Marquerite Simpson, a beautiful girl who is married to the most exciting player in college football, stood in a San Francisco hotel corridor between two suitcases that were much too big for her to carry. "O.J.," she said, "please come on and bring these downstairs. We're being picked up in five minutes."
"Just a minute," said O. J. Simpson, knocking on the door of one of the rooms. "First I've got to see what's going on in here." Simpson's life has become full of awards and public appearances and appointments; he almost always has to be someplace within the next five minutes. But last weekend he was in no special hurry, and his mind was far from football. The door opened, and he burst into the room with a laugh. Ron Copeland, the hurdler from UCLA, was playing host to a few other athletes in one of the oldest floating poker games in sports. "Well, well," said O.J., "here we are in the track season again."
On Friday night—only four days after he wound up his sensational season with USC in the Rose Bowl—Simpson competed in the 60-yard dash at the San Francisco Examiner All-American Games. He had no time to work out for the race, and even at his best he would have had no chance to win in a field that included virtually all the fastest sprinters in the country. Still, he went out of his way to be part of the opening of the indoor track season in his home town. "The meet gives Marquerite and me a free trip home to see our families," he said with typical candor, but there was more to it than that. Football is O.J.'s first love and it is going to make him rich, but track provides a low-pressure world of friends and laughs and excitement that he is not anxious to give up.
O.J. belongs to the colorful group of sprinters and hurdlers who seem to run faster and talk more with each new season. Among them he is not a football star. He is just another guy who can run 100 yards in 9.4 seconds, and half a dozen of them can run it in 9.3 or better. They like to kid him. Friday night he was greeted by Charlie Greene, the sharpest and maybe still the fastest of them all. "Hey, here's the celebrity," said Charlie. "What a shock I got one night when I was watching the Joey Bishop Show and big old ugly O.J. walked out." Earl (The Pearl) McCullouch, Simpson's USC teammate, and a world-record hurdler, said, "Just remember, when he was becoming the celebrity it was me up there doing the blocking for him." Bill Gaines, the newest member of the sprinting elite, said, "Pearl, don't tell me about O.J. and football. Just tell me where the card game is tonight."
Simpson enjoyed the needling, happy after months as the biggest man in football to be a part of the show the sprinters always put on. And the San Francisco meet was mainly their show. In this Olympic year many athletes are following careful training timetables designed to bring them to a peak in October. Some will skip the winter season and others will run only hard enough to win a few races, as Tommie Smith did Friday in the 300-yard dash. But the sprinters don't train as carefully nor do they think that far ahead. "Sure I'm pacing myself," said Greene blandly. "I'm taking it nice and easy." Then, after the meet, Charlie flew into the-15° cold of Edmonton, Alta., where he ran again on Saturday night. Greene and the other sprinters run when they are ready—and the best of them all happened to be ready Friday night. "This race," said Coach Bud Winter of San Jose State before the featured heat of the dash, "could almost be the finals of the Olympic trials."
The favorites were Greene and Jim Hines. But they were challenged by Willie Turner, veteran Mel Pender and the youthful Gaines, who fits right in with the loquacious sprinters. Gaines ("Call me Bill, not Billy") was a sensational high school runner at Mullica Hill, N.J. last year, and he would be again this year except that at 19 he is too old to compete under New Jersey high school rules. He solved that problem by moving to California, but then he was rejected by the first high school he tried because he refused to shave off his mustache and goatee. "Isn't that something else?" he asked. "How can they keep you out of school for the way you look?" Now he is finally enrolled at San Jose High, but he competes with the Santa Clara Valley Youth Village team, helping to give Coach Woody Linn one of the fastest squads in the country. "Last year I was glad to have guys who could do a 9.7 hundred," said Linn. "Now I don't even talk to 9.5 sprinters."
"I'll admit I feel worried," Greene said before the race. "I'm not really at my best for this kind of competition. I just hope I can get out in front and hold them off."
"I haven't done much work yet this season," said Hines. "I'll probably have trouble keeping up."
"Who are you guys kidding?" snapped Gaines. "If you weren't ready you wouldn't be running, and neither would I" If Bill loses many races this year, it won't be because he is awed by his elders.
Before the dash, the 60-yard hurdle race was run, and McCullouch complained more than the sprinters about not being ready. "My timing is off," he said, "and I probably won't have my usual quick start because I haven't worked on it in so long."
Earl was right about his timing. He started slowly in the trial heat and again in the final, went too high over one hurdle and hit another—and still won both times. "Oh, you Pearl!" O.J. cried. McCullouch answered, "Now it's your turn. I'm going to find a good seat so I can crack up watching you."
As the field for the dash was introduced, Hines and Greene got respectful applause but Simpson got the loudest ovation of the night. O.J. kicked at the starting blocks, looking almost sheepish, as the crowd roared. "See you at the finish line." a friend told him.
"You might see me," he said, "if you wait long enough."
The race began with the color and comedy that have marked so many of Greene's performances. Hines jumped the gun, and walked back as Greene gave him a haughty look, eyebrows raised and mouth twisted in a knowing grin. On the second start Gaines jumped; Charlie gave him the same treatment.
The third start was good, but six seconds later all the fun and entertainment and excitement were lost in a sickening pileup of bodies. Greene and Gaines hit the tape together and then suddenly crashed together to the floor of the narrow passage under the stands beyond the finish line. Pender and Hines fell over them, and Kirk Clayton, in the inside lane, was jolted against the wall and knocked unconscious.
"The restraining rope that is supposed to slow us down was too low," Greene said. "I tried to hurdle it, but I tripped over it." Gaines thought the rope had been jerked up as he reached it. "I saw it coming up at me suddenly," he said. "I threw my hand up, but it hit my chest and knocked me off balance."
Clayton lay unconscious on the floor. Gaines opened his eyes to see blood dripping from his forehead. His wife Donna, who is 18 and due to have a baby any day, ran from her seat to help him. She stood next to the house doctor, wringing a handkerchief in her hands, wiping Bill's forehead and then her own tears. Clayton, suffering from a concussion, was taken to a hospital. Gaines sat on the floor, shaking his head to clear his mind and telling Donna not to worry. Greene came to the edge of the group and stuck an outstretched hand toward Gaines. "You won it, baby."
"I did?" said Gaines. "Then I guess I'll be O.K."
Moments later Greene wasn't so sure that Gaines had won it. The finish judges had used no phototimer and had taken an unofficial snapshot of the finish that was blurred. To make things worse, they announced Gaines's time as six seconds flat and Greene's as 6.2. Since they had finished almost even, the .2 difference made the official result suspect—and Charlie exploded.
"I ended last season with a beef about Hines beating me at the AAU meet," he said. "Don't tell me I have to start this year with another beef." But he went on protesting and received a small consolation when his second-place time was corrected to six seconds flat. It wasn't enough for Charlie, who is such an intense competitor that he simply refuses to accept defeat, especially defeat based on a close judgment call. "This is really groovy," he said sarcastically. "It looks like I'm in for another long, long year."
The San Francisco race certainly guaranteed that it won't be a dull year among the sprinters, but then it never is. In fact, if Gaines had lost he might have started a controversy of his own. "They called me for a false start," he said. "But I thought I made a perfect start, right with the gun. I would have won that one easily, if they hadn't called us back. I was also a little upset that Charlie and Jim Hines had starting blocks with rubber on them, while I get a metal one that made me slip a little."
Somebody will almost always be upset this year, as Greene, Hines and Gaines lead the closely matched field of sprinters toward the Olympics. Gaines was asked after the race if he thought he could take over soon as the fastest of all. "I'm not looking to take over anything," he said. "I just want to win as many of these as I can." Greene was asked if Gaines was the coming star among the sprinters. "He may be coming," Charlie snapped, "but Jim and I haven't left yet."
Only one man remained above all the trouble. He deftly sidestepped the accident at the finish and after a while sauntered casually back up the track. He began signing autographs for a mob of kids. Somebody in the crowd told O. J. Simpson that he had finished last in the 60-yard dash. He looked up, smiling. "I did? How about that? I thought I beat one guy."