The very first question is always about the name. It has been posed, in one form or another, hundreds of times. But he is adept at fielding it. It is something you grow accustomed to when football is your game, and when your family name, McDuffie, is preceded by the initials O.J.
For the record, McDuffie, a Penn State wide receiver, was named by his maternal grandmother, Mary Emma McDuffie. She would gather her 13 children around the television set in their Marion, Ohio, house to watch Southern Cal's O.J. Simpson glide past defenders on his way to winning the 1968 Heisman Trophy. The following year Mary Emma's 15-year-old daughter, Gloria, gave birth to a son, and Mary Emma insisted he be called O.J. That was non-negotiable. Gloria was not about to call her son Orenthal, though, which is Simpson's first name, and chose instead Otis. (Both O.J.'s have the middle name James.)
Twenty-one years later, McDuffie tends to remind one of Simpson as much for his fluid, effortless moves and big-play ability as for his name. At 5'11" and 185 pounds, McDuffie is the latest in a line of all-purpose flankers—recent models include Tim Brown and Raghib Ismail of Notre Dame and Desmond Howard of Michigan—who can yank a team onto their shoulder pads and carry it into national title contention. "He's probably the best athlete we've ever had," says coach Joe Paterno.
During his three seasons at Penn State, McDuffie has added some serious flash to the Nittany Lions' traditionally staid, black-shoe offense. Last year he caught 46 passes for 790 yards and averaged 124.3 all-purpose yards a game. He has also added some serious flash off the field. "He's got a spark, a twinkle, almost like a movie star," says Penn State publicist Bud Thalman, who was the Buffalo Bill p.r. guy during the Simpson era.
August 31, 1992
"What he's got is moxie," says former Nittany Lion receiver and erstwhile McDuffie roommate Rich Rosa, "and that comes from his mother."
Despite being young and unmarried, Gloria McDuffie was determined not to let O.J.'s arrival slow her down, and she left him with Mary Emma while she went away to school. Eventually McDuffie joined his mother for her senior year at Ohio Wesleyan University, and then at the University of Dayton, where she earned her M.B.A. Soon after, Gloria was hired by the National City Bank in Cleveland. There, O.J. spent two years at predominantly black Warrensville Heights Junior High before Gloria had him transfer to Hawken, a prestigious prep school located in an affluent Cleveland suburb. Says Gloria, "I wanted to give him the opportunity to make contacts that could really help him later in life."
Hawken's rolling campus and whitewashed facades were unlike anything McDuffie had ever seen. Ditto for its student body. Says McDuffie, "I went from a situation where everyone rode the bus to school to one where 16-year-old kids were driving BMWs."
At first, McDuffie had difficulty with Hawken's rigorous curriculum, but as an instant star on the football field, he had no trouble fitting in socially. For his career he set school records in rushing (3,543 yards), all-purpose yards (7,302) and touchdowns (79) and was named a schoolboy All-America as a senior. McDuffie was also all-state in basketball, baseball and track, and it was baseball that helped guide him to Penn State. Paterno agreed to let him play two sports, providing that he wait until his sophomore year to play baseball. That season McDuffie, a centerfielder, batted .336, and in June 1991 he was drafted by the California Angels in the late rounds. It was time to make a decision. Paterno posed the question, "Can you make the major leagues?" McDuffie shrugged. Paterno said that he knew McDuffie had the talent to make it in the NFL. That was all McDuffie needed to hear, and he turned down the Angels.
For all his talent, McDuffie keeps his ego firmly in check. "He's so humble that if you didn't know it was him, you wouldn't know it was him," says Rosa, "until he steps onto the field and does something that really opens your eyes." Rosa grew accustomed to having his eyes opened by McDuffie. When they first moved in together, Rosa was awakened in the early morning by the unfamiliar spritzing sound of O.J. squeezing solution onto his Jheri Kurl. (He has since switched to a more manageable closely cropped fade.) Several weeks later Rosa was again pulled from sleep, this time at 4 a.m. as McDuffie began his pregame ritual—lying in a bubble bath while listening to Phil Collins croon In the Air Tonight on his Walkman. Fittingly, this season McDuffie will soak to the sound track from the film Juice.
McDuffie has handled his celebrity with the same sort of grace he displays on the field. As he left Beaver Stadium after one win last season, an older man and his grandson cornered McDuffie for a conversation. McDuffie was so charmed by the boy that he gave him the warmup jacket off his back. "Most of the people I know are athletes, so I should try and get to know other folks," he says. Yet McDuffie is not immune to the pressures of being a star in football-crazed Happy Valley—this spring Paterno stated publicly that he wants McDuffie to catch 65 passes in 1992, 10 more than the school record—so he moved into a condominium complex some four miles from campus.
For now he intends to stay focused on the upcoming season and on his studies. But it's not easy. Recently New York Jet running back Blair Thomas returned to Penn State, his alma mater, driving a new Mercedes-Benz. Thomas showed off the car's custom stereo system with a personalized nameplate. He opened all the doors and cranked up the volume, sending tremors throughout the eastern edge of campus. McDuffie often finds himself thinking about Thomas's car and about buying one of his own, preferably a BMW 850. Then he, too, will return to State College with his stereo system throbbing to the sounds of Juice.