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Forty years ago we were treated to one of the most electrifying seasons in football history. That was the fall when O.J. Simpson went where no running back had gone before. With more moves than North American Van Lines and Usain Bolt-like sprinter's speed, the Buffalo Bills legend became the first player in NFL history to surpass 2,000 yards rushing in a single season.
Had Simpson's later life played out differently, there surely would have been a celebration this autumn at Ralph Wilson Stadium commemorating the year when the Bills offensive line known as the Electric Company turned loose the Juice.
Sadly, Simpson now resides in jail and will forever be remembered not as a sublime football player but as a man accused of murdering his ex-wife and her friend. Decades after those tragic developments, it still seems so surreal. Nowhere does this sad story resonate more deeply than in Buffalo, because there was a time when O.J. Simpson was this much-maligned city's favorite son, its biggest national cheerleader.
In 41 years of covering sports, I can think of no story in which a hero has fallen farther. Yes, Pete Rose's gambling transgressions were devastating, as was the tale of Lance Armstrong using performance-enhancing drugs. But neither of those sports figures was as beloved as Simpson, who in the mid-1970s ranked as the most popular person in America in several national polls.
His good looks and infectious personality enabled him to transcend football and race. He paved the way for other African-American athletes, particularly Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods, to become mega-endorsers. At the peak of Simpson's popularity, he wasn't merely running through tacklers-he was running through airports, starring in national television commercials for Hertz car rentals. He eventually took his act to the silver screen. Although no one confused him with Sir Laurence Olivier, he proved to be competent in movies such as the "Naked Gun" comedy trilogy.
Simpson later became a network football commentator and further endeared himself to the people of his adopted hometown by unabashedly praising Buffalo on the airwaves every chance he got. When he returned to Rich Stadium to report on the Bills for NBC during the team's Super Bowl run of the early 1990s, the affection between him and the fans was palpable. As Simpson made his way up the stands to the press box, spectators would chant his name, exchange high-fives and hugs, and ask for autographs. He was more than just the most gifted athlete ever to wear their team's uniform. He was their leading advocate, their goodwill ambassador, one of them.
Like virtually every media member who dealt with him, I couldn't believe how gracious and accommodating he always was. Twenty years ago, I was working on a series of stories commemorating that special 1973 season, and Simpson took time while shooting scenes on the set of "Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult" to answer my numerous questions. He went so far as to apologize several times for all the interruptions.
That year, before an early-season home game, the Bills held a celebration of his 2,003-yard achievement. I suggested to O.J. that he, Joe Ferguson and the Electric Company should re-enact the sweep play in which Simpson broke the record. He loved the idea, and that's what they did as the original broadcast of the play was replayed over the loudspeakers.
I was as stunned as anyone when I heard the news on June 12, 1994, that Simpson had been accused of killing Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. That slow-speed chase of the white Bronco on Southern California freeways was beyond bizarre: The former Buffalo Bills superstar was trying to evade police instead of tacklers. Say it ain't so, Juice. Say it ain't so.
Charged with double murder, Simpson became the lead actor in what was labeled the "Trial of the Century." Despite a preponderance of evidence to the contrary, he was somehow acquitted on Oct. 3, 1995. But he did not fare as well in the court of public opinion or in the wrongful-death civil trial that followed. In February 1997, he was ordered to pay $33.5 million in compensatory and punitive damages.
Though he has not been asked back to any Bills alumni functions since 1994, he did return to Buffalo several times and even had the hubris to attend games at the Ralph. Some fans actually asked for his autograph, but most ignored him as he watched from a corporate suite. He deservedly had gone from a favorite son to a social pariah. Many wished he would be banished to some deserted island, never to be heard from again.
These days the Juice no longer is on the loose. After a gun-toting plot to regain memorabilia he claimed had been stolen from him, Simpson now resides in a Nevada state prison.
In recent years, Bills fans have circulated petitions to remove his name from the team's Wall of Fame. I think the action might be justified, given the extreme circumstances. Like many, I believe the Juice got away with double murder. He may have been the most compelling player ever to suit up for the Bills, but that's no longer what I think of when I hear the name O.J. Simpson.
Award-winning columnist and best-selling author Scott Pitoniak's 16th book, a collaboration with rock 'n' roll legend Lou Gramm titled "Juke Box Hero," is available at amazon.com and in bookstores. He provides analysis following Bills games on WROC-TV and is a correspondent for USA Today SportsWeekly.
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