Simpson, Orenthal James ("O. J.")

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SIMPSON, Orenthal James ("O. J.")

(b. 9 July 1947 in San Francisco, California), football player, sports commentator, and actor whose skill and speed in rushing made him one of the greatest running backs in history. His notorious 1995 murder trial revealed a darker side of his personality and exposed and intensified racial tensions many Americans believed had been resolved.

Simpson was the third of four children of Eunice Durden, a hospital worker, and James Lee Simpson, a bank custodian, who left the family when Simpson was five. Raised in the African-American area of Portero Hill, Simpson suffered from rickets when he was two years old; until age five he wore braces his mother made at home. As a teenager, he joined the Persian Warriors gang, ran afoul of the police, and was suspended from school several times. Nevertheless, he stayed on at Everett Junior High and Galileo High School for athletic opportunities in track, baseball, and football. He graduated in 1965.

Simpson's grades did not qualify him for a four-year college, and his high school team's mediocre record did not attract recruiters. He entered City College of San Francisco and broke records in junior college football with 26 touchdowns and average carries of 9.9 yards in his first year.

On 24 June 1967 Simpson married Marquerite Whitley, whom he had met in high school; they had three children. That fall Simpson entered the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles. There he had to adjust to running the ball up the middle rather than considering every play a chance for a touchdown. In spring practice, according to coach John McKay, "he fumbled and was hesitant." But McKay recognized Simpson's potential. In his first season with the Trojans, Simpson led the team to the conference championship and a 14–3 victory over Indiana in the Rose Bowl. He also ran the 440-yard relay on the university's National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) track team, establishing a new world record.

Simpson performed even better in his second season at USC. In February 1969 Sport magazine named him Man of the Year, proclaiming, "most experts are rating O. J. Simpson as the greatest running back in the history of college football." In two years he gained 3,295 yards in 649 rushes and scored 36 touchdowns in 22 games. Named All-America for the second year, he also won both the Maxwell Award and the Heisman Trophy.

After the 1968–1969 football season, Simpson left USC and became the first draft pick of the Buffalo Bills, then the lowest-ranking team in professional football. Despite paying Simpson a large salary, the Bills used him so sparingly that Simpson ran less than 750 yards in each of his first three seasons. But when Lou Saban became the Buffalo coach in 1972, Simpson ran with the ball as many as thirty times a game. For five consecutive seasons starting in 1972, Simpson rushed for more than 1,000 yards; in four, he won National Football League (NFL) rushing titles. In 1973 he became the first player to run more than 2,000 yards in a season, with 2,003 yards, and he was named NFL Most Valuable Player. In 1975 he was the American Football Conference (AFC) Player of the Year.

While playing for the Buffalo Bills, Simpson acted in four Hollywood films, notably Towering Inferno (1974); made commercials for seven companies, memorably running through airports for Hertz Rent-a-Car; and worked as a commentator for American Broadcasting Companies (ABC) Sports.

After a knee injury in 1977, Simpson left the Buffalo Bills with a total of 9,626 yards gained. The same year he purchased a home in Brentwood, a wealthy area of Los Angeles, and in June met Nicole Brown, then eighteen years old. On 24 March 1978 Simpson signed with the San Francisco 49ers after being traded by the Bills, but retired after the 1979 season.

Simpson left the 49ers and football in 1979 with a remarkable lifetime record of 2,404 attempts, 11,236 yards gained, and 61 touchdowns. Six years later he was named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

During his final season, Simpson and Marquerite filed for divorce; five months later, on 18 August 1979, their youngest child, Aaren, drowned in the pool of Simpson's Brentwood home.

At six feet, one inch tall, and weighing just over 200 pounds, Simpson was an attractive man with considerable charm. He acted in six more films—the most popular were Naked Gun (1988) and Naked Gun 21/ 2 (1991)—and worked as a commentator for National Broadcasting Company (NBC) Sports from 1978 to 1986 and Home Box Office (HBO) First and Ten from 1986 to 1989. In March 1979 Simpson's divorce from Marquerite was granted, and on 2 February 1985 he married Nicole Brown. They had two children.

Although the Simpsons led a life of luxury and celebrity, there were reports of domestic abuse. On New Year's Eve 1989 and again in 1993, Nicole made emergency calls to police for protection. On the first occasion Simpson was brought to court and sentenced to community service.

On 6 January 1992 Nicole left Simpson, and on 25 February filed for divorce, which was granted on 15 October. But in May 1993 Simpson and Nicole began dating again. Thirteen months later, on 12 June 1994, Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman were found brutally knifed outside her Brentwood condominium. After a widely televised low-speed car pursuit, Simpson was arrested for the double murder on 17 June.

The resulting trial riveted and divided the nation. Polls showed that two-thirds of whites thought Simpson guilty, while two-thirds of African Americans thought him innocent. The defense's revelations of an investigating officer's racist behavior proved to some a pattern of injustice to black citizens; to others it seemed like "playing the race card," a sham defense for a brutal act. Public opinion was vehement. Particularly damning to Simpson were blood samples of the victims found on materials in Simpson's home and automobile. The defense, however, successfully impugned the techniques whereby such samples were gathered, claiming they had been tainted by accident or by design. After more than eight months of proceedings, the jury took only three hours to find Simpson not guilty. The verdict was read 3 October 1995.

In February 1997, however, Simpson lost a civil suit brought by the families of Brown and Goldman. To pay damages of $33.5 million, authorities seized his house and goods, including his Heisman Trophy. In 2000 he moved with his children to the small community of Pinecrest, Florida, near Miami, where he played golf and socialized with supporters and friends. However, on 9 February 2001 he surrendered to police on an assault charge arising from a traffic dispute near his home; he was subsequently acquitted.

Of the two driving forces in Simpson's character, the more apparent was his desire to be well liked. He called Willie Mays, who at the request of a youth counselor in 1958 spent a day with Simpson, "the single biggest influence" on his life. The second and more powerful force in his nature was pure determination. As Pat Jordan observed, "It was Simpson's will, as much as his talent, that enabled him to become not only a great football player but also one of America's most beloved black athletes." Despite his popularity, the speed with which Simpson turned from hero to pariah was stunning. What he later described as his "ordeal" seemed to be the product of the immense but nebulous fame he had so determinedly sought.

Books about Simpson's football career are aimed at fans; they include Larry Fox, The O. J. Simpson Story: Born to Run (1974), and Jim Baker, O. J. Simpson ' s Most Memorable Games (1978). There are numerous accounts of the murder trial, many told by its principal participants; the best respected is journalist Jeffrey Toobin, The Run of His Life: The People v. O. J. Simpson (1996). Discussions of the trial's social implications can be found in Toni Morrison and Claudia B. Lacour, eds., Birth of a Nation ' hood: Gaze, Script, and Spectacle in the O. J. Simpson Case ; Jeffrey Abramson, ed., Postmortem: The O. J. Simpson Case: Justice Confronts Race, Domestic Violence, Lawyers, Money and the Media (1996); and Darnell M. Hunt, O. J. Simpson Facts and Fictions: News Rituals in the Construction of Reality (1999). Simpson's book, I Want to Tell You (1995), written largely by Lawrence Schiller, is based on letters sent to him during his imprisonment and contains a good chronology. Valuable reference materials are included in Current Biography Yearbook (1969); David L. Porter, ed., Biographical Dictionary of American Sports: Football (1987); and Bob Carroll and Joe Harrigan, Football Legends of All Time (1997). A vivid account of visiting Simpson in Florida is presented in Pat Jordan, "The Outcast: Conversations with O. J. Simpson," New Yorker (9 July 2001).

Alan Buster

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Simpson, Orenthal James ("O. J.")

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