Buffalo, N.Y. styles itself “Queen City of the Lakes,” but it seems dubious royalty—a glum, blue-collar city ravaged by rain, wind, snow and cold, grime, soot and now, of course, unemployment. On this Sunday afternoon, the opening day of the 1975 National Football League season at Buffalo’s Rich Stadium, the wind is unspeakable, reaching three miles inland from Lake Erie to whip up 30 mph of air conditioning above the Astro Turf. The gale pleases the rowdy Buffalo fans, though; it means that Joe Namath and his New York Jets Traveling Aerial Circus may well be grounded. As for the gallery’s beloved Bills, they rely on ground warfare, principally the lightning thrusts and dazzling flanking movements of a handsome, affable young warrior who may surpass Jim Brown as the best running back in the history of football—No. 32, O.J. Simpson.
His birth certificate says that O.J. stands for Orenthal James (the result of an aunt’s whimsy), but everyone knows the letters really stand for Orange Juice, which he drinks by the jeroboam. “Juice! Juice! Juice!” the fans cry as he trots onto the field in his slightly bow-legged fashion. They are anticipating a much-publicized bloodbath. The week before, the Jets had advertised their fury at the Bills for not supporting the New England Patriots’ wildcat strike against the NFL owners in the ongoing player-management labor dispute. (The Jets had walked out in sympathy and thus missed three crucial days of practice; they accused the Bills of trying to buy a forfeit.)
The Jets show the effects of the layoff. Running back Bob Gresham fumbles on the first series of downs, and the Bills recover deep in Jets territory. Lining up deeper than any other back in the league, Simpson takes the handoff on the second play from scrimmage, is hit at the line, spins off the linebacker and sprints outside for an 11-yard gain. Buffalo pounds down inside the five-yard line. On second down Simpson knifes between guard and tackle, whips past the desperate lunge of linebacker Jamie Rivers and dives into the end zone for the first touchdown of the NFL season. “Juice! Juice! Juice!” comes the roar.
That’s just for openers. By game’s end O.J. racks up 173 yards on the ground and two touchdowns as the Bills humiliate New York 42-14. Jets coach Charley Winner says: “On a football field O.J. Simpson would be dangerous in a wheelchair.”
Unfortunately for his NFL rivals, O.J. Simpson, at 28, shows no signs of imminent confinement. Ever since his mother talked him into going to junior college instead of into the Army, O.J. has blazed a furious trail through confounded college and professional defenses and across the record books. At the University of Southern California in 1968, he won the Heisman Trophy, proclaiming him the premier college player in the land—and by the widest vote margin in the trophy’s history. At various times he has been named outstanding player in the Pro Bowl and the All-Star game; selected as NFL Player of the Year; won the Hickok Belt as the outstanding professional athlete of the year. Two years ago, playing the same Jets in the snow in New York’s Shea Stadium, O.J. slithered off-tackle for six yards to become the first runner in NFL history to gain more than 2,000 yards in a single season. The previous record of 1,863 yards was held, of course, by Jim Brown.
Indeed, even though Simpson is wealthy, gorgeous, slavishly admired and indecently gifted, it is impossible not to like him. Says ABC-TV sports commentator Frank Gifford, himself a former USC star who saw his own school records fall like tenpins before O.J.’s onslaughts: “Having been through all that, I can tell you that it’s hard to be so highly regarded when you’re a superstar. But those guys at Buffalo, they’d go through a brick wall for him.” As O.J. himself puts it: “I want people to like me. I think that’s my biggest motivation.”
Muhammad Ali’s face reflects clownish threat; Jim Brown is Menace incarnate. They might be called negative superstars. On the other hand, Willie Mays and Henry Aaron have lacked the wit or personality to scale the media heights; they are simply superathletes. O.J. Simpson is the first black athlete to become a bona fide lovable media superstar. In the last two years O.J. has almost certainly made more public appearances and possibly more extra-locker room loot than any other athlete in the land. Here he appears with his lovely wife, Marquerite, and his children, Arnelle, 6, and Jason, 5, in ads for Foster Grant sunglasses and RC Cola (for which O.J. once drove a truck). There he is acting in The Klansman with Richard Burton and with Paul Newman in The Towering Inferno. He commutes to New York regularly as a commentator on ABC-TV’s Wide World of Sports. There are O.J. Simpson electric football games and O.J. Simpson T-shirts. He has a new contract with Hertz. He plugs Wilson Sporting Goods off-season, as well as Hyde Spot-bilt shoes, which he wears in combat. He drags down $2,000 per speech on the banquet tour.
All of this has made O.J. a national celebrity and well-nigh a millionaire two years before his 30th birthday. It is just the kind of fame and fancy money that catapults old-time pros into their favorite tirade. The most persistent needler of the new breed of and fancy money that catapults old-time pros into their favorite tirade. The most persistent needier portfolioathletes is Alex Karras, the former Detroit Lions All-Pro now providing the color on ABC-TV’s Monday Night Football. “There’s no question but that we were tougher in my day,” Karras insists. “What do guys like O.J. know about being hungry on a football field? He’s been rich since he first stepped into the league.”
Sitting in the Buffalo players’ lounge, O.J. admits, “I have a lot of commitments now, and it’s tough for me to keep my interest up, tough to come to camp and two-a-day drills and get my head together for football. But I’ll tell you, man, we’re just plain better ballplayers than those guys were. And we’re more aware, more realistic about the future. Bronko Nagurski ended up pumping gas, but he was tough, right?” O.J. laughs. “So maybe the old athletes were tougher. We’d still whip them easily. Hell, there were probably 20 backs in 1948 who’d run through a brick wall. Not me, man. That’s not my style.”
Not that he isn’t big enough (6’2″, 209 pounds) or fast enough (100-yard dash in 9.4 seconds). “When I study game films,” he says, his voice dancing between funky street and TV commentator, “I look for the baddest dude on the other team, and I get it in my mind that he’s never going to hit me. I put the okey-doke on them, bounce around and look for daylight, moving and juking. And I love it.”
O.J. started moving and juking early on San Francisco’s Potrero Hill: around school principals, around truant officers, around the police. Even Marquerite, who was his teenage sweetheart, remembers, “he was really an awful person then.” A high school coach convinced him he had a good brain and a better athletic future, so Juice (the initials O.J. made the sobriquet inevitable) settled down to serious sports. The big football foundries took notice when he scored 54 touchdowns in two years at City College of San Francisco. He headed south for Southern Cal and the invaluable tutelage of coach John McKay. Within weeks after his matriculation he was on every sports page, and within two years the town. On a local Buffalo TV show he grumped, “I’d play in Los Angeles for free.” But Buffalo owner Ralph Wilson was ponying up $350,000 for four years of O.J.’s skill, and the ticket-holders didn’t think they or the Bills were getting their money’s worth from the young prodigy. He was supposed to transform the franchise overnight.
“The fans here booed me at first,” O.J. remembers, “and I got some bad press. That had never happened to me before, and it got me down.” There were other problems. Head coach John Rauch, a former quarterback, was reluctant to construct his offense around a running back. O.J., who thrives on carrying the ball 25 to 30 times a game, chaffed at his chinstrap. Also, the offensive line was in chaos. In the opening game of the 1972 season, O.J. dipped into the huddle, looked at the paste-up line before him and asked, “You guys all know each other?”
But Buffalo eventually hired Lou Saban, a man who believes in a sound running game. He built O.J. a line as good as or better than any in pro football today, headed by O.J.’s “main man,” all-pro guard Reggie McKenzie. The line is known as “the Electric Company,” and its rugged members are treated regularly to victory dinners by the grateful Juice. Although O.J. was held to 1,125 yards last season, compared to 2,003 yards in 1973, the high-rolling Bills offense—together with quarterback Joe Ferguson and a classy set of wide receivers—carried Buffalo to the playoffs for the first time since the league merger in 1966.
O.J. has long since made his peace with Buffalo, a city that now adores him and which he now accepts (encouraged by a salary in excess of $350,000. How much more? “A lot,” chuckles O.J.). Although his family continues to live in California—in their $130,000 home in Bel Air—O.J. has acknowledged his professional roots by buying a home in nearby Williamsville, N.Y. to live in during the season. And for all the movies and advertisements and TV contracts and superstar tournaments and jet-hopping, come autumn, when the wind starts whistling across Lake Erie, O.J. Simpson leaves them all behind and puts on the juke.
The reconstructed New York Jets are one thing; a week later the world champion Pittsburgh Steelers are quite another. Orange Juice and the Electric Company are facing the best defense in the business, and on their home turf. The Steelers are eight-point favorites. O.K., says O.J., who proceeds to rip off 64 yards in the first half to lead the Bills to a 10-0 lead. In the second, the Bills are inches away from a first down, on their own 12-yard line. The Steelers throw up a nine-man line. O.J. feints at that wall of flesh, then suddenly wheels outside and flies 88 yards untouched for a TD.
When the final gun sounds, Buffalo has scored a stunning 30-21 upset. O.J. has rambled 227 yards, the most ever run up against a Pittsburgh team. It is also the fourth time in his career that Simpson has gained more than 200 yards in a single game, giving him a tie for the NFL record—with Jim Brown.
Of course there is still Brown’s all-time rushing record to conquer. And the Super Bowl to win. “I’m a collector,” says O.J. “And when I build my home it’s going to have a trophy room, and I want that Super Bowl award there.”
Oh yes, there is one additional summit. It seems that O.J. Simpson, the most wholesome, natural salesman-athlete in America today, who has done more for a particular wholesome, natural breakfast refreshment than a whole stadium full of Bing Crosbys and Anita Bryants, has never even been asked to do an orange juice commercial.