Jason Simpson, age 3½, is hanging out with some pretty fast company these days. Many of his running mates are twice his age, and there even seems to be a 10-year-old or two in the crowd. Recently, when Jason's acting up won him a shot in the mouth from another little kid, several of the senior members of the gang retaliated. "Don't you know what you did?" they yelled at the perpetrator while Jason himself, unaware of the cosmic significance of the attack on his person, nodded in vigorous support from behind the legs of a larger companion. "You hit O.J. Simpson's son!"
That indeed is sacrilege in Buffalo where O. J. Simpson (see cover), the once and future greatest running back in the history of football, has led the lowly Bills to unimagined heights. Eighty thousand strong, Buffalonians have been thronging on Sundays to the city's new house of worship, Rich Stadium, to witness Simpson's miracles and chant "Juice, Juice, Juice." Their prayers have been answered. In successive home games against the Jets, the Eagles and the Colts, O.J. rushed for 123, 171 and 166 yards to lead the Bills to three straight wins, a feat Buffalo had not accomplished in the four previous years that the Juice labored there. Add to this the yards he gained in a victory over the Patriots (250) and in a loss to the Chargers (103) in the Bills' first two road games, and O.J. was 26 yards ahead of the pace that Jim Brown set in 1963 when he rushed for 1,863 yards, the NFL season record.
Moreover, the Bills suddenly found themselves in the dizzying company of the Miami Dolphins at the top of their division. The Dolphins put things in perspective when they gained sole possession of first place with a 27-6 win over Buffalo in Miami last Sunday while holding Simpson to under 100 yards for the first time this season. Hampered by a wet, slippery Poly-Turf field and throttled by a stalwart Miami defense, O.J. gained 55 yards in 14 carries before sitting out the final 11 minutes with a sprained ankle. This gave him a total of 868 yards in 138 carries, 63 yards behind Brown's pace.
Buffalo returns home this week for its first Monday night appearance ever—further proof of Simpson's second coming—still very much in contention for a playoff spot. The Bills, now 4 and 2, have already won as many games as in any season since 1966, while Simpson has a shot at regaining the ground he lost at Miami. Jim Brown's weakest effort of 1963 came in the seventh game, when he got 40 yards against the Giants.
"He'll get Brown's record," says Buffalo Guard Reggie McKenzie, "but 2,000 yards, well, that's a nice round figure." In truth Simpson's biggest handicap in his race against Jim Brown may be that he can't play against Buffalo's defense, which gave up a whopping 275 yards rushing to the Eagles.
What a difference a coach makes. Less than two years ago Orenthal James Simpson was rapidly fading from public view. His first pro coach, John Rauch, scoffed at the notion that his No. 1 draft choice could carry the load he had 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."
O.J. did O.K. Although failing to live up to his notices, he led the Bills in rushing in each of his first three years. Buffalo won four games his first season, then three, then one, while Simpson gained 697, 488 and 742 yards, respectively. "I was playing the game but not enjoying it," he says now. "By the middle of the season I couldn't wait to get back to California." The lucrative business contracts he had signed after graduation began to expire without renewal. Early in his third year, 1971, a fan sent him a steamship ticket to Africa. By the end of that season he announced that five years would be all he would play as a pro.
Enter Coach Lou Saban, who had led the Bills to two straight AFL championships in the mid-'60s. "I knew his track record," says O.J. "His backs gain a lot of yards. I had had over 700 yards the year before and Floyd Little [who had played for Saban at Denver] had led the league. We had about the same average, but Floyd had 100 more carries, and I think the more you carry, the better your average gets."
When O.J. got a look at Saban's play-book in the 1972 training camp he promptly signed a new multiple-year contract, although his old one still had a year to run. "I've cried with these guys," he said. "Now I want to drink champagne with them."
Saban planned to rehabilitate Buffalo around Simpson. "Offenses and defenses have to tie themselves around certain players," Saban said last week. "They have to have a hub and then one by one the other players become spokes. It makes the unit better because others want to reach heights, too. We have a very young, impressionable team. All the talking in the world is of no consequence; you need examples and you want to use a man to set high standards who's capable of reaching them. If you continue to hope that a player with potential might reach a certain level, he probably never will. But O.J. had been there once. The better he got, the better the team got."
Saban proceeded to stack the deck in O.J.'s favor. "From Saban's very first day O.J. was our offense," says Dick Cunningham, a Bills tackle and linebacker during Simpson's first four seasons. "In order to be a wide receiver, you had to be a blocker first and a wide receiver second." Saban dispatched nonblocking Wide Receiver Haven Moses to Denver and moved Bob Chandler, a teammate of O.J.'s at USC, into his position. He drafted Reggie McKenzie out of Michigan in the second round and picked New York Jet Tackle Dave Foley, a former No. 1 draft choice from Ohio State who had had knee problems, off the waiver list. Along with two holdovers, 6'7" Center Bruce Jarvis from Washington and 6'8" Tackle Donnie Green from Purdue, they provided Buffalo with the beginnings of an offensive line.
To give Simpson as much freedom as possible the Bills emphasized drive blocking, in which the offensive man takes the defensive man whichever way he wants to go and leaves the runner the option of going the other way. They installed a lot of I-formation plays, which put O.J. a full six yards behind the line of scrimmage to give him time and space to wait for holes to develop.
For his part, O.J. insists his talents are instinctive; he even claims he is a better runner when he is tired because he thinks less and just reacts. Simpson leads the league in the running back's prime requisites, leg strength and balance, but to condition his legs he does nothing but run. "I don't want to mess with them,"' he says. His legs seem skinny from the knee down. When he was a boy rickets weakened them. His mother couldn't afford professional care, so he wore his shoes on the wrong feet and used homemade braces. The calcium deficiency left his legs bowed which, curiously, is a trait common to many great athletes. From the knees up, however, his legs are those of a 220-pounder. He weighs 10 to 15 pounds less than that, although he played at 217 in his second season. "The coaches had me weighing more to pass block," he says with distaste.
Simpson has 9.4 speed but, more importantly, he can shift to high from a standstill, which he frequently comes to when the traffic so dictates, and vice versa. According to a teammate O.J. is at top speed after two strides. Yet the trait that most distinguishes him from other backs is an uncanny sense of where he is. Mike McCormack, the head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, says he would like to have O.J.'s eyes tested because, like Fran Tarkenton, he seems to sense tacklers he couldn't possibly see. USC Coach John McKay used to marvel at Simpson's ability to recall the blockers and potential tacklers who figured in his long runs. Simpson says he watches the reactions of all defenders in game films and that in any given situation he can envision fairly accurately the position of any player who might have a shot at him and react accordingly. "You don't see good backs get blindsided," he says, lumping himself with mere mortals.
Saban needed a year to get his program on its feet. McKenzie was surprised at the start of last season to find how readily the Bills accepted defeat. "I had to learn what had gone on in Buffalo and how it could tear a man down," he says now. "O.J. had been down for so long people were starting to kick, and he couldn't get up." To make matters worse, injuries wrecked the offensive line. Five guards, two tackles and a center were lost for the 1972 season. But the Bills rallied around Simpson, who went on to become the top rusher (1,251 yards) in the so-called Year of the Running Back. "It was a big thing when he got his 1,000," says McKenzie. "He could say, 'Hey, I got this. Nobody can say I didn't But he knew by then it was peanuts." Playing in his first Pro Bowl, O.J. was named Player of the Game. "Man, if that guy had some blocking in Buffalo, they'd have to ban him from the league," said Pittsburgh's Mean Joe Greene.
With two picks in this year's first round, Saban added a tackle, Paul Seymour from Michigan, and a guard, Joe DeLamielleure from Michigan State. McKenzie phoned Simpson, and O.J. conceded that 1,700 yards wasn't impossible. McKenzie thought about that for a while and called O.J. back. "Why not 2,000?"
Over the summer Saban moved Seymour to tight end, creating what amounts to an unbalanced line. That meant that the six-man wall included five players from the Big Ten, three of whom had been No. 1 draft choices. None of the linemen was over 25; none was under 6'3". And they were executing the offensive lineman's easiest and most enjoyable block, the straight ahead drive. To add salt to the enemy's wounds Wide Receiver J. D. Hill was a vicious crack-back blocker.
In the season's opener O.J. set a league record for a single game when he rushed for 250 yards against New England. The Hall of Fame urgently requested his jersey. Twice in the first four weeks he was named AP Offensive Player of the Week. Two weeks ago, against Baltimore, he set another league record with his seventh consecutive 100-yard game. The media began to document his every move. When he left the field briefly in the Philadelphia game the press box was solemnly informed. "Simpson suffered a broken shoelace."
Further, what was good for the Juice was good for the rest of the Bills, only 13 of whom preceded Saban to Buffalo. The average age of the team is just 24.3, yet it is playing surprisingly error-free football. Young offensive linemen are not proving the liability they might be in a pass-oriented offense. When the Bills reluctantly went to the air against Miami their quarterbacks were sacked nine times. Buffalo is taking its chances with a rookie quarterback, Joe Ferguson of Arkansas, whom Saban can afford to play because he is placing the burden of his offense on Simpson. Because of O.J.'s spectacular performances, Ferguson seldom had to throw during Buffalo's winning streak. But Saban knows that his rookie's throwing ability will eventually ease the pressure on O.J. and make Simpson even more productive.
The person who seems the least ruffled by all the excitement in Buffalo is Simpson himself. He is not a 26-year-old suddenly encountering fame but a man settling comfortably into a familiar role, O.J. Simpson, superstar. "Being the best is something I've lived with," he says, "and I like living with it."
Friends are fond of saying that "he is just a regular guy," that "his hat size has never changed." The Juice wears a perpetual smile, frequently laughing in his deep baritone. He is a man of unlimited good nature whose disposition resembles that of his mother's first cousin, Ernie Banks. "O.J.'s a better person than he is a football player, if that's possible," says Buffalo Owner Ralph Wilson.
Simpson is the team leader, a needler on the practice field, a hustler and card shark off it. "He'll cheat on you at cards if you turn your eyes," says All-AFC Defensive Back Robert James, the only other Buffalo player who has been with the team since 1969. "He'll look in your hand. He doesn't think that's wrong; he's just so competitive. If he's caught, it's comical to him; he'll laugh."
Sometimes the laugh's on O.J. In training camp a couple of years ago his best friend, ex-teammate Al Cowlings, a 255-pound defensive end, took him up on a $100 wager on a mile race. O.J. felt obliged to make a big show of what a pedestrian effort winning would be. Cowlings won going away. "O.J. was pooped out," says James. "When you're pooped, some say you got the monkey on your back; some say you got the bear. Well, O.J., he had an elephant."
"I almost had him psyched, though," O.J. hastens to point out. "I was going to pull up alongside and laugh and say, "Wanna quit?' but he just pulled away."
To O.J.'s wife Marguerite, he is "a typical Cancer. He's a homebody. He wants security. He likes a roof over his head and three meals a day.... A spoiled brat." O.J. once said that Willie Mays was his hero as a kid "not just because he was a good baseball player but because he had a big house to show for it." When O.J. got in the chips he wanted a house, not a fancy car or a new wardrobe. He and Marguerite picked out a Spanish-style ranch house in Bel Air and still live there in the off-season.
Not long ago Simpson was cooling his heels in Mulligan's Museum of Fine Arts and Cafe, a Buffalo discotheque. He seemed pleased, almost thrilled, at the large number of Bills who had chosen it for their evening's entertainment. To him this was indicative of a new team togetherness. "It wasn't that way the first few years I was here," he noted.
He lit a cigarette, not because he smokes—he doesn't—but because it was a John Player Special, which he had never seen before and because the cigarettes came in a snappy box. O.J. likes snappy things. He wore white shoes in his 250-yard game and has been wearing them ever since. And he is pleased that some of the other Bills wear them—those who have "earned the right." He said he might have to get hold of a pair for Joe Ferguson. "We got players now who want to be fly in what they do. Wearing those white shoes, that's telling the people in the stands, 'Look at me. I ain't just like everybody else on this field.' " Simpson took a puff of the John Player Special, holding it delicately between the ends of his thumb and forefinger, tilting his head back like a connoisseur. "Yes," he said, "that's pretty good."
"You're going to get sick," said Marguerite.
Attention focused elsewhere, but O.J. faced a crisis. A long ash had formed on his cigarette, and not being a smoker he was unsure how best to dispose of it. Carefully he poised the cigarette over an ashtray, then flicked at the center of it with his middle finger. The cigarette shot out of his hand, somersaulted in the air and landed beside the ashtray. He looked quickly around the table to see if anybody had noticed. He thought he was safe until he confronted the last possible witness, who met his stare with a big smile. O.J. burst out laughing. He laughed even harder at himself while the others listened to the witness' description of his gaucherie. He was obviously enjoying himself. And why not? O.J. Simpson of Southern California had at last found happiness in Buffalo.