O.J. Simpson was released by the State of Nevada early today after serving nine years in prison. Like many of my generation, Orenthal James “O.J.” Simpson was a larger than life figure in the pantheon of sports, first at Southern Cal and then as a Bill and later a 49’er in the NFL. The Juice won the prestigious Heisman Trophy in college and became an All-Pro running back as a professional, the first to rush for over 2000 yards in a season. He finished his athletic career only to embark on another as an actor, sportscaster and pitch man. O.J. was charismatic with a magnetism that drew people of all stripes to him. Despite the heroics of Jesse Owens and the appeal of Muhammed Ali, O.J. was arguably the first black athlete to attain such widely accepted status and it was with this context that I met him in 1993. I’ll share my thoughts about and impressions of this man. If you’re so inclined, read on.
My wife Linda and I had been invited by Bob and Randy Costas to join them at the 1993 Super Bowl where the fearsome Dallas Cowboys were to battle the Buffalo Bills. Bob was on the NBC broadcast team as host of “NFL Live” with recently-fired Bears coach Mike Ditka as his sidekick. Jim Lampley was also on the NBC team tasked with ‘hosting’ all the events for the network during the long weekend.
I was to be in LA that week on business, so I met the three of them when they arrived late Thursday afternoon for the beginning of what was to be a whirlwind of a long weekend. It began with a trip to the Tonight Show and continued with the seriously over-the-top Commissioner’s Party on Saturday evening complete with ‘artists’ painted gold and posing as statues for hours. The conclusion was to be the game followed by a dinner for the NBC ‘cast’. I understood early on that this trip would be long-remembered.
On Sunday O.J. (he was everywhere) tossed the pre-game coin amidst the hoopla and pageantry following which he retreated to the Buffalo sideline to report during the game. Contested on last day of January at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, regrettably the game itself had little drama as the Dallas Cowboys dismantled the Bills from Buffalo, 52-7. While the game was pedestrian and anti-climactic, the half-time show was anything but. Michael Jackson. Whoa! It was some spectacular production finished off with “We Are The World”. Whether you are a fan or not, take a look at the video https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=4&ved=0ahUKEwji2LGN2JbVAhWBTiYKHaw4BjwQtwIISjAD&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3Didg8TNknvDU&usg=AFQjCNG94_K4cIAsUgrYuAeR54wnApB_dQ. I think he even departed on a chopper.
Conversely, the sole excitement in the game was the rumbling ramble by Cowboys defensive tackle Leon Lett, the Big Cat. Lett gathered up a fumble by substitute quarterback Frank Reich and raced for the Buffalo end zone, 64 yards away. He almost made it, but was stripped of the ball by Don Beebe just short of the goal line, thus staving off the sting of an ignominious bumble. Emmitt Smith, the Dallas halfback was the MVP. Yawn.
Following the confetti, the presentation of the Lombardi Trophy and other post-game merriment by the victors and their fans, we retreated to the bowels of the Rose Bowl for the NBC gathering. But of course. At our table: Bob, Randy, Mike Ditka, Jim Lampley and his wife Bree Walker who was then an LA network news anchor. I had met Jim at a National Association of Broadcasters convention in 1972 and crossed paths again in 1976 (a wild tale for another day, though video does exist), so I knew him a little.
Two chairs remained empty, but only for a bit. Of a sudden, there stood O.J. and his date whose name I cannot recall. I was sitting next to O.J. Simpson. I’m not much of a celebrity wonk, but this was a bit different. I had admired the guy, only a few years older than I, for a long while. He had been not only a larger than life player in college and the NFL, but one off the field as well. The guy was in The Towering Inferno for god’s sake and how about those Hertz commercials? He always comported himself in a stellar manner to my recollection. He was tall, handsome and looked, at age 45, as if he could have just come off the field. We introduced ourselves and began to chat.
The point of all this came next. O.J. Simpson was one of the nicest, kindest, most genteel, gracious people I’d ever met. He spoke at length with both of us. He inquired about our family, where we lived, the ages of our kids, their names, the sports they played. This went on throughout the meal. I like to believe that I am a good judge of character and I have to say that O.J. was as genuine as anyone I’ve met, most impressive and not the least bit self-absorbed as one might expect. That gathering was a perfect cherry on the top of a Super Bowl Sundae and we returned home the next day.
But the ‘party’ wasn’t over, now was it? Just short of a year and a half later, we all sat transfixed by the events unfolding on television—interrupting the NBA Finals—as the infamous white Bronco wound its way slowly across L.A. freeways. Of course, this begat the latest “Trial of the Century” which also gave us—regrettably—an introduction to the Kardsashian family through one of O.J.’s attorneys, Robert. How I wish I’d never heard the name. Okay, so that was an editorial comment that has nothing to do with Robert or his legal abilities. In any event, an acquittal ensued with the outcry from many corners.
Through it all, I wasn’t tormented by the irony of it all, but I simply could not reconcile the character of the man I met at the Super Bowl with the one who allegedly committed two gruesome murders. I called Bob Costas to ask his take on the whole thing. He confirmed to me that the O.J. that we had met that night in Pasadena was the same guy he had seen so many times with everyone from President to custodian, i.e. a genuinely nice guy. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde redux? Who knows? The Juice is now 70 years old, free after a nine-year hiatus from the real world and beginning anew. Hanging over his head is the perception that he got away with murder, a multi-million dollar civil judgment related thereto as well as the rest of the laundry that has yet to be washed. I’m so conflicted by all of this, but take this to the bank: We’ve not heard the last of O.J. Simpson. I cannot fathom that he will simply go quietly into that good night.