The holdout athlete is, classically, to be found waiting in his small home town, passing the anxious hours by whittling and playing dominoes and bantering with the other hard-core unemployed, listening for the phone with the other ear. At first bold with management, then hedging, at last downright obsequious, he finally gives in and rushes to sign the pact. By contrast, O. J. Simpson (see cover) is not so much a holdout from the Buffalo Bills as he is a government in exile. He has so many varied responsibilities to attend to and checks to deposit that, when he recently had a day to spend at home with his wife and infant daughter, he said the leisure time "felt weird."
O. J. can afford to rest on his bank account—for one season, at least—and the prospect becomes increasingly likely that this young man, whom many consider potentially the greatest runner in the history of pro football, will not play this fall. Simpson and his manager, Chuck Barnes, have not met with Buffalo Owner Ralph Wilson Jr. in six weeks. Barnes says he is waiting for Wilson to call; Wilson says he has no plans to call. In any event O. J. is occupied. He is already participating in a $250,000 deal endorsing General Motors cars. He has to decide which orange juice venture to back and which of two or three other products to endorse. Macmillan will publish his autobiography, and he has finished filming a small featured role in a movie, The Dream of Hamish Mose. Only last week he completed a long guest star part in a new CBS-TV series with the stirring title of Medical Center. O.J. is so big that Howard Cosell tells him all the time that, just as Cosell made Simpson, so can he break him—the supreme accolade.
On the other hand Buffalo, the city where Millard Fillmore spent his reclining years, waits for its next chance at reflected glory. Buffalo is still a holdout, though, because Wilson absolutely has not budged from his original offer to Simpson of a $250,000 five-year contract—except for one prodigal moment when he agreed to give O.J. "an extra five or ten thousand" if he should be named Rookie of the Year and make the All-Pro team as well.
Uncharacteristically exasperated and genuinely angry at this show of largesse, Simpson ended the third and last contract meeting on May 26 by snapping: "All right, we're not getting anywhere. I'd like to be traded."
July 13, 1969
"I'll consider that," Wilson replied.
The owner honored the request. "I spoke with four or five clubs in our league, including the two California teams," Wilson says, "but not once did we even get around to discussing the possible personnel we might get for Simpson. It's just that nobody will meet his price."
What Simpson has asked for is $650,000 for five years, plus a $500,000 loan for investment purposes. Even this is something of a compromise, since Simpson would prefer a three-year contract and might now even settle for a one-year deal.
"I don't like to be pushed," O.J. says. "The last time with Mr. Wilson, it was me, not Chuck, who really got mad. We were negotiating, we were discussing giving up on the loan stuff, but Mr. Wilson wouldn't change his offer at all. Well, I can wait if he can wait.
"You see, when Chuck and I first got into this, we thought there would be some difficulty in signing. He told me we were going to get backed up against the wall, and there would be times when we would get mad at each other, but we had to stick together. I know other rookies who have signed for about $50,000 a year, which is what I'm being offered. I just know Wilson must have a better figure in mind and, though I don't want to, I'll wait out the season if I have to."
Simpson's potential is nearly limitless. He is not only charming and good-looking, but still unaffected. His appeal is established, almost as if his career had been programmed by a market research agency. He grew up in Northern California, grew famous in Southern California and will (if he goes to Buffalo) establish still another metropolitan popularity base in the East.
Since the holdout sometimes seems to be as much of a promotional device as anything else, it should be pointed out that the publicity has not exactly harmed Buffalo, either. It is traditional that an unsigned rookie does not play in the Chicago All-Star Game (Aug. 1 against the Jets), and the Bills stand to profit further if the full impact of Simpson's debut comes in Buffalo blue. Optimistic students of the negotiations suggest that this may be the real reason for Wilson's infinite patience.
There is a good chance, though, that Simpson will play at Chicago, whatever his status. "I've wanted to play in that game all my life," he says. "I've been meaning to call up Keyes and Kwalick and find out what they're thinking, too." Leroy Keyes, Philadelphia's first draft choice, and Ted Kwalick, San Francisco's, are the two other outstanding rookies still unsigned. With Joe Namath in his self-imposed purgatory, O.J. and the others become doubly vital to the success of the Chicago game. Selling $10 tickets to the Namath-less Jets vs. the Some-Stars is larceny.
If Simpson is to play in Chicago, however, he wants to be insured for at least $500,000 instead of the reportedly standard $25,000. The promoters of the Atlanta All-Star bust that was played last month tried to save the show by buying half a million dollars worth of special insurance for Simpson, but the firm offer came too late for O.J. to get in shape.
With Simpson, the Bills stand to get very fat off their exhibition schedule alone. Last year, even before they proved on record to be the worst team in pro football, the Bills were able to schedule only three exhibition games outside the Buffalo city limits. They drew a mighty 11,200 to a 15,000-seat stadium just down the road in Rochester, 20,000 to a 28,000-seat stadium in Cincinnati and 21,500 in the 40,000-seat Tulsa stadium—53,000 for the three games.
This summer, after drafting O.J., Buffalo filled out a much nicer dance card. Last year's worst team is suddenly booked for the Astrodome, Detroit's Tiger Stadium, the Cleveland doubleheader in 80,000-seat Municipal Stadium and the L.A. Coliseum. Capacity of these four stadiums is 287,000, and it is quite possible that the O.J. Bills could fill 250,000 seats, up 197,000 customers from last summer's road show. Assuming—arbitrarily but modestly—that the Bills' share would average $2 a head for these dates, they would be almost $400,000 ahead of last year's pace before the season begins. How can Wilson turn him down?
The answer is that Simpson is, essentially, stranded with a take it or leave it in a city, a region and a league he did not want—although, as O.J. points out, he has never visited Buffalo and has never made a nasty remark about the city. "O.J. would obviously be the perfect case to challenge the draft," Barnes says, "but the more we think about it, the more we're afraid that it'll end up making him sound as if he's challenging church, mother and home. All of a sudden we might have O.J. the bad guy, which is ridiculous, but which is also a risk probably not worth taking."
Having been drafted by Buffalo, Simpson is actually barred from the NFL for another year, when interleague trading will at last suit the convenience of the owners. This is Simpson's only hole card.
If he does not sign with the Bills, he will sit out the year. The Indianapolis Capitols of the Continental League (where Barnes lives) made an offer of $100,000 and a $250,000 loan for one season, but an early decision was necessary so that the league could set up scheduling in larger stadiums for O.J., and Simpson preferred to wait on Wilson.
Acting is a serious future possibility. The natural comparison is with Jimmy Brown, who as a film hero has been generally dismissed as just another pretty face—but who has been hitting the box offices pretty hard. Simpson seems to be a better—loose and natural—rookie actor. "The thing is, he never gets in his own way," one MGM executive says, an appraisal that seems particularly apt, even if the man never saw O.J. play football.
Al C. Ward, the producer of Medical Center, came upon Simpson lounging between takes last week and could not contain himself. "I just heard from the studio," Ward cried effusively, patting O.J., "and you're going to be A STAR! The dailies were marvelous; they're all raving about you down there. Now the only thing that scares me is that you'll become temperamental."
Simpson is an All-America football player in the story, which is tentatively scheduled for national viewing on Wednesday, Sept. 24. The most charitable thing that can be said of the script is that it is certainly up to CBS' usual standards. Sample dialogue:
LITTLE BOY: Did you cut off my hand?
DOCTOR: Yup. From now on things get better.... You'll be playing football and skiing again—soon—and about as well as you ever could.
The doctor, who wears a turtleneck, safari jacket and boots, quickly diagnoses Simpson's malady as pheochromocytoma, a tumor of the adrenal gland. "What we need," says Executive Producer Frank Glicksman, smiling, but on the level, "are diseases that show symptoms for awhile, go away for a couple of weeks and then come back." Simpson's symptom was regular nosebleeds, and so a little man with a blood dispenser was never far from him during the filming.
The drama revolves around the fact that, if the last-place pro team named the Warriors finds out that Simpson has pheochromocytoma, they will not draft him first. This all seems true to life, except that, unlike the Bills, the Warriors are prepared to start at $500,000.
Simpson has many lines in the script, but there is also some football action. Marv Goux, the taskmaster on John McKay's USC staff, was hired as technical consultant and also to play the team trainer. Other USC assistants, Craig Fertig and Willie Brown, appear in the back-field with O.J., and the line includes Adrian Young of the Eagles and Wes Grant and Mike Ballou of UCLA.
Goux ran tough scrimmages for the cameras, or what the script calls, "thuds, grunts...the collision motif." O.J. busted off right tackle on one collision motif, scoring as he was brought down. Goux growled like they were getting set for Notre Dame: "Don't slide off him, run over him. He's getting paid."
O.J. smiled. "It's been a long time since I ran over anybody," he said. "You last longer that way."
Because he has pheochromocytoma, Simpson takes plenty of time getting up after each collision motif, but this was perfect casting since, like Jimmy Brown, he has always been slow to rise from a tackle. After the TD he has to take a few steps and crumple again to the ground. Like a veteran actor, he staggered a few extra yards each time the scene was shot. Then he would lie there awhile until his stand-in took his place, at which point Simpson would jump up and go play touch football with the extras. They made him play center and rush and they wouldn't throw him any passes.
Other times he sat in his special "Guest Star" chair and read the script over. "Learning your lines, darling?" a USC teammate asked. O.J. pretended to frown. He took the role very seriously, often made suggestions that Director William Graham accepted and, when the script called for him to take a down-and-out pass and smash into the goalposts, he hit them so hard that Barnes winced.
The field in Santa Monica where CBS was filming was cordoned off, but all day extras were pressed into messenger roles, carrying slips of paper to be autographed by O.J. He was relaxing and talking football for a change when three little boys managed to sneak in and head over to him.
"The guys who really beat us in the Rose Bowl," he was saying, "were the linebackers. They gave the credit to the same Ohio State guys who had gotten the publicity all year, but it was the linebackers. I don't even know their names."
The kids moved a little closer. "That's him there," one of them said.
Somebody asked about Buffalo. "Look, they're not as bad as everybody says. They had a great defense last year. They just didn't have any offense, and the defense would wear down late in the game because they were always on the field."
"Hey, you O.J.?" one of the kids asked.
"Naw," O.J. said, "that's O.J. over there"—pointing to Willie Brown. "Right, O.J.? And that's Rap Brown"—pointing to Wes Grant. "You know he's a militant because he has a beard. Right, Rap?"
The kids' delight showed on their faces. "You gonna sign with Buffalo?" one of them asked.
"You think I ought to?" O.J. parried.
"How much you want?"
"How much do you think I'm worth?"
"I wouldn't give you 90¢, Simpson," another kid said, and laughed.
"You play football?" Simpson asked him.
"Quarterback," the boy said proudly.
"I figured you were a QB the way you talked all the time," O.J. said.
"C'mon, you gonna sign?"
"I don't know yet. I really don't."
"I'll tell you, Simpson," the QB said, "if they pay you $1,000,000, you sure ain't gonna be warming no bench."
"Hey, O.J.," Chuck Barnes said, "how come you and me never even thought of that?"