Simpson, O. J. (1947—)

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Simpson, O. J. (1947—)

O. J. Simpson was one of America's top college and professional football players in the late 1960s and 1970s, but by century's end he was being remembered not for his gridiron exploits but for his role as the defendant in one of the most celebrated murder trials of the 20th century. Accused of the 1994 slayings of his estranged wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and of her friend Ron Goldman, Simpson was brought to trial in Los Angeles in a case that attracted enormous media attention both because of his earlier sports celebrity status and because of his race. From his arrest until his eventual acquittal, the Simpson case divided Americans along racial lines, with most blacks believing in his innocence and most whites convinced that he was guilty. Yet prior to these sorry events, Orenthal James Simpson was one of America's most beloved sports heroes. In the late 1960s, he was a college gridiron idol and Heisman Trophy winner. In the 1970s, he starred in the National Football League and earned a reputation as one of the greatest running backs in the history of college and professional football.

O. J. Simpson, a cousin of Chicago Cubs baseball player Ernie Banks, was born on July 9, 1947 in San Francisco. At age two he suffered from rickets, and wore leg braces for the next three years. In 1960, when he was thirteen, he joined the Persian Warriors, a San Francisco-based street gang. Upon his entry into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1985, his mother Eunice observed, "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'."

Athletics eventually consumed Simpson's life, and he realized he had a special talent for carrying a football. He earned national attention during two varsity seasons as star rusher at the University of Southern California. In 1967, he scored 13 touchdowns, and added 21 more the following season. In both years he played a total of 18 games, rushing for 3,187 yards. In his senior year, he was handed the ball 40 times in the USC-UCLA contest, allowing him to set an NCAA record of 334 carries in a season. In that game, he ran for 205 yards; his season total of 1,654 yards gained was another NCAA milestone. Simpson earned All-American honors in 1967 and 1968, and topped off his college career by winning the 1968 Heisman Trophy. In 1985, he was elected to the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame. John McKay, his USC coach, once observed, "Simpson was not only the greatest player I ever had—he was the greatest player anyone ever had."

Simpson became the number one draft pick of the NFL Buffalo Bills. He played for the Bills from 1969 through 1977, during which time he scored 70 touchdowns and rushed for 10,183 yards on 2,123 carries. In 1972, he gained over 1,000 rushing yards for the first time, and was named AFC Player-of-the-Year. The following season, he set a single-game NFL rushing record with 250 yards ground out against the New England Patriots. In the season finale, in which the Bills faced the New York Jets, Simpson ran for 200 yards, allowing him to finish up with 2,003 yards (in 332 attempts) and become the first player in league history to amass 2,000-plus rushing yards in a season. It was Simpson's greatest year as a pro, and he was named the NFL's Most Valuable Player. He was to enjoy several other solid years with the Bills, along with one more superior campaign: 1975, in which he rushed for 1,817 yards, set an NFL record for touchdowns in a season with 23, and was again named the AFC's Most Valuable Player.

While with the Bills, Simpson played in the NFL Pro Bowl on six occasions, in 1969 and between 1972 and 1976. Two years later, the aging runner, disheartened that the Bills had never reached the Super Bowl, requested a trade to a West Coast team. He soon found himself with the San Francisco 49ers, from which he retired the following year. He eventually was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and named to the NFL's 75th Anniversary Team.

Simpson's friendly smile, movie-star looks, and extroverted personality also allowed him to become a media fixture who appealed to a cross-section of Americans. While still starring on the gridiron, he established himself as an actor. In 1967, while at USC, he played a student on TV's Dragnet '67 ; the following year, he appeared as himself in "The Big Game," an episode of Here's Lucy. In 1974, while playing for the Bills, he debuted on the big screen in The Klansman (1974) and The Towering Inferno (1974) and went on to appear in The Cassandra Crossing (1976), Capricorn One (1978), and three Naked Gun comedies as well as additional television series and made-for-TV movies.

In retirement, Simpson remained in the public eye as an actor, a football broadcaster on ABC and NBC and, most famously, a Hertz Rent-a-Car spokesperson who would be seen dashing through airline terminals in TV commercials. Just around the time when Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman were murdered, Simpson had recently starred in Frogmen (1994), a TV series pilot, and the third Naked Gun feature had just played in movie theaters.

—Rob Edelman

Further Reading:

Baker, Jim. O. J. Simpson's Most Memorable Games. New York, Putnam, 1974.

Devaney, John. O. J. Simpson: Football's Greatest Runner. New York, Warner Paperback Library, 1974.

Fox, Larry. The O. J. Simpson Story: Born to Run. New York, Dodd, Mead, 1974.

Gutman, Bill. O. J. New York, Grosset & Dunlap, 1974.

Libby, Bill. O. J.: The Story of Football's Fabulous O.J. Simpson. New York, Putnam, 1974.

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Simpson, O. J. (1947—)

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