If you ever saw him pick up the baton, 205 pounds of muscle hurtling down the backstretch, smooth, controlled, fast, handing off to Fred Kuller who would give to anchor man Lennox Lewis, leadoff man Earl McCulloch and OJ standing on the infield now watching Lewis head for home, you wonder now, seeing OJ Simpson shackled in prison blues, trying to explain his behavior in a hotel room with a gun, how it ends up like this.
I’m no OJ Simpson apologist, I just happen to have a history with the guy, as a fan, back in the Bay Area, watching him play football at USC and run track, the most gifted two-sport athlete I think I’ve ever seen. Bo Jackson was a great three-sport athlete, football, baseball and track, but he was different, more power, less finesse, but yes, he could hit major league pitching. OJ, man,he was poetry. Simpson was the first back in my memory that was over two hundred pounds that combined enough power, with blinding speed and the slick hips and quick feet to move through holes and past linebackers so fast he was unstoppable in college. Gayle Sayers had beautiful style and great speed but he couldn’t take the pounding. OJ had it all. He combined Jim Browns ability to slip tackles and give you the wrong angle with the quickness and speed of the smaller backs. Gayle Sayers was Count Basie. Great style and a great band who played well with others. OJ was John Coltrane, Duke Ellington, Elvis, Horowitz. Stand alone on a stage and do it. The full range of style, grace, power and touch, every run was a masterpiece, every hand-off a chance to score. He was that good.
Few athletes really excel at football, and track. There have been a few. OJ, Herschel Walker, Bo Jackson, Isaac Curtis, to name a few. OJ was part of a world record 440 yard relay team. World Record. That’s how fast he was. It’s hard to think of OJ as under-appreciated as a professional, but you have to wonder if he’d been in the backfield with say, a Joe Namath, or Bart Starr, how he would have been regarded. Yes, he’s in the Hall of Fame and held the NFL rushing record, but fans are quick to point out players like Emmitt Smith, Walter Payton, Jim Brown, Tony Dorsett and even Franco Harris when the discussion comes around to the great running backs. Don’t forget Juice.
And now, he’s infamous. Along with Pete Rose and Mike Tyson, undoubtedly the three most enigmatic athletes of my time. Great, all three, but tragically flawed. Unable to separate their athletic greatness from the innumerable flaws as humans. The same fine-tuned concentration and focus they use to become the best at their sports, they use to block out their flaws and quirks, allowing them to dominate their personalities to the point of destruction.
I don’t know what message there is in this most recent downfall. I don’t. He’s a criminal, clearly. Perhaps guilty of much more than armed robbery and kidnapping. Perhaps much more. We’ll never really know, but we’ll always have our suspicions.
But I know he was great, once. I know he was one of the first super-human gifted athletes who ran in trunks on a track where there is no hiding. He ran in college with the best and dominated on that field. As a pro he set records for teams that were average, extending his career beyond his greatness, perhaps the first sign of the vanity that would do him in.
But, God, he was beautiful to watch. I make no apology for bad behavior. I’ll always remember him after the murders, on trial, going free. I’ll always remember him in the court of public opinion, losing. I’ll remember the Vegas debacle and the trial and the sentencing, his last words a sham, a scam, nobody buying it.
But I’ll also remember him holding the baton, the way I’d never seen anybody run, and on the field, reversing his direction, after a sweep was shut off, cutting back, launching a pass into the end zone to beat Stanford, something no mortal could possibly do. But he did. He did once, he did. He did those things that no one else could do. I remember.