Sunday, December 16, 2018

O.J. Simpson Runs to Glory -- December 16, 1973

I WAS THERE because somebody dumped New York Jets tickets on my dad.

"The consummate runner fulfills the promise"
It was Dec. 16, 1973, one of those punishingly cold days at Shea Stadium, when icy wind whipped in from Flushing Bay, numbing everything in its path. Green Bay's Lambeau Field may be synonymous with "frozen tundra," but a late season Jets home game could just as easily freeze you to the marrow.

On this day, the team was 4-9. By the 1 p.m. kickoff, snow was falling.

So why? Why trudge out to the C-shaped municipal stadium surrounded by parking lots and expressways to sit in the arctic chill, drink watery hot cocoa and watch bad Jets football (a virtually redundant description throughout the 1970s)?

Two words. Make that two initials: O.J., as in Simpson, a man on the cusp of rushing for more than 2,000 yards in a 14-game season, something never accomplished before or since.

O.J., aka The Juice, winner of the 1968 Heisman Trophy while at the University of Southern California. Selected with the first overall pick by the Buffalo Bills in the 1969 National Football League draft, he was handsome, articulate and charismatic. A first-magnitude star.

If you were born after 1994 -- after his descent into infamy -- it may be difficult to comprehend the hold he had on the American public, as an athlete, part-time actor, sportscaster and pitchman for orange juice, western boots and rental cars.

He'd come of age in an era that saw the first wide-spread acceptance of black celebrities as just plain celebrities. In 1965, Bill Cosby became the first black to play a lead role in a television drama, I Spy. Three years later, while Simpson was running to greatness at USC, Diahann Carroll took similar stride for black women in Julia. In 1970, Flip Wilson got in his own TV variety show.

Why run through airports when you can fly?
During the 1960s, Muhammad Ali transcended professional boxing to become one of the world's most widely recognized celebrities, a man willing to sacrifice his career for his principles. But where he was controversial and brash, Simpson was silky smooth and universally liked, by men and women, white and black. He transcended race in the same way Barack Obama would three decades later.

O.J.'s affable demeanor and good looks made him a natural for the tube and silver screen. Holding out for a better deal before signing with the Bills, he even threatened to bypass Buffalo for Hollywood, where he'd already had bit parts in Dragnet, Ironside, Medical Center and It Takes a Thief.

While he eventually signed, he didn't hit the ground running. O.J. rushed for just 1,927 yards over his first three seasons combined, barely surpassing Jim Brown's single-season record of 1,863. But things changed in 1972, when the Buffalo hired a new coach, Lou Saban, who plugged in The Juice and let him run.

Simpson's 1,251 yards led the league. His 94-run from scrimmage in an October game against the Pittsburgh Steelers was the longest in the league that year. He averaged 4.3 yards per carry and 89.4 per game but scored only six touchdowns as the Bills staggered to a 4-9-1 record.

By game 10 of the 1973 season, Simpson surpassed his previous season total, running for 1,323 yards, 123 of them at the Jets' expense in week 3. Though held to under 100 yards in three games, he finished the year in a rush, piling up 480 yards just over weeks 11, 12 and 13. Arriving at Shea, he'd already carried  the ball 1,803 yards and Brown's record was only 60 yards away.

That record fell before the end of the first quarter and, with the frost-bitten Shea faithful to bear witness, piled up precisely 200 yards on the day as the Bills bullied the Jets, 34-14.  It would be the last game for Jets coach Weeb Ewbank, architect of their Super Bowl III victory, and my first as a fan.

For the season, Simpson had juked and jetted his way to 2003 yards -- almost 1.14 miles -- pursued by 11 men sworn to stop him.

In time, and with extension of the standard NFL season to 16 games, the record would fall. So too would O.J., in a manner that would have seemed unimaginable fiction to football fans on that snowy day.

Simpson as doomed astronaut John Walker, with co-stars Sam Waterston and James Brolin
in the thriller Capricorn One. Photo from the July 1978 issue of Starlog Magazine

Between those two defining moments, Simpson played pro-football for just six more years, the final two for his hometown San Francisco 49ers. His acting credits included roles in The Towering Inferno, The Cassandra Crossing, Roots, Capricorn One and the Naked Gun movies.

In 1985 he wed Nicole Brown, with whom he had two children over seven tumultuous years during which the former football star cheated on and abused her. They divorced in 1992.

In June 1994, he was charged with murdering her and friend Ronald Goldman, but apprehended only after a 50-mile -- or 88,000 yard -- low speed chase across the Los Angeles freeway system pursued by dozens of police officers sworn to stop him.

Simpson was acquitted after an epochal 1995 trial but found legally culpable in a civil suit two years later and ordered to pay more than $33 million to the victims' families.

Ten years after that, he'd be convicted of armed robbery and kidnapping for crimes involving sports memorabilia -- our communal tokens of hero worship. Sentenced to nine to 33 years imprisonment, The Juice was set free in 2017.

-- Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive

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