicked her as he yelled, "I'll kill you," police said. He was placed on two years probation, ordered to undergo psychiatric counseling and perform community service after pleading no contest.
On June 12, 1994, Nicole and Ronald Goldman were brutally murdered in Los Angeles. Five days later, Simpson was charged with both murders. He pleaded, "Absolutely, positively, 100 percent not guilty."
On Oct. 3, 1995, he was acquitted.
However, in a civil wrongful-death trial, Simpson was found liable for the deaths of Brown and Goldman. In February 1997 the jury ordered Simpson to pay $33.5 million in compensatory and punitive damages.
"You'll never be able to hear O.J. Simpson's name or even watch the great vintage footage of O.J. Simpson as one of the very greatest players who ever lived without thinking of this tragedy," said broadcaster Bob Costas, who worked NBC's NFL studio show with Simpson. "But that's the consequence of what happened."