For three years, his play depressed the Buffalo fans to the point that the most frequent word Simpson heard was "Boooooo!''
That he went on to become a Hall of Fame player -- the first to rush for 2,000 yards in a season -- plus an actor and a television personality for nearly 15 years after his football career ended is a tribute to a public relations man named Jack Horrigan; to Lou Saban, who became his coach in his fourth season; a bunch of offensive lineman and Simpson's sheer talent.
And blame the waste of his first three seasons, in which he rushed for just 12 touchdowns and never ran for more than 792 yards, on dumb coaching and a team that went 8-33-1 and led to Saban's hiring in 1972.
Remember that the Simpson who arrived in Buffalo was not by any stretch today's O.J. Simpson, the one in jail now for armed robbery after being acquitted of murdering his wife Nicole and a friend but being held liable for the deaths in a civil suit. He was a charismatic Californian with a bubbly personality that, in those days of racial change, made him someone who transcended racial divides.
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But that was image. In fact, he wanted nothing but to get out of Buffalo.
O.J. had arrived from Hollywood, a star at Southern California and with endorsements that allowed him to "settle'' for his contract. He had a three-year deal with Chevrolet for $180,000; another with ABC for a still unknown amount, and a third with RC Cola for $37,500. He also had a new coach, John Rauch, who had coached for Al Davis in Oakland and believed in Davis' vertical offense, not a running game featuring Simpson.
Except that Jack Kemp, the Bills' quarterback, had never had an especially strong arm and at 34 was in decline. And that the best receiver, Haven Moses, was not really a deep threat. Still, the Bills threw and threw and lost and lost and Orenthal James Simpson carried 181 times in 13 games as a rookie for 697 yards, a 3.9 average -- he was better as a receiver with 30 catches and had three TDs receiving to two on the ground.
But it was more than that on a team that finished 4-10. Coming from the bright lights of Southern California to a cold, small market in an out-of-the-way place made him yearn for the more "professional'' atmosphere of L.A. and its Coliseum. .
"The facilities were incredibly bad,'' he said in a remarkably candid interview with Playboy seven years after he arrived in Buffalo and four seasons after he became a star.
"War Memorial Stadium had to be seen to be believed, but when I first saw it, I didn't believe it. I guess I was naive. In college, I'd played at the L.A. Coliseum, which you can see from a half mile away. In Buffalo, you'd be walking through a black neighborhood and suddenly, 60 feet in front of you, you'd see this old, rundown stadium. I'm an optimist, so I figured, Hey, it doesn't matter, 'cause I'm gonna be on the field, not in the stands. But that should have let me know what I was in for. ... Our locker room for practices was located in a public ice rink -- and we shared it with kids getting dressed for hockey games. Team meetings were conducted in the hallway of the ice rink, but not exactly in privacy: We had to put a sheet up over a wire so that the mothers and kids wouldn't barge in. We held our meetings right around the ice rink's refreshment machines, so while we'd be going over game plans, kids would come through to get ice cream and sodas. That seemed a little strange.''
He had other complaints, too, like Rauch's insistence on sequestering the players on the nights before games -- now a common practice for every team but then ... well, then a hindrance to the rampant social life of athletes, even in Buffalo. Plus the offensive line and, of course, the losing.
"A pro football team is a $17 million business,'' he said, unaware that in 30 years that amount would be multiplied by 50. "But the Bills' operation wasn't run as well as my high school football program. And coming out of USC, where everything we did was first-class, I found the Bills to be rinky-dink''.
So O.J. wanted out. Badly, but agreed to stay when Horrigan convinced him to stick it out another year.
"Juice," said Horrigan, whose son Joe now is one of the Hall of Fame's senior officials. "There are times in your life when stuff like this is gonna happen, and you just have to ride it out. Things'll get better."
So Simpson was there when Saban arrived in 1972 and took charge of a team that had developed an offensive line featuring guards Reggie McKenzie and Joe DeLamielleure, who eventually became a Hall of Famer. Now the primary game plan was: "Give the ball to OJ.''
In 1972, Simpson rushed for 1,251 yards and earned the first of his NFL rushing titles. He outdid himself the next year, starting the season with 250 yards rushing against New England, then a single-game record and finishing it with two 200-yard games, first against the Patriots and finally against the Jets, on a field made slippery by snow, becoming the first player to go over 2,000 yards in a season with 2,003. It was accomplished in a 14-game season, meaning he averaged 143 yards a game. When Eric Dickerson broke his record a decade later, he ran for 2,105 yards in 16 games, or 132 a game.
In his peak seasons, 1972-76, Simpson averaged 1,540 rushing yards per season and 5.1 yards per carry, and he won the NFL rushing title four times. Those 200-yard games? Simpson had six in his career, which remains an NFL record for a player.
Yet he was in only one playoff game -- a 32-14 loss in Pittsburgh in 1974 after Buffalo made the postseason as a wild-card. It was simple arithmetic -- the AFC was loaded in the 1970s and only four teams made the playoffs in each conference.
Miami dominated the East, Pittsburgh the Central and Oakland the West. Everyone else? After Miami lost Larry Csonka, Paul Warfield and Jim Kiick to the World Football League, Baltimore -- the Colts -- emerged in the East and Denver made it to the Super Bowl after the 1977 season with the benefit of a call that today would be overturned by replay.
They slipped back to the point that Simpson, also slipping as he approached 30, again wanted out. San Francisco, as bad a franchise then as the Bills were when Simpson arrived, gave up two first-round picks for him, allowing him to finish his career -- banged up -- in his hometown.
In a strange way, it was a deal that helped the 49ers become the NFL's best team for almost two decades.
That's because Simpson arrived just before Bill Walsh took over as coach and general manager and because one of those first-rounders was in the 1979 draft and turned out to be the first overall pick. So Walsh, who might have taken a quarterback -- he loved Phil Simms, who went No. 7 overall to the Giants that year -- waited until the third round and reluctantly used that pick on a kid from Notre Dame named Joe Montana, who ...
Well, we know that story -- four of the five teams that won Super Bowls for San Francisco between 1981-94 were quarterbacked by Montana.
We also know how O.J. Simpson ended up.
In football, he finished in 1979 after 11 seasons with 11,236 yards rushing. That puts him 18th in total yardage although his average of 4.7 yards per carry is third behind Brown at 5.2 and Barry Sanders at 5.0.
Out of football.
That's another story.
A sad one.