O.J. Simpson. Remember him? Big, graceful guy in a red and gold uniform. Used to carry the ball 30, 40 times a game for USC. Nearly always made 100 yards, sometimes 200. Tremendous drive, 9.4 speed, tough enough to take the shots and come right back. Alltime All-America. Won the Heisman Trophy. Going to be All-Pro as sure as a wolf will eat a chicken. So, what happened? He went to Buffalo and disappeared. Sort of like he fell into a snowbank, maybe with just his shoes sticking out, and people would come by and say, "I think that's O.J. in there, but I don't see enough of him to know for certain."
Two entire football seasons have gone by since Simpson became a pro, and he has done hardly any of the things many thought he would do—like gain 1,000 yards rushing, lead the league in kickoff returns and in scoring, be recognized as an authentic superstar. This is particularly galling to O.J. because he knows in his heart that he is an authentic superstar, and that it is partly his own fault he hasn't shown it. "The last two years I was playing football just for the money," he said last week as the Bills prepared to meet the Falcons in Atlanta. "I couldn't wait for the season to end so I could get out of Buffalo and go back home. Well, man, I finally realized that was no way to be. I had to get my mind right and go to work."
Early this summer Simpson and several other Bills, including Quarterback Dennis Shaw, got together near their homes in California and agreed to quit complaining about Buffalo and about their head coach, John Rauch. Whether they would have been able to stick to the Rauch part is dubious, since he was not likely to have altered what the players considered a weird fondness for meetings, long workouts and rule making. In particular, Simpson felt Rauch was misusing him, not letting him run enough, making him run off tackle or up the middle too often, frequently sending him far downfield as a pass receiver to whom the ball was seldom thrown.
But before Simpson and most of the other veterans arrived at the Buffalo training camp at Niagara University, Rauch solved one problem for them in astounding fashion. On a TV show he had criticized two popular Buffalo players—one recently retired, the other traded—and Bills Owner Ralph Wilson told Rauch he was going to make a statement defending them. "If you do that, get yourself another coach," said Rauch, a rash statement for a man whose team had lost 20 of 28 games in the past two seasons.
September 5, 1971
That afternoon, Simpson ran into Harvey Johnson, the Bills' director of player personnel. "Uncle Harvey, how you doing, man?" said O.J.
"I am now the coach," said Johnson, "and we now have a new offense. It is called O.J. left, O.J. right and, occasionally, O.J. up the middle."
Then Johnson noticed Simpson's mighty Afro and new mustache, which looked like sideburns growing on his chin. "What are you doing with that hair on your face?" he said.
"My wife likes it," O.J. said.
"Don't fumble," said Johnson.
Despite the fact that the Bills blamed most of their troubles on their coach, as losers often do, Rauch was the same man who had a 33-8-1 record and an AFL title at Oakland. The Bills were young, thin at some positions and in transition from the tough old bulldog teams of the mid-'60s to the greyhounds of today. Also, last year they had a rookie quarterback, Shaw, and several serious injuries—one of which, in the eighth game, put O.J. out for the season.
At the time Simpson had an astonishing 48-yard average on kickoff returns. But opponents had quit kicking to him. So for the Cincinnati game the Bills used a trick return. Simpson lined up on the right and ran all the way across the field to catch the ball. Recalls Simpson, "Going up the sideline, I got hit and couldn't pull away and couldn't fall because a guy was on my legs, and they kept coming and hitting me like I was a dummy punching bag, and I had to be carried off the field."
He was taken to Buffalo General Hospital for surgery on his left knee. "I woke up the next morning feeling sorry for myself," he says. "I was reading the paper and it said in the headline SIMPSON DOESN'T NEED SURGERY. Idiot press, I thought, can't they get anything right? But then I started wondering and pulled off the bandage and the splint, and there was my whole knee with no cut in it."
The damage was, in fact, a tear in the back of the knee, and the prognosis was rest. Simpson went home to Bel Air and got a role in a movie about an encounter session. In May he started lifting weights and made up his mind to accept his lot with Rauch and to work hard.
"I admire Rauch to a certain extent," says O.J., "because he won't ever back down on anything to anybody. But Harvey has made the game fun again. We work hard when we work, but he gives us a lot of free time. He's done away with much of the senseless stuff and the boredom. This game is changing fast, or at least the athletes are. These days a pro athlete wants to be paid for playing, not for acting like he's in military school. Yelling and fussing all the time and making you stand in line and get up for breakfast when you don't want to, all that stuff won't go down anymore. A player wants to be treated like a man. If he fouls up, get rid of him."
Although Johnson coached 12 games at Buffalo in 1968 after Joe Collier was fired, he was dumfounded when Ralph Wilson said, "Harvey, it's yours again." With that, Johnson decided he might as well take up coaching as a career and try to make it as pleasant as possible. One of the first things he did was tell his assistants they didn't have to work till midnight every night. "If you guys love to look at walls, go look at somebody else's," he said. Then he started whittling down Rauch's complicated offense. "The idea is to eliminate mistakes," Johnson says. "If I'm still here next year the offense will be even simpler. And of course I want to get the ball to O.J. in broken-field situations as often as possible."
This is clearly a sound idea. In the four exhibition games Buffalo has played to date, of which it lost two, including last week's 35-24 defeat at the hands of Atlanta, Simpson turned eight fairly short passes into 194 yards and four touchdowns. He also ran 35 times from scrimmage for a 5.0 average and another touchdown.
In 1970 Simpson caught only 10 passes. "I couldn't understand it," he says. "Take Wayne Patrick, now, our fullback. He's a heck of a fullback, weighs 250 pounds, good strong runner. But if we ran 20 screen passes, 18 of them would go to Wayne. I thought they ought to be throwing flares and screens to me so I could run in the broken field, but that just wasn't the plan.
"I'm being used now the way I was used in junior college—traps, reverses, sweeps, screens, flares—and I really like it. At USC I hit the holes quick and straight ahead, and once in a while broke a long run"—he smiles—"in a TV game. But I think the way we're doing it now is the best way for me. We've got plenty of speed, good, fast outside receivers—I'd say we could put together a 440 relay team that could beat any team in pro football—so the other clubs can't give me too much special attention. Jan White is coming on as a tight end, really blasting people, and you can't have a good running game unless you've got a tight end who can block. So I'm happy now, man. I'm having fun playing football. My first two years here I figured I'd play out my five, take my pension and quit. Now I'm thinking about playing eight years or 10 if I can make it."
Simpson is trying to become a team leader, too. "The leadership is swinging to the younger guys," he says. "It's like with the hair. Look around." When you do, you see poodle heads, sheepdogs, Sundance Kids. "The younger guys are stepping out," O.J. says. "The hair means the younger guys are not going to be inhibited, they're going to assert themselves. Of course, there's different ways to lead. I try to be a holler guy. J. D. Hill [a wide receiver], too. He's a rookie, but he's cocky and good. Some older guys like Joe O'Donnell [a guard] lead by action. And Dennis Shaw, he's a leader, his own boss, he lets you know you better get to work. Dennis is so cool it's fantastic. He's the same man whether he's in there eating dinner or it's third and seven."
The weights O.J. lifted to help mend his knee also put 15 solid pounds on him, and he hopes to play at 215; he stands 6'2". "When I used to get tired in a game, it was my back and not my legs," he says. "My back is stronger now. We've got these beautiful red, white and blue uniforms, and most of our backs and ends wear white shoes. Man, at last I feel like we're ready to fly."