"On a trip to Europe last summer, football's most famous personality got a surprise.
'I found that I could walk down a street in Rome and not be recognized, which is a good feeling. I was able to go up to people and ask them questions, just like people do to me back home.' He says he is 'geared up' for football- but he wants to play on the West Coast."
-John Devaney, Schenley Pro Football Guide 1976
"How long will he wait for a Super Bowl? His personal records are unmatched, but without a Super Bowl, the Juice feels his career is incomplete. The sad part is that his dream of a championship will remain just that- a dream.
By far, one of pro football's most exciting players today is O.J. Simpson. His assets are quickness, durability and strength and chief among them is speed, and it is this latter element that enlivens most any stadium on a Sunday when O.J. and his Buffalo Bill teammates are in town.
In a game which is becoming stereotyped and conservative, O.J. is the one who can turn a game around and consequently wake up the fans as well.
Basically, O.J. has seen and done it all. He's the best runner in football today, perhaps for all time, and in 1975 Orenthal James personally outgained nine entire pro teams in rushing yardage. The Juice set new records while piling up 1,817 yards last season and earned even higher respect, with most of the accolades coming from the offensive players in the NFL.
Franco Harris, the premier running back of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and not exactly a slouch when it comes to lugging leather, tells of an amazing incident just before the start of the 1975 season. 'I was jivin' with Lydell (Mitchell) about who would be pushing for me for the AFC rushing title this year,' grinned Harris, 'so Lydell said he would be the most likely candidate since the Colts were now getting it together. Lydell and I made a friendly bet on ourselves and of course we eliminated the Juice from being considered.' Harris laughed. Mitchell, Harris' teammate at Penn State, chimed in to say that 'Franco won the bet but not by much.'
The jocular exchange between Harris and Mitchell is a graphic example about how other players feel towards the Bills' superstar. 'The Juice, quite frankly, is in a world by himself,' said one of the top NFL coaches, 'and I think everybody else knows they have to push for second spot.' And indeed 1975 was a spectacular year for the mild-mannered, outgoing Simpson. He had a personal high of 2,243 net yards gained for 6.3 yards a thrust. That's picking up chunks of yardage, to say the least.
O.J. led the league in rushing for the second time in the last three years, scoring 23 touchdowns to break the single season record of 22 set by Gale Sayers of the Chicago Bears back in 1965. The personal awards kept flowing in as several publications named him Player of the Year, so all in all one would think that O.J. is a happy and contented man. Right? Wrong.
For all his accomplishments, O.J. is beginning to show the signs of wear and tear, not only bodily but psychologically and spiritually. The Bills, while vastly improved over the last half decade, still fall short of what it takes to be Super Bowl champions. They are getting better, thanks to the coaching staff that Lou Saban has put together. The younger players are becoming learned veterans and the offensive line that O.J. desperately needed for so many of his early, struggling years is now recognized as a potent force in the NFL. Still, the Bills lack a top drawer quarterback and a first class defense, and these are factors which hold back the Bills from going higher at this time. For all O.J.'s exceptional accomplishments, the Bills as a team had to struggle to get to .500 in '75. They closed with a ho-hum 8-6 record in third place. What happened?
Well, believe it or not, pro football is beginning to change. If O.J.'s accomplishments were greater more recently, then so are the challenges. Defenses now are designed to contain O.J., since they can't stop him. One NFL coach diagnosed the problem this way: 'Basically, O.J. is a breakaway runner. I know I'll catch some flack from Simpson followers but O.J. simply doesn't have the power like a Brown did or Harris has,' declared the coach. 'And now that the 3-4 defenses have jelled, O.J. can be frustrated if not completely stopped and that directly affects his team's abilities.'
And that precisely is what has been on O.J.'s mind the past two years. How much longer can I go like this and can we ever really pull it off as a team? O.J. himself relates his feelings on this bothersome point. 'There's no doubt that the 3-4 defense has reduced my overall effectiveness. It's simply tougher to run against it because of the pursuit by the linebackers, some of whom are extremely mobile,' Simpson states in a classroom-like manner. 'It's so much more difficult now to pick a hole, declare myself and go into the right spot without running into a linebacker and that can sometimes get me irritated, especially when we need some yardage.'
Some have already begun to question how much longer O.J. can indeed carry the Bills offensively. In 1975, he carried the ball 329 times, and at 1,817 yards gained almost 600 more yards than second place finisher Harris of the Steelers.
Mike Curtis, formerly with the Colts and now with the Seattle Seahawks had some interesting observations. 'Personally, I think they work O.J. far too much but it's really their only alternative. Ferguson's simply not a strong enough quarterback in tough third down situations and Braxton lacks the mobility of O.J.,' Curtis said. 'So we know it's going to be O.J. and we know he'll gain yardage, it's simply a question of how much. I really can't see them in the Super Bowl based on the way they have to operate.'
Indeed, it was a hard judgement for Curtis to make, one would guess, but a fairly accurate one and it is this Super Bowl aspiration that really irritates O.J., though he's too much of a diplomat and has too much riding financially on football to make a big thing of it.
On a recent trip West, I encountered a show business talent agent who is close to the situation involving ABC and Simpson, and he pointed out that O.J. is really miffed at his team's lack of drive toward the end of the '75 season. The agent chose anonymity but discussed what he knew: 'The vibrations I get is that O.J. wants to leave football in the very near future. Look, he's a very big star who has gotten just about everything he's ever wanted in sports but this Super Bowl thing has really begun to haunt him. O.J. is a tough, dedicated man and extremely loyal to those who have helped him, particularly those who really knew his situation in his early years in Buffalo. So though he's not saying it publicly, the fact that the Bills have not been even close to the Super Bowl really galls the hell out of him internally.' The agent continued, 'And my own personal observation is that if the Super Bowl were held tomorrow and the Bills won it, O.J. would announce his retirement the next day. Hey, I've seen it written all over him when he comes back to California. He's tired and frustrated. Hell, he's got more going in TV and commercials now then he'd make in the next five years of pro football but he wants that ring.'
So, in essence what keeps O.J. motivated is pride. He knows that he is one the game's most colorful and exciting players. He knows he is the Bills franchise.
O.J. is a tough, fiercely competitive man, inwardly. Outwardly, he is friendly and outgoing, and in 1975 he did something different. He told everyone he was concentrating on football. His family stayed in Southern California, while O.J. stayed at their home in Williamsville, a suburb of Buffalo. 'That was one of the tougher things I've had to do but there were too many other things that could distract me during the year,' O.J. stated. 'You know that I am very close to my family, that's a solid trait of us Cancerians, but I knew that I had to put all my efforts into football last year and that's the way it'll be this year.'
But the talk quickly turned away from personal matters and back to football. O.J. may be concentrating but when he is himself, a natural, instinctive runner, is when he excels brilliantly. Observing Simpson run is exciting but not easy to understand. He'll hit a hole directly, maybe behind a trap block, and if the hole closes he may do a shuffle step a la Muhammad Ali and then be off in another direction, and yet after the dust settles he's made a significant gain. O.J. is at a loss to explain it.
'No play goes where it's supposed to every time. If I go right because I'm supposed to go there and it's not open then I go elsewhere. It's a matter of exact timing. If I see the defensive charge already committed to a certain place then I'm home free and I know it'll be a gain.' O.J. continues, 'Fundamentally, I see my role as staying away from tacklers. I don't want anyone to get a clean shot at me and most times I accomplish that and that's good. I never was or will be the kind of runner who looks for people to run over. I try to run by them because that's where the big yardage is for me.'
O.J. likes situations where his linemen outnumber opponents, preferable four on three. 'Yes, that's true because I know that I'm quicker and faster than that whole group right at the line, and once I'm in the secondary I also feel I've got the edge on the defensive back. The only area,' O.J. expounds, 'that I feel gives me the greatest trouble is linebacking because they can be very mobile in the short space I need to make my break.'
The defensive people that O.J. has played against with some regularity extol the Juice's abilities. Jamie Rivers, the middle linebacker for the Jets, who put in some time with the St. Louis Cards, remarked, 'When I was in the NFC, I only played against O.J. once and that was an experience. Then when I signed with the Jets, I'd face him twice in one season, I thought. It was then I knew there'd be two Sundays I'd wish I were somewhere else.'
Dwight White, the Steelers' superlative defensive end put it briefly but succinctly: 'Playing against O.J. is usually less than a good experience. You'll learn very quickly just how good you're going to be for that day. He lets you know right away.' Emerson Boozer, a running back for the Jets, and respected for his abilities, offered a sidelight which was both odd and profound: 'I've been watching O.J. closely for years and I've marveled at how he can defy one of the basics of running and still get away with it Sunday after Sunday. He always hesitates, even on plays where you shouldn't. He's got a God-given talent for being able to adjust, slow down or turn on the power. He's the most awesome runner I've ever seen.'
But things football-wise are definitely winding down for O.J. Though he has a contract which will tie him to the Bills through 1977, he feels his career is now a year to year basis. I reminded O.J. that when we first met, he said he felt that 1976 would be his last active year. 'But you'll also recall that I said something about the Super Bowl because I felt even back then we had what it takes to go all the way,' O.J. said with a scolding tone to his voice. Even now it's tough to talk to O.J. about football, more so than it's been in the last two years. He seems to be only half-listening now. His attention wanders after a short time. O.J. acknowledges this but only reluctantly. 'I really never thought I'd find something more interesting than sports but I have to admit that since I've done some acting I like it better.'
O.J. has now made six films, occupying space among the best known of filmdom: Paul Newman, Richard Burton, Lee Marvin, Telly Savalas and shortly, Burt Lancaster and Richard Harris.
So O.J.'s tastes are changing at age 29 and he is now preparing himself for something other than running up and down football fields on Sunday afternoons. He commands more than $100,000 per film while his salary from the Bills is something in the area of $200,000 per year. He also does off-season announcing for ABC-TV and is in his eighth year in that capacity. In addition he does commercials and endorses several products and when he does get time to make a banquet appearance, the fee is usually around $7,000 to $10,000.
And now does O.J. feel about his fame and money? 'I feel very good about all of it. In a manner of speaking, I've really been blessed. I've got my health, a wonderful family. I've had the opportunity to be and do just about all I've ever dreamed of being and doing. I still enjoy football but of course it doesn't mean now what it did 10 years ago or even three years ago,' relates O.J. 'There's still the Super Bowl, that's still one of my strongest dreams and desires. I think to play and win the Super Bowl, particularly if it's played in the Coliseum, would have to be one of the biggest thrills of my life and it's what I'll be working toward this year with everything I can muster.'
So O.J. keeps dreaming of that Super Bowl ring. Sort of a Don Quixote with his quest for yet another last bit of glory. It will be interesting to what becomes of O.J.'s dream. The Bills still have tough competition in their division. The Dolphins are not exactly dead, though they are hurting somewhat physically and psychologically. Obviously they are not the Dolphins of two years ago but they are still strong. The Baltimore Colts, given up for dead before the 1975 season, have placed yet another roadblock in O.J.'s quest for a Super Bowl ring. The Colts came out of nowhere last year to wind up in the playoffs and there's every reason to believe that they, too, will have an awful lot to say about how high and far the Bills and O.J. go this year.
O.J.'s dream of winning the Super Bowl and wearing a ring may have to stay just that- a dream."
-Bob Gotkowski, Complete Sports Pro Football Special 1976
"In seven years as a pro, O.J. Simpson has firmly established himself as the NFL's leading active rusher with 8,123 yards, a total surpassed only by Jim Brown (12,312), Jim Taylor (8,597) and Joe Perry (8,378)- all retired from the game. O.J. scored 23 touchdowns in 1975, breaking Gale Sayers' 10-year-old record, and Simpson's 1,817 yards gained led the NFL for the third time in the last four years. It was the fourth consecutive season he's run for at least 1,000 yards and the total is the third best in NFL history; only his 2,003 yard season in 1973 and Brown's 1,863 yards in 1963 are better.
Simpson's achievement is even more astounding when one takes into consideration the fact that in his first three seasons with the Bills, O.J. rushed for a total of 1,927 yards. That was during the time when head coaches like John Rauch and Harvey Johnson decided O.J. would be more effective as a combination pass receiver, kickoff return specialist and decoy than as a regular in the Bills backfield. After the Bills suffered through the horrendous 1969 (4-10), 1970 (3-10-1) and 1971 (1-13) season, Lou Saban arrived on the scene and promptly did what should have been done three years previous: he handed O.J. the football and told him to do what he did best with it. That belated decision moved Simpson into prominence as the game's premier running back and the Bills into a position of respectability in the NFL.
What makes O.J. Simpson run? First of all, he possesses all the essential traits of a successful back. He's strong enough (6-1, 212) to withstand tackles by men heavier than himself and he's quick enough to elude them. He's brave enough to collide with linebackers and fast enough (he runs a 4.5 forty) to escape from the secondary- usually composed of the fastest players in the NFL. In addition to all this, O.J. is endowed with another quality he contends is largely responsible for his success: cowardice. 'It's true,' he says with a grin. 'I run like a coward. I hit the hole like I'm afraid to hit it. I bounce around behind the line of scrimmage looking for a place to run. I call it my stutter step. If the hole is closed, I feel I can still get four yards, but I'm always thinking fifty. So I look around for another place to run.'
If that's a definition for cowardice, there are at least 200 NFL running backs who would gladly trade in their brawn for O.J.'s yellow streak- as long as his running ability came in the deal.
In addition, Simpson insists that a lot of his success is due to his offensive line. 'I can count on them to hold the blocks while I stutter- step and fake into a hole before flipping inside or out,' says O.J. 'The other things that help me I was born with- football instinct, quickness and acceleration.' The only that remains to be discovered is how Simpson manages to stay away from crutches, wheelchairs and knee operations. 'That's easy,' says Billy Newsome, the defensive left end for the New York Jets. 'You can't hurt O.J. You just try and take him down. You can only hurt a guy when you put all your energy into taking him down. But if you don't leave yourself an extra move, he's past you. The reason is, O.J.'s never extended in such a position that he can't make another move.'"
-Tom Murray, NFL Football Forecast 1976