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Ryan O'Halloran: Lament O.J. Simpson's off-field behavior, but don't forget on-field career

O.J. Simpson died Wednesday, ending a life associated with tragedy.

Photos: O.J. Simpson’s Buffalo years

Simpson’s family announced he lost his battle with cancer surrounded by his children and grandchildren.

One of the greatest running backs in pro football history. One of the best-ever Buffalo Bills. And one of his generation’s cultural icons who was as comfortable in front of the television camera as he was breaking tackles at War Memorial and Rich stadiums.

But none of that was top-of-mind once news broke of his death at age 76.

It was about the personal tragedy endured by the families of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, the individuals who were murdered outside Brown Simpson’s home on June 12, 1994.

Doesn’t it feel like Simpson has been dead since his acquittal on double-murder charges on Oct. 3, 1995?

In the larger world, the court of public opinion, he received the death penalty even though he went home that day. He didn’t exist. Didn’t have his coveted social status. His magnetic make-you-smile-when-you-saw-him-on-TV persona became toxic.

The legacy of O.J. is a 180-degree turn from the impact he had on the Buffalo pro football scene from 1969-1977.

Simpson’s football career was significant and will live on forever because he was that good. Heisman Trophy winner. First overall draft pick. First player to rush for at least 2,000 yards in a season. MVP in 1973. Pro Football Hall of Fame selection in 1985. Bills legend. Ol’ No. 32.

Simpson wasn’t an automatic pro football star. He rushed for 697, 488 and 742 yards and a combined 12 touchdown runs in his first three Bills seasons. The Bills went 8-33-1 and rolled through three coaches. The franchise’s ineptness did him no favors. Playing from behind means a running back’s effectiveness is diminished.

But there had never been a running back like Simpson.

Timeline: O.J. Simpson through the years

He was a Pro Football Original. He ran fast … and cut while maintaining that speed. He destroyed the notion that a 212-pound back couldn’t hold up physically while carrying the ball 20-plus times a game like the 232-pound Jim Brown. Simpson was all kinds of tough. He became so famous, even the Bills’ offensive line had a nickname (“The Electric Company”). That had to be a first, right? The next decade saw Washington’s offensive line nicknamed “The Hogs.” The big fellas up front gained recognition for the first time.

From 1972-76, even as postseason success eluded the Bills, Simpson etched his name as an all-time player. Over those five years, he won four rushing titles and led the league twice in rushing touchdowns.

Simpson was the reason to watch the Bills. He never won a playoff game here and only played in one (a loss to Pittsburgh in December 1974), so he was the franchise.

It’s OK all these years later to idolize O.J. The Player. It’s fine for you to separate the On-Field Player and the Off-Field Villain into different boxes. Both things can be right at the same time, old-time Bills fans. You can still love No. 32, but shiver at some of his post-playing career behavior.

Buffalo sports fans in their 60s (and older) can still recall with great detail how he rushed for 250 yards to open 1973 and 200 yards to close the season with 2,003 yards, a record that stood for 11 years.

Simpson capitalized on his football fame. In 1977, polls indicated he was one of the three most recognizable faces in North America and became the first pro football player on the cover of “Rolling Stone” magazine. A year later, he became the second pro athlete to host “Saturday Night Live.”

Simpson’s Bills career ended in May 1978 when his hometown San Francisco 49ers acquired him for five draft picks. He was the second-leading rusher in NFL history (11,236) when he retired after the 1979 season; he is now 21st.

The mixed feelings locally about Simpson were summed up in the Oct. 4, 1995, edition of The Buffalo News.

A front-page story written by several reporters had this headline after his acquittal: “Around town, reaction runs the gamut.”

“Yes!” yelled Ron Fleming, who later told reporter Gene Warner: “The loudest voice you heard had to be mine. When he was acquitted, I was looking at O.J. and I felt like they were saying, ‘I’ was innocent.” A page one picture taken by Bill Wippert was of Fleming throwing his fist in the air in celebration.

Warner also talked to then 66-year old Neal Smith.

“I don’t like it,” Smith said. “I think he’s guilty. Enough said.”

Simpson’s off-the-field actions divided that small sample of Bills fans 28½ years ago. But what everybody in this region can still agree on is that during the bad, old days of Bills football, before he became infamous, O.J. Simpson was a shining football light.


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