For years, football players and fans alike have debated the worth of the so-called preseason. Long and arduous, often fraught with costly injuries to valuable players, and lately drawing fewer and fewer customers, the preseason has been called an anachronistic waste. Well, if ever it was to be debunked once and for all, last week in Buffalo seemed a likely time and place. O. J. Simpson, pro football's prodigal son, was back in the Bills' backfield with absolutely zero preseason games under his belt. If anyone could prove the fatuity of exhibitions, the Juice would be the boy.
Final score: O.J. 0, Preseason 2.
That, too, was the Buffalo Bills' record after their first two games. Following a Monday night loss to the Miami Dolphins, the Bills and the Juice turned right around and blew one to the Houston Oilers, 13-3, last Sunday afternoon. The potent Buffalo offense, built around Simpson, led the league last season, but a tough Oiler defense, spearheaded by Curley Culp and Robert Brazile, held the Bills to a paltry 89 yards on the ground and Buffalo Quarterbacks Joe Ferguson and Gary Marangi could add only 79 through the air. But the great breakdown was the Juice himself. In the first quarter he gained 34 yards; then he began to run backward and ended the game with only 38 yards in 16 cracks.
"I don't feel good, just listless," he said later. "My legs are hollow. On that 18-yard gain in the first quarter, I ordinarily would have broken outside, but I didn't have the spring. I've always felt I need 10 days to two weeks to get in shape, but I've only had three days of good work."
September 26, 1976
No tears. At least O.J. was back where he belongs, playing football rather than Hollywood celebrity.
Always one for cutting close corners, Simpson didn't arrive in Buffalo until early evening of the season's opening day. Some 500 fans were on hand at the airport to greet him. With O.J. on the flight from California was comedian Rich Little, the man of myriad voices, who summed up the prevailing mood of many Buffalo fans with a nasal Cosellian quip. "Yes," intoned Little, "this is the Juice whose greatness is equaled only by his lack of taste. He has succumbed to the almighty buck once again."
Simpson laughed along with the crowd, then went off to his first practice with his "Main Man," Guard Reggie McKenzie, who picked him up at the airport in a Mercedes-Benz. But for all the giggles, there was indeed a bitter undertone to the joy surrounding the prodigal's return. O.J.'s desire to play out his career in Los Angeles, or at least somewhere in his home state of California, struck many fans—in Buffalo and elsewhere—as ingratitude bordering on high-handedness. After all, he had loped to greatness behind an offensive line hand-tailored at great expense by Owner Ralph Wilson, and Buffalo fans had responded in the best way they knew how—by buying tickets. They filled Buffalo's spanking new $22-million, 80,020-seat Rich Stadium with roistering regularity. For the past three seasons the Bills led the league in attendance, and they grossed some $10 million in 1975. But this year, in the wake of Simpson's attempted bug-out, season-ticket sales slumped by 10,000, and five days before the Monday night opener against Miami 26,600 seats remained unsold. Once O.J. was in the fold, all but 2,000 were filled for the Dolphin game.
All summer long the negotiations for Simpson's contract had ground along, punctuated with acrimony and supposition. Simpson maintained that he wanted to play in Los Angeles in order to be with his family. His wife Marquerite, exercising a libberly independence, refused to budge from Southern California. After all, she was enrolled (under an assumed name) in a college in the San Fernando Valley, studying what O.J. calls "art and other women's stuff." The Simpson children, Arnelle, 9, and Jason, 6½, were also in school, and Ms. Simpson felt it would be bad to transplant them to the frosty latitudes of western New York State. And, of course, O.J. always wanted to play in Lotusland, where he had first won fame as a collegian, where the fans (and the movie biggies) love him and the sun always shines. "What's wrong with that?" he asked again and again. "It's only human."
Yes, but the Juice is immortal, and immortals are kind of hard to trade, as Wilson discovered. After failing to make deals with Los Angeles, San Francisco and Oakland, Wilson called Simpson in California to tell him he was coming out to talk. Simpson tried to convince Wilson that his trip would be wasted, but the owner came anyway. After hours of head-to-head conversation with Marquerite listening in, the deal was struck: the Juice would return to Buffalo for three years and $2,500,000. Or so the hottest financial rumors ran. Neither Wilson nor Simpson would confirm the price tag. Johnny Carson had his own guess—O.J. was getting half a million to play and the other $2 million to live in Buffalo.
Whatever the price, it set off waves of resentment in blue-collar Buffalo, and a few tremors within the team itself. Fullback Jim Braxton, a superb blocker who blasted many of O.J.'s holes, confronted Wilson on the field the night of Simpson's return and asked that his own contract be renegotiated. No way. Braxton stumped off in dejection, but a greater disappointment awaited him. On the third play of the Miami game, Braxton tore ligaments in his right knee and was out for the season. "Bubby's the best blocking fullback I've ever seen," lamented Simpson after the game, which the Bills lost 30-21. "Now we'll have to adjust our offense, using less power plays and more swing passes, more trap plays and more counters."
For a man who hadn't carried a football in anger for nine months, O.J. played well enough in his first outing. Coach Lou Saban avoided overworking him, the Juice ran five times for 28 yards, and in the last quarter he caught a short pass over the middle from Quarterback Joe Ferguson for 43 more. For one run he was the old O.J.—cutting, changing his pace, reversing his field and breaking two tackles, and he had the crowd on its feet—putting the lie to those surly signs that read "Miami needs the oranges but Buffalo don't need the Juice."
"I should have been able to get away from that last guy," O.J. said, "but I was tired. I didn't have the overdrive."
All through the week he worked to find it, trying to regain his timing and to remember the Bills' plays (on his first play against Miami he lined up wrong and drew a mixture of boos and laughs from the crowd). Saban, who had been chilly and standoffish at first, relented and once again warmed to O.J.'s presence. And then there were the minor, niggling details of setting up house once again in Buffalo.
"Show you how California-smart I am," Simpson said, laughing. "I shut off the heat in my house here when I went west last winter. I was tired of getting heating bills, and I didn't know pipes could freeze. So one of them popped upstairs and the whole ceiling fell down." The house, which is owned by the Bills, was quickly repaired, but the problem of a suitable Juician decor remained. "I gave my house plants to Reggie's wife," O.J. said, "and now she's holding them for ransom. She wants a new washer and dryer before she'll give 'em back. Those plants—I need 'em. I call 'em 'my kids.' I gotta have the house looking like an African jungle."
During the week, O.J. and McKenzie went to Simpson's favorite plant shop where the great man checked out prices. "What I really want," he joshed the grinning salesgirls, "is an African spider-eatin' Aurelia, but you haven't got any. I want clean plants and all you got is dirty ones. I gotta get my kids back!"
Later, over lunch at The Creekside Inn in suburban Williamsville, O.J. said, "It's good to be back. Toward the end there, I was getting real edgy, hard to live with. I was running a lot in Balboa Park to keep in shape, and playing some tennis for my legs, but I was getting mean. Marquerite knew it, too. But now it's all settled. I'm back and I'm happy."
Last Sunday afternoon against Houston, though, O.J. did not run for joy.