Sunday, July 9, 2017

O.J. at 70

July 9, 1947, 70 years ago: Orenthal James Simpson is born in San Francisco.

When I was a kid in the 1970s, the Weekly Reader would poll kids of various ages, boys and girls alike, and ask them who their heroes were. O.J. Simpson, a running back who never appeared in a winning NFL Playoff game, always finished 1st. Finishing 2nd was Neil Armstrong.

The 1st man to walk on the Moon was Number 2.

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He was always known by his initials, O.J., or "Orange Juice," or, more commonly, just "Juice." He grew up in the Portrero Hill neighborhood, graduated from San Francisco's Galileo High School, named for the legendary Italian scientist because it was built in, at the time, an Italian neighborhood.

Other notable Galileo alumni include fellow athletes the DiMaggio brothers, former Yankee 3rd baseman and American League President Bobby Brown, early basketball legend Hank Luisetti, Levi Strauss chairmen Peter and Walter Haas (Walter was also, for a time, the owner of the Oakland Athletics), and O.J.'s best friend, later a teammate at City College of San Francisco, the University of Southern California, and the Buffalo Bills, Al Cowlings.

After CCSF, O.J. went to Los Angeles, and led USC to the National Championship in 1967, 50 years ago, defeating crosstown UCLA and their quarterback Gary Beban in one of those occasional "Game of the Century" hypefests, one that lived up to the billing.

Beban won the Heisman Trophy as national college football player of the year anyway, but O.J. had another year of eligibility (under today's rules, he would have given it up and become eligible for the NFL Draft), and won the Heisman in 1968.

It's been suggested that the reason Philadelphia Eagles fans threw snowballs at a guy dressed as Santa Claus during the halftime show of their 1968 season finale at Franklin Field is that they were angry that the Eagles had refused to tank in order to get the Number 1 pick in the 1969 Draft, and won 2 games that they shouldn't have, and thus lost out on the right to draft O.J., and instead got Purdue University running back and defensive back Leroy Keyes.

Keyes played 4 seasons for the Eagles and 1 for the Kansas City Chiefs, and was a decent safety. He later returned to Purdue as an assistant athletic director, and has now retired. He is 70 and healthy. At this point, O.J. would probably be willing to trade lives with him. And Eagles fans don't have to explain to their kids that O.J. played for them, and then what happened.

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Buffalo Bills fans do have to explain that. O.J. was not used well by Bills coaches John Rauch and Harvey Johnson. The Bills brought Lou Saban, who coached their 1964 and '65 American Football League Champions, back, and he rebuilt the offense around O.J. The Bills' offensive line, led by Hall-of-Famer Joe DeLamielleure and All-Pro Reggie McKenzie, was nicknamed The Electric Company, because "we make the Juice flow." ("Juice" is a nickname for electricity.)

On December 17, 1973, in a snowstorm at Shea Stadium against the Jets, O.J. set a new single-season NFL rushing record (since broken), becoming the 1st NFL player to rush for 2,000 yards in a season.

I chose the picture above, from around that time, of him at the peak of his playing career, because it makes him look as perplexed about his future as we all became.

The next season, the Bills went 9-5 and won the American Football Conference Wild Card (only 1 Wild Card per Conference at the time), and on December 22, 1974, O.J. Simpson played in an NFL Playoff game for the 1st time. The Bills went into Three Rivers Stadium and were beaten by the Pittsburgh Steelers, 32-14. The Steel Curtain defense held O.J. to 49 rushing yards, although he did catch a touchdown pass. The Steelers went on to win the Super Bowl, the 1st of 4 they'd win in a 6-year span.

O.J. never played in another Playoff game. The Bills went 8-6 in 1975. In 1976, despite O.J. rushing for 273 yards against the Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving Day (a single-game record that would be broken the next year by Walter Payton), they went 2-12. Much as the New England Patriots have dominated the AFC Eastern Division since 2001, the Miami Dolphins dominated it from the early 1970s to the mid-1980s, and it was hard for the Bills, the Jets or the Patriots to break through.

O.J. played 2 more seasons, for his hometown San Francisco 49ers, but they were terrible, going 2-14 in 1979, his last season, before they turned things around under coach Bill Walsh and quarterback Joe Montana. Had O.J. hung around for 2 more seasons, he would have been just 34, and would have gotten a Super Bowl ring, if only as a banged-up backup. But his knee injuries made that impractical.

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But, as with certain other sports legends -- Don Mattingly, Anna Kournikova, and O.J.'s contemporary Pete Maravich come to mind -- not winning didn't matter. O.J.'s talent, good looks, and winning personality made him a bigger star than more successful running backs such as the Dolphins' Larry Csonka, the Steelers' Franco Harris, and the Dallas Cowboys' Tony Dorsett.
He starred in commercials for Hertz Rent-a-Car, and had already acted on episodes of TV shows, including Ironside, a police drama set in his native San Francisco). He was cast in The Towering Inferno (as the tower's chief security officer, he was one of the few big names whose character survived the movie), The Cassandra Crossing, Capricorn One, and, most notably, Roots, as Kadi Touray. He became a sideline reporter for NBC's NFL telecasts, and was very good at it.

He starred on the HBO series 1st & Ten as a star player forced by injury to turn to coaching (with fellow USC Heisman winner Marcus Allen as the player who takes his place), and showed a talent for slapstick as Detective Nordberg in the Naked Gun films. Ironically, the 1st one, in 1988, showed an L.A.-based athlete attempting a murder: Reggie Jackson, wearing his old California Angels uniform, played a player brainwashed to assassinate Queen Elizabeth, stopped by Leslie Nielsen's usually-inept Lieutenant Frank Drebin.

In 1983, James Cameron was casting The Terminator. He wanted O.J. to play the seemingly unstoppable cyborg from the future. But focus groups told him that there was no way that O.J. would be taken seriously as a killing machine.

In 1994, he had finished filming Frogmen, an action film about U.S. Navy divers, and had been interviewed on the set for Entertainment Tonight. He seemed enthusiastic about this film.

He was 46 years old, going on 47. He was dating budding actress Paula Barbieri. He was a member of the College and Pro Football Halls of Fame. He had a fabulous house in the Bel Air section of Los Angeles. He walked with kings, presidents and his fellow stars. He was rich, famous and popular beyond most people's wildest dreams.

Like Michael Jackson and Bill Cosby, he had transcended his status as a black man in a white-dominated society, to become one of the biggest stars in America.

But, as happened to Jackson the year before, and has happened to Cosby since, his image was about to change in ways that we could not have possibly imagined.

Oh yeah: Frogmen has never been released. It remains in someone's vault, never seen by the general public. And O.J. has never been cast in another feature film.

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When we went to bed on the night of June 12, 1994, we thought of O.J. Simpson as one of the greatest football players ever, a good sideline reporter on NBC's NFL telecasts, and a decent actor. If he had been the one who died that night, by whatever means, it would have been sad -- as far as the public knew at the time.

And, as it turned out, a lot of people would have been better off. Himself included.

We knew he had been married and divorced twice. What we did not know was that he had beaten both of his wives. The 2nd wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, had repeatedly called the police about it. One of the times, one of the responding officers was a young Detective named Mark Furhman.

Nicole told lots of people that she believed O.J. would kill her one day. On the night of June 12, 1994, she was murdered. That night, she had left her glasses at a restaurant, where a friend of hers, Ronald Goldman, was a waiter. He found the glasses, went to her house to deliver them, and whoever killed Nicole also killed Ron.

The middle of June 1994 was a weird time in America. Republicans were pushing hard against the agenda, and indeed the legitimacy as President, of Democrat Bill Clinton. We were beginning to hear about something called the Internet. Nirvana bandleader Kurt Cobain committed suicide at age 27. The threat of a baseball strike loomed, a threat unfortunately realized in August.

And both the Madison Square Garden teams, the Knicks and the Rangers, reached their sport's Finals. On June 14, the Rangers won the Stanley Cup for the 1st time in 54 years, defeating the Vancouver Canucks in Game 7. By that point, O.J. was already a suspect in the murders.

On June 17, Game 5 of the NBA Finals was played at the Garden. While the Knicks were on their way to beating the Houston Rockets that night (though the Rockets would win the series in Game 7 in Houston on June 22), NBC went to a split screen.

Because Al Cowlings was driving a white Ford Bronco on Interstate 405, the San Diego Freeway, with O.J. Simpson in the back seat, with a gun to his head, and the police were following it. It was one of the most surreal events in television history.

Some time later, on the talk show The View, panelist Star Jones, a former Brooklyn prosecutor, defined friendship this way: "Who do you want driving the Bronco?" In other words, if you're in as much trouble as O.J. was in, who do you want to help you attempt to get out of it? Frankly, I think a better definition is, "For whom would you drive the Bronco?"
But since, by that point, everybody knew "A.C." not as a former football player, but as O.J.'s yes-man, Star did not have to explain her point. We all knew what she meant.

A.C. drove O.J. back to the house, where he was arrested. The ensuing legal process, including the "Trial of the Century," has been blamed for everything from the ruining of the American criminal justice system to the worsening of American race relations, from the dumbing down of American culture through "reality TV" to the rise of the Kardashian family (one of O.J.'s "Dream Team" lawyers, and one of his best friends, was Robert Kardashian Sr.).

In hindsight, the evidence is overwhelming. But the verdict that was announced on October 3, 1995 was correct: "Not Guilty." Why? Because a conviction can only be achieved if all 12 jurors are convinced that the prosecution has proven the defendant's guilt, as the saying goes, beyond a reasonable doubt.

As soon as prosecutor Christopher Darden put Fuhrman, who'd been part of the LAPD's investigative team at the murder scene, on the stand, the case against O.J. was blown. Fuhrman had tampered with evidence, and evidence of his racism was presented.

Moreover, if Fuhrman had not been put on the stand, the bloody gloves would never have been put into evidence, and we never would have found out that, for whatever reason, they didn't fit. That's reasonable doubt, right there. The leader of O.J.'s Dream Team, Johnnie Cochran, was right: "If it doesn't fit, you must acquit."
While morally wrong, the verdict was legally correct.

O.J. regained his freedom. But a civil suit was brought by the Brown and Goldman families. With a different standard -- only a preponderance of the evidence is necessary to decide, although the jury must still be unanimous on that -- he was found liable for the victims' deaths, and forced into a whopping fine.

He lost the Rockingham estate. He lost his trophies, including the Heisman. He lost his TV and film residuals. Even any income he would get from books (he did write one, cheekily and cruelly titled If I Did It) and any memorabilia shows he was hired for (and he was hired for some) would go to the Brown and Goldman families. Pretty much the only income that legally couldn't be touched was his NFL pension.

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O.J. moved away from his beloved L.A., to Miami, where the stigma against him wasn't as strong. In Miami, pretty much the only thing that will make people hate you is support for the Castro regime in Cuba.

But O.J. did not act like an innocent man who wanted to rebuild his life after his exoneration. He continued to act like a guilty man who wanted to rub in your face the fact that he got away with it. He found income and ways to keep it that the Browns and Goldmans couldn't do anything about. He appeared in rap videos. And, just as Donald Trump now does instead of his job, he played lots and lots of golf in Florida, instead of doing what he promised he would do: "Look for the real killer."

A joke made the rounds this year: The future didn't turn out the way we expected. O.J. Simpson killed somebody, Pete Rose is banned from baseball, Bill Cosby is a rapist, Michael Jackson is dead and a pedophile, and Donald Trump is the President.

Now, let me ask you a question. Suppose someone you love had been murdered. And you had been arrested for it. And, after a long process, you had been acquitted. Would you ever again do anything that might get you put in prison?

Of course not. Even if you actually did it, you wouldn't want to risk putting yourself back in that position. How stupid -- or how crazy, or how mentally impaired -- would you have to be to do that?

On September 13, 2007, O.J. led a group of men into a room at the Palace Station Hotel in Las Vegas, where sports memorabilia dealer Bruce Fromong was staying. They pulled guns on Fromong, and stole O.J.-related items. O.J. later said the items had been stolen from him, and denied that he and the others broke in, and that they had weapons.

On October 3, 2008, exactly 13 years after his acquittal in Los Angeles, O.J. was convicted in Las Vegas. He was sentenced to 33 years in prison -- meaning that, if he lives and serves his entire sentence, he would get out in 2041, at the age of 94.
He is eligible for parole this October. Whether he will be granted it and set free, your guess is as good as mine.

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I have another question: With what we now know about what contact in football does to the human brain, is it possible that O.J. has brain damage, resulting in the kind of impairment that feeds narcissism, male privilege, racial anxiety, and the sense of entitlement that comes with fame and fortune?

Or, to put it another way: Suppose that, for whatever reason, O.J. didn't kill Nicole and Ron in 1994; but, instead, eventually remarried, and, sometime after we began to learn about football-related brain damage, killed his next wife. Or, suppose that didn't happen, but something like the Vegas robbery did, and only then did we learn about all the crazy things that O.J. had also done.

Would his defense team have gotten him off for that crime by citing his impairment? Maybe. Had they tried that in the history that we know, it would have been shamed out of court. But if that had been his first offense, who knows?

What we do know is that, for better or for worse, O.J. Simpson will never leave our public consciousness. That will remain true after he dies, whenever that turns out to be.

The film The Dark Knight featured Aaron Eckhardt as fictional District Attorney Harvey Dent, who said, "You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain." And he went on to prove it.

The film The Sandlot featured Art LaFleur as the ghost of Babe Ruth, saying, "Heroes get remembered, but legends never die."

O.J. Simpson was a hero. He is a legend.

It's worth remembering that not all legends are heroic ones, or have happy endings.

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