Once, a long time ago, O.J. Simpson was considered a good guy by most people - and possibly the best running back in NFL history.
Of course, that was before the murders, the freeway flight in the white Ford Bronco and the trial that turned Simpson into a worldwide pariah despite his subsequent acquittal. Yet the sins of his later life cannot erase memories for veteran football fans of O.J. dashing hither, thither and yon over college and pro tacklers and, a bit later, through assorted airports in those famous rental car commercials.
Last week, Simpson’s name was back in the sports pages thanks to Clinton Portis. Against Detroit, the Washington Redskins star joined O.J. as the only NFL backs to rush for 120 yards or more in five consecutive games twice in a career.
During his weekly appearance on John Thompson’s WTEM talk show, Portis paid tribute to Simpson.
“For me to be in the same realm as him in this accomplishment is great for me,” Portis said. “You know, not a lot of people want to say, ‘Aw, man, I did something with O.J.’ - but that’s a great honor for me.”
Portis obviously knows football history. At Southern Cal and later with the Buffalo Bills, Simpson terrorized opponents with a rare combination of speed, elusiveness and power. In 1973, when he became the first NFL player to gain more than 2,000 yards in a season (2,003), everyone simply chanted, “The Juice is loose.”
At Southern Cal, Simpson swiftly made fans forget Mike Garrett, who won the Heisman Trophy in 1965. O.J. led the nation in rushing his junior and senior years, darting for 1,451 yards and 11 touchdowns in 1967 and 1,709 yards and 22 TDs in 1968. This was before replica uniforms were readily available to the public, but just about every peewee and high school player in the country wanted to wear O.J.’s No. 32.
On Nov. 18, 1967, the fourth-ranked Trojans faced the top-ranked UCLA Bruins at the L.A. Coliseum for the championship of what is now the Pac-10 and a Rose Bowl berth. Meanwhile, Simpson was stacked up against UCLA quarterback Gary Beban in a showdown between the top two Heisman candidates.
On the strength of two touchdown passes by Beban, UCLA led 20-14 in the fourth quarter before Simpson broke loose for a 64-yard touchdown scamper. The extra point gave USC a 21-20 victory. However, Beban won the Heisman - and was never heard from again.
The Bills won the right to pick Simpson first in the American Football League draft by finishing 1-12-1 in 1968, but he averaged just 600 rushing yards each of his first three seasons. In 1972, he erupted for 1,251 yards before ascending to the stratosphere in 1973 with 2,003 in 14 games.
When his career ended in 1979 with the San Francisco 49ers, Simpson’s achievements stood as a goal for all the future Clinton Portises: six Pro Bowl and five All-Pro selections, NFL player of the year in 1973, membership on the NFL’s All-1970s and 75th Anniversary All-Time teams. In 11 seasons, he ran for 11,236 yards, a 4.7-yard average and 61 touchdowns. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1985.
During and after his playing career, Simpson basked in various spotlights. He was featured in advertisements for many companies. Then he became a movie and TV star, adroitly playing the inane Nordberg in the “Naked Gun” comedies. Everybody loved Simpson - until June 12, 1994, when the bodies of his wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ron Goldman were discovered.
The trial stretched all the way to September 1995, when Simpson was acquitted of the double murders - a verdict that divided Americans along racial lines. Many whites were incredulous that he had gotten off. Many blacks rejoiced that he had beaten “the system.” Simpson then vowed to hunt for the “real killers,” a search that seemed to be conducted mostly on golf courses.
Two years later, a default judgment against Simpson was awarded in civil court for their deaths, but he has paid little of the $33.5 million sum. In 1999, much of his memorabilia was sold at public auction, raising $382,000 for the Brown and Goldman families. His 1968 Heisman Trophy went for $230,000.
In September 2007, Simpson was arrested in Las Vegas and charged with numerous felonies in a memorabilia-related robbery, including kidnapping with a deadly weapon, which carries a possible life sentence. He was convicted last month and will be sentenced Dec. 5.
When, where and why it all went wrong - nobody knows. All we know is that it did go wrong … terribly so. Better then to remember O.J. Simpson when he was running to daylight instead of dashing to darkness.