At first glance a visitor might think the town of Niagara Falls is on fire. Chemical plants pour smoke over the landscape as though honeymooners had requested perpetual darkness. As O.J. Simpson (see cover) trudged across the campus of Niagara University toward the dining hall for breakfast on his second morning in the training camp of the Buffalo Bills, after the soreness had set in, he gazed at the pall that hung among the buildings like a late rising fog. "I guess they want me to feel at home," he said, smiling.
Although Simpson had been Buffalo's first draft choice, Buffalo had certainly not been his. He is having a home built for himself, his wife and daughter up in Coldwater Canyon, in Los Angeles, and O.J. had wished that he could have played for some team in the neighborhood. He used to drive an RC Cola truck in that area and thoroughly understands the distance he has come.
"The house is above the smog line," O.J. said in that oddly matter-of-fact way in which Los Angelenos speak of their orange air. "It's going to have a big pool. Soon as I get home, I'll buy myself one of those float-em deals and just lie on it in that pool until next July or whenever I have to report back to Buffalo. Man, I don't mean to put down Buffalo, but when you got California in your blood, it's there, and you have a hard time being happy anywhere else."
Simpson was walking like an old man. He clutched the backs of his thighs, tottered about, seeming almost decrepit and clearly watching for a place to sit. In two more days he would play against the Detroit Lions in his first pro football game. No doubt it was unreasonable to expect him to perform with anything like the genius he had shown at USC. But genius was expected of Simpson, nevertheless, and he knew it although he did not hope for much. He had not carried the ball in seven months, was still confused by his assignments and his legs felt strange and powerless, as if the muscles had been replaced with sponge cake.
August 24, 1969
"I'm sore," he said. "I'm as stiff as I ever care to be. My legs hurt all up and down and especially right here"—he jabbed fingers into the sides of his shin bones. "My timing is poor. All the working out I've done until the last few days was running track. In track I'm a long strider. But in football it's quick cut, quick cut! Now my mind says cut, and my body cuts, but my legs are still in the middle of a long stride and I nearly fall down."
Moving his tray along the aluminum rails of the cafeteria line, he took a bowl of oatmeal and two glasses of tomato juice. The woman behind the counter said the orange juice was gone but she would get more. "Don't worry about it," said O.J. He lowered himself into a chair. "I know a lot of the basic plays we're going to use," he said, "but it's the six or seven variations of each play that mess me up. It's hard to guess what might happen. But I'm glad this thing is settled. There's been so much to think about, and I've got to start concentrating on football. Man, playing pro football is what I've always wanted to do, and now I'm getting ready to do it."
The night before, he had stood on a chair and sung his school song (Fight On) at dinner, a traditional form of rookie hazing, and then had spent hours studying his playbook. "Pro football is about what I had thought it would be," he said. "Maybe it's a little easier. In college it's go-go-go, football all the time. Here it's a little more relaxed, an easier pace. But I have to do a lot of studying, and I didn't get much sleep last night. There was a bunch of horsing around in the dorm."
Simpson's celebrated contract dispute with the Bills, who won the right to draft him by losing 12 of 14 games last year, was concluded just six days before O.J. was to lope onto the field in Detroit. Buffalo had lost to the Houston Oilers and beaten the Washington Redskins before Simpson, his agent and his attorney went to the San Diego law office of Don Augustine, who was representing Bills Owner Ralph Wilson. Chuck Barnes, Simpson's agent, had demanded far more money and benefits than Wilson was willing to provide. It appeared Simpson might get no nearer a pro football game this season than a seat in the stands unless he was hired to talk about it into a microphone.
In the San Diego meeting, Augustine recalls, the Simpson forces tossed onto his desk a lawsuit they were considering filing against Commissioner Pete Rozelle, the Bills, Wilson and the other 25 owners. The suit asked for "a very substantial amount of damages" because the draft had restricted Simpson to dealing with one club that would neither pay what he wanted nor move to the West Coast. Until recently, Augustine represented the AFL Players' Association, and he had filed similar suits for his own clients. "I asked them if they wanted me to pull some out of a drawer," he said. "The last suit like it took eight years to reach the Supreme Court. Even if O.J. won, he would be a forgotten man."
Augustine said he tried to convince Simpson and his advisers that if their intention was for O.J. to be rich, his wealth would come not from what Wilson paid him but from what he earned trading on his reputation as an athlete. For examples he used Jack Kemp, Lance Alworth, and Joe Namath, who, he says, are well along toward becoming millionaires, and Arnold Palmer, who, of course, is one. What Simpson had done at USC got him a $250,000 contract to promote Chevrolets, and it was questionable whether General Motors would maintain its interest if O.J. were no longer a headliner. "Sports is the means to an end," said Augustine, referring to money as the All-America End.
So Simpson agreed to a four-year contract for about $350,000 plus an annuity when he reaches age 50, and he flew off to Buffalo with no small amount of anxiety. O.J. feared he might be greeted with flying beer cans for his well-publicized lack of affection for a town he had never seen. Instead he was met at the airport by an amiable crowd of 2,500, received a kiss from a beauty queen and a handshake from the mayor. "I've been trying to get here for six months," Simpson told the adoring multitude. Later he said he wished he had worn his souvenir button—one that Indiana fans had printed up before the 1968 Rose Bowl—reading O.J. WHO? "My wife's been saving that thing, and this would have been the time for it," he said.
Throughout the welcoming ceremony O.J. kept smiling, nodding, waving, shaking hands, signing autographs. He managed to convey the impression that if he had been given his choice of being anywhere in the world that afternoon he would have selected Buffalo International Airport. Then Jack Horrigan, a Bills vice-president, got Simpson into a car for the drive to camp. "You'd think we just won a championship," Horrigan said of the crowd. O.J. smiled, but his eyes never quit moving; he was trying to see what sort of place he had delivered himself into.
Many of the players were surprised when they first saw Simpson in person. They knew he was 6'2" and weighed about 210, but somehow he didn't look that big. Because of his extraordinary accomplishments at USC, they expected a giant. "He's smaller than I thought," said Elbert Dubenion, a Buffalo scout who was known as Golden Wheels when he played flanker for the Bills. "I guess when he puts on his helmet he'll be 6'2", and when he scores his first touchdown he'll be 6'3"."
Putting on a helmet was not as simple as had been anticipated. Simpson is quite handsome, but his head is rather uniquely shaped—tall from the ears to the crown, elongated from front to rear. The Bills wear a suspension helmet that when solidly struck jams down onto the bridge of the nose and often gives offensive linemen bloody cuts. On O.J., that type of a helmet jammed him in the middle of his forehead. The Bills asked USC for O.J.'s old padded helmet, which arrived along with a $22 shipping charge, and had another size eight padded helmet made in St. Louis. "I hate for him to wear a helmet with no suspension," said Buffalo Trainer Eddie Abramoski. "When you get your bell rung in this kind of helmet, it rings all the way around your head. But the way O.J. runs, he's not likely to get a solid shot on the head." Said General Manager Bob Lustig, "We'll get him any kind of helmet he wants. All he has to do is keep moving it in the right direction."
Simpson is an intelligent young man and was very much alert to the fact that he and his contract might be resented by his teammates. "That's my theme song," he said one day as "What does it take to win your love?" blared from a portable radio. He handled the first potential trouble in a manner that was a classic in public relations. Gary Mc-Dermott, a second-year back from Tulsa, was wearing 32—the number Simpson bore at USC and that Jim Brown had worn at Cleveland—but O.J. said that was fine by him. "It's irrelevant what number I wear," he said. Little Max Anderson, another second-year back who is called Mini-Max, has been the starter at O.J.'s position, and Simpson approached him with respect and sought his advice. "I'm not bitter about Simpson being here," Anderson said after several days of this treatment. "He's a nice guy. I can't hate him just because he's a great football player. I'll play my share and he'll play his, and the team will be better off for it."
"O.J. is well-schooled," said Defensive End Tom Day, who had announced he would perform a Bills ritual by shaving Simpson's head once the famous rookie officially made the team. "Otherwise, he's like any rookie—a little cocky but a little shy. I think I'll just cut an O and a J in his hair, but he has so many movie and TV contracts coming up that we may hold off for awhile. Wouldn't want to ruin the boy."
There was speculation whether Buffalo Coach John Rauch would run Simpson 30 or 40 times a game—O.J.'s normal work load in college. "That's not my style," said Rauch. "I couldn't build my offense around one back, no matter how good he is. It's too easy for the pros to set up defensive keys. O.J. can be a terrific pass receiver, and we expect him to block, too."
Said Quarterback Jack Kemp, "I just don't think you could run a back 30 times a game consistently in pro football. The best runner I ever played with as a pro was Paul Lowe at San Diego. We'd run him 15 or 18 times and count on him breaking loose once or twice. O.J. will probably run outside more than inside, and of course we'll use him in the passing game."
Meanwhile, interest was building in O.J.'s debut. It was estimated that having Simpson on the field meant an extra 10,000 customers in Detroit. A game that would otherwise have held little fascination was getting national attention. And O.J. Simpson, who was so sore he could barely get his shoes on, was still preoccupied with thoughts of Buffalo, a town he hadn't yet seen. A booster had told him that Buffalo was "the Miami of the North," but O.J. suspected this was not an entirely accurate description. "I guess in the winter, when it snows, you people stay inside all the time," he said to a secretary in the Bills' office. Why, she said, hadn't he ever been in the snow? "I've been in the snow," he said. "In and out. Quick."
When at last his first professional game began, O.J. Simpson was sitting on the bench, where he stayed for nearly six minutes until Rauch sent him in with a play for Quarterback Tom Flores. There was a mild titter of recognition from the crowd of 34,206 as Simpson, wearing No. 36, lined up at running back. The play was called 94 Corner, Flare 7. Simpson ran a pattern to the left flag, and Wide Receiver Haven Moses ran the same pattern to the right flag. Both were open. "I could have hit either one," said Flores, who threw a 20-yard touchdown pass to Moses.
Simpson didn't return until early in the fourth quarter, and by then he was nervous. "I wasn't scared until I was put in so quick, but after that I was wondering when I would go back," he said. In the third quarter a chant of "We want O.J." came from the deep centerfield bleachers, the worst seats in the house, which had probably been sold because of Simpson, but Anderson was running very well. O.J. came in when Buffalo had the ball on its own 28, tried a dive into left guard, was hit by Linebacker Mike Lucci as he took his first step and gained a yard. He got up slowly, as is his fashion.
Simpson played most of the rest of the game, running pass patterns but looking in vain for the ball. He ran a pitchout for one yard. The crowd was restless, even though Detroit was ahead 17-6. Then O.J. showed the fans what they had come to see. On a sweep to the right he seemed to remember how it was he used to do it, darting through a small opening for 14 yards. "He boomed right by me," said Buffalo Guard George Flint. Simpson ran another sweep to the opposite side for no gain. Rookie Quarterback Jim Harris from Grambling called a pass, Simpson loafed along as if decoying, turned on his 9.4 speed and made a stretching catch for 38 yards. Two plays later O.J. blocked a blitzing linebacker—the first block of his pro career—and Harris threw a touchdown pass to another Buffalo All-America rookie. Fullback Bill Enyart of Oregon State.
Detroit won the game, 24-12, as yet another rookie, the Lions' Altie Taylor of Utah State, ran 48 yards for a touchdown. But in the Buffalo locker room there was a shortage of mourning. It was, after all, an exhibition, and Wilson was grinning delightedly, as though whatever he had paid for Simpson had been worth it. "It's never good to lose," said O.J., "but I'm glad I've got a game behind me." He smiled when his block was mentioned. "Earlier they red-dogged and I didn't pick it up," he said. "But I got that second one. I'm learning." Had he been bothered by the pressure of public expectation? "Publicity creates pressure," he said. "But publicity is good for the team and good for the league, and what's good for them is good for me."
Leaving the field, O.J. had been swarmed by fans. They knocked down an assistant coach who was trying to protect him. Leaving the locker room, Simpson was surrounded by security police. The crowd mashed around him, shouting his name, trying to touch him. And this was only the beginning.