Sunday, June 28, 2009

Orange Juice

Orenthal James Simpson grew up in a deprived neighborhood outside of San Francisco. His father left his family when he was a toddler. As an under-nourished baby he developed rickets. Amazingly the bent-toed little infant grew into a keen athlete and became a stand-out back at Galileo High School, just blocks from the waterfront. Pac Eight schools quickly became aware of his abilities, but they were also aware of his poor grades.

OJ matriculated at San Francisco Community College in 1965 to play football and work on his academic eligibility. At the end of his first year he qualified for Arizona State and under heavy pressure from Sun Devils coaches nearly headed for Tempe. He even considered Utah State at one point, but in his heart the Bay Area stud knew he wanted to follow local hero Gary Beban (then an all-American quarterback with the Buins) to Los Angeles. The ambitious Simpson set his sights on USC and with much encouragement from John McKay’s staff he spent one more year in San Francisco. When he finally became eligible he had only two years remaining and needed to make an immediate impression.

There was little doubt about OJ's talent. He left San Francisco as the all-time junior college rush leader with 2,552 yards and 54 TDs in just two years. But McKay wanted to know just how much USC could build around him and whether the lithe 6”1’ 202lb back could run between the tackles at the highest level. In one pre-season scrimmage during full contact drills McKay ran Simpson up the middle seven consecutive times. OJ seemed to grow stronger and more assertive with every run, knocking first team defenders onto their backs with apparent ease. The Trojans had their go-to man.

Then as today USC did not shy away from scheduling tough slates. In a 10 game 1967 season with seven conference match-ups and an annual bout with heavyweight Notre Dame already on the docket they also lined up a trip to East Lansing and a home game with Darrel Royal’s Texas Longhorns. Hugh Daugherty’s Michigan State Spartans claimed back-to-back national championships for 1965 and 1966. Texas won three national titles of their own during the 1960s and dominated the Southwest Conference. None of that intimidated OJ, who carried the ball 36 against Sparty and 30 vs. Texas. When asked about his enormous workload the irrepressible back said:

“I feel like I can go all the way every time.”

McKay half-jokingly stated:

“He isn’t in any union. He can carry it as much as we want him to.”

OJ’s collegiate career really took off in South Bend on October 14th 1967. Notre Dame was coming off a 9-0-1 year with the usual slew of vaunted recruiting classes. In year four of the Parseghian era the Irish were heavily favored to slide into their historic sixth gear. A one-touchdown loss in their second game at Purdue didn’t seem to register with the experts, who still had 2-1 Notre Dame as 14 point favorites at home against the 4-0 Trojans. Although the Irish went into the locker room up 7-0 at halftime, the visitors proved to have the staying power on the day. Terry Hanratty, Notre Dame’s all-American quarterback, threw six interceptions. OJ ran 38 times for 160 yards and accounted for all three USC touchdowns. Every week his huge carry totals testified to his strength, stamina and power. Simpson pounded Notre Dame without mercy and by the end of only his fifth division one football game he had compiled 762 yards. That pace never slackened.

Two weeks later OJ featured in an impressive road win in Seattle against 4-1 Washington, whose only previous loss had come at the hands of mighty Nebraska. Simpson ran 30 times for 235 yards (7.3 ypc) and again accounted for all three USC touchdowns in a 23-6 win.

USC cruised to easy wins vs. Oregon and at Cal before picking up the only regular season loss of OJ’s career on a slippery surface in Corvallis on November 11th. Behind the composed quarterback play of Steve Peerce the Beavers pulled off an ugly 3-0 win which is still considered the school’s greatest ever upset. Despite the conditions and a rare off day for the team OJ did not disappoint, carrying 31 times for 188 yards.

The loss created some uncertainty heading into the season finale cross-town clash with 7-0-1 UCLA (whose record also bore a single blemish doled out by the impertinent Beavers). The Pac Eight title, a trip to the Rose Bowl and a likely national title shot were in the balance. There was also plenty of Heisman Trophy talk surrounding the Bay Area rivals lining up in opposing backfields. In his first varsity season for the Bruins in 1955 Beban had engineered an unlikely comeback from a ten-point deficit against USC. He manufactured a 20-16 win in the final four minutes against eventual Heisman Trophy winner Mike Garrett. Bruins called him “the Great One”. Trojans were less enthusiastic.

Despite absorbing a string of tough hits Beban led the Bruins to a fourth quarter lead. Only two field goal blocks by 6’8” lineman Bill Hayhoe balanced out three Trojan fumbles inside the red zone and kept USC in the contest. The game had everything. The lead changed four times, scores were level heading into the fourth quarter, and the two Heisman candidates each enjoyed memorable career days. The Great One led UCLA up and down the field, throwing for over 300 yards and two touchdowns. He gave the Bruins a 20-14 lead early in the fourth quarter with a twenty yard pass to end Dave Nuthall (the last of seven catches he made on the day). Crucially, Ukranian born all-American punter Zenon Andrusyshyn missed the PAT. The sole spot on Beban’s performance came on the final play of the first period when he threw a pass into the left flat for Greg Jones that hung in the air just too long. USC’s Pat Cashman jumped the route and ran the ball back 50-yards for the game-tying score.

Critics might look at that mistake as the eventual difference maker (though Beban was playing hurt and could not be expected to do everything). Mathematically, the interception and Simpson’s legendary TD run with ten minutes remaining were of equal value. But football is more than mere numbers. Every seasoned fan knows in his gut when he has witnessed a genuinely momentum shifting moment of personal brilliance. In every meaningful sense, it was OJ’s run and not Beban’s pick that decided the day.

On third and three at his own thirty-six McKay called a pass play. At the line of scrimmage back-up quarterback Toby Page, who was in for Steve Sogge, saw a UCLA linebacker move back in anticipation and called an audible. He handed off to Simpson, who ran off-tackle left for five yards before meeting two Bruins. OJ then found his hidden gear, whirled left and burst into the open field as though it were nothing. His 64 yard touchdown palpably sealed a Trojan victory, despite the ten minutes remaining on the clock.

OJ finished the regular season with 1,415 yards and 11 TDs on 266 carries. He added 128 yards and 2 TDs on 25 carries in the 1968 Rose Bowl, leading the Trojans to 14-3 victory over Indiana [who represented the Big Ten rather than Woody Hayes’ Buckeyes because of the league’s ridiculous prohibition on consecutive bowl appearances].

Simpson’s incredible debut year in division one ball doubtless deserved a Heisman, but Beban also had a strong case. One L.A. Times writer said after the USC-UCLA game:

“They should send the Heisman out here with two straws.”

Beban went 24-5-2 and was a three time all-conference quarterback at UCLA. His 34 career touchdowns and over 1,500 passing yards established school offensive records that stood for 15 years. Having already won a conference title at LA’s less fancied football school in his first year, Beban’s appeal proved too much for Heisman voters.

OJ Simpson did enter his senior year as the stand out tailback with the defending national champions and was the clear Heisman favorite from day one. Repeating his 1967 statistics would make him the sure winner in a cake walk. He surprised no one by doing exactly that.

OJ's game-turning run vs. UCLA, 1967

The Trojans standout single handedly secured an impressive road win in Minneapolis on opening day. He scored four TDs, two coming in the final quarter to rally USC from behind. Simpson racked up 236 yards rushing and 57 yards receiving on six receptions. The 29-20 win came against a squad that had gone 8-2 the previous year. If there had been any question heading into the year who the Heisman favorite was, it had evaporated by the time USC boarded their plane home.

The Trojans came through their next eight games unscathed, despite narrow decisions against Stanford and Oregon State. In the third game of the year, USC’s home opener, an anticipated matchup between OJ and Miami’s 6’8” 210lb future hall of fame linebacker Ted “the Mad Stork” Hendricks fizzled into a rout. USC racked up points just as well as if the U had not even fielded a linebacking corps. A 28-3 win came as much from the passing yards Steve Sogge was able to rack up as Miami focused too much on OJ. Even still, Simpson punched in two short runs for TDs in another hundred yard day.

A record breaking career ended, fittingly enough, with games against USC’s great arch rival Notre Dame and the Big Ten’s perennial power Ohio State. OJ had excelled in every outing for two seasons. Behind his running the Trojans had won a conference title, a Rose Bowl and a national championship. Heading into a home date with the Irish on November 30th 1968 they were already repeat conference champions and only 120 minutes away from successfully defending their national crown. Ara Parseghian had other ideas.

Behind the passing of Joe Theismann (playing for an injured Terry Hanratty) and an exceptionally well prepared defense, Notre Dame held OJ to just 23 yards on nine carries in the first half and amassed a commanding 21-7 lead with a 234-71 yard edge. OJ’s longest run of the day amounted to a paltry seven yards. With ND keyed in on his every move it fell to Sogge to engineer the come back. He did just that, leading two long scoring drives to salvage a 21-21 tie. Simpson finished with just 55 yards on 21 carries – stunningly human career lows in both total yards and ypc (2.6)

Exactly one year previously Simpson put up his greatest collegiate performance and most memorable single play. He had sealed a dramatic win, clinched a conference championship and placed his Trojans in the driver’s seat for a national crown. That year the man in the opposing backfield had lifted the Heisman Trophy. In 1968 the roles were reversed. Coming off the sole poor performance of his career Simpson won the Trophy at a canter. Even with a 55 yard day vs. Notre Dame OJ racked up a staggering 1,709 yard, 22 TD year on 355 carries. His 2,853 Heisman voting points nearly tripled the total of second place Leroy Keyes of Purdue – a mere 1,103.

After claiming the Downtown Athletics Club’s coveted award Simpson had one last chance to make an impression in the legendry cardinal jersey. Waiting for him in Pasadena would be Woody Hayes’ Buckeyes. Ohio State reflected their prickly and often less-than personable coach. Hayes’ T-formation offenses were long out of style. His teams were physical, gritty, unattractive, predicable, disciplined, and extremely tough. They gave up little on defense and earned wins on offense three brutal, inexorable yards at a time.

In the early going USC seemed to be the team of destiny. OJ was his old self, finding daylight even inside the Trojans' own 20 yard line and tearing off 80 yards for a second quarter TD. But Hayes’ men dug-in. The Buckeye defense tightened and did not allow OJ loose again. Barely a minute into the fourth quarter the tide turned for good when Buckeye defensive end Bill Urbanik sacked Sogge at the USC 21 with the force of a freight train. After Vic Stollemyer recovered the fumble Ohio State quarterback Rex Kern, whose calm and unflashy play carried the day, fired off a 14-yard scramble and a four yard TD pass to halfback Leo Hayden.

OJ's 1969 Rose Bowl TD run

USC still had time to close the gap but on a fourth quarter drive cornerback John Tatum stood OJ up at the three, forcing a field goal where a touchdown would have made the task so much easier.

Along with his sublime 80-yard score Simpson fumbled twice, ran a sloppy route on a swing pass that allowed a Buckeye INT, and overthrew a halfback pass to end Ted Dekraai who was wide open in the endzone. Those mistakes cost dear as the Trojans dropped the game 20-16. Ohio State, not USC became national champions. OJ Simpson’s heart-thumping, jaw-dropping, whirlwind, record breaking collegiate career ended on two low notes – the only two low notes of the entire ride. OJ did add 171 yards and a touchdown to his career totals on the day. But he did not get the one thing he wanted – a second Rose Bowl.

Simpson went on to a pro career that met every expectation. He is unquestionably one of the game’s all-time great runners. The only tarnish on his considerable legacy is the unsolved case of the double murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman. So much ink has been spilled over this case that it is unnecessary for me to add to the total. The facts are that Simpson was acquitted in a criminal trial in October 1995 but that the case remains open. A civil trial found him guilty of wrongful death in February 1997.

The important question for this blog is whether uncertain but lingering and substantial doubts as to Simpson’s personal life and legal history are relevant to his collegiate legacy on the gridiron. There is a strong case to be made for leaving sporting achievements in a class of their own and not complicating the matter with uninvited elevations of athletes to the level of role models and leaders. Many intelligent and rational people take this line.

For my part, I prefer Joe Paterno’s perspective. When asked if his national champion1982 Nittany Lions were his best team ever he replied that true greatness was a measure of character, which could only be seen off the field. He told the reporter:

“Ask me again in twenty-five years.”

(Sources: Dan Jenkins, USC-ND 1967, Great One vs. OJ, Face-off that wasn’t, Irish tied up OJ, 1969 Rose Bowl; OJ, Wiki; Sports.jrank, OJ; USC-UCLA 1967, SI, Wiki; Hall of Fame, OJ;, Beban, OJ; CFB data warehouse; ESPN, Rites of Autumn)

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