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The Villages
Friday, May 24, 2024

O.J. Simpson leaves a complicated legacy, especially in Buffalo

Tony Violanti
Tony Violanti

Most people remember O.J. Simpson – who died Wednesday — for his infamous murder trial.  But those of us from Buffalo may have different memories of this fallen hero.
The Juice – as he was affectionately known — gave us thrills and community pride on a football field. I grew up with the Buffalo Bills and during the late ‘60s, the team was the laughingstock of the National Football League. So was the city of Buffalo.
 I was a teenager when, in 1969, O.J. Simpson – the Heisman Trophy winner from USC – was drafted by the Bills.

The whole town went crazy. Here was the No. 1 player in college football –already a national media star – coming to the blue collar, chicken wing capital of the world.

Not much changed during his first few seasons in Buffalo. The Bills were awful and rumors abounded that The Juice wanted to get back to the bright lights of the West Coast.
Everything turned around in 1972 when the Bills brought back Lou Saban to coach the team. Saban had led the Bills to American Football League championships in 1964 and ’65.
Saban was smart enough to design the offense around O.J. The results were stunning.
Simpson was the best running back in football, from 1972-76. In 1973, he set the then all-time rushing record by gaining 2,003 yards.

I saw every Bills home game during those years. I was with about 70,000 other people who would scream, “Juice, Juice, Juice,” every time O.J. touched the ball. His offense line was called “the Electric Company” for good reason. They turned on The Juice.
Eventually, O.J. made it to the NFL Hall of Fame, gaining 11,236 yards during his nine-year career. Simpson was phenomenal and the Bills won a lot of games but never made it to the Super Bowl.
 I had a chance to interview O.J. for a magazine story in 1977. It was near the end of his Bills’ career before being traded to San Francisco. He was kind, gracious and affable to me, which is the way most people in Buffalo remember him from that time.
 You couldn’t help but like O.J., who seemed to have a genuine affinity for Buffalo and its people. One of his hangouts back then was a Friendly’s restaurant in Amherst, N.Y. where he could be seen having an ice cream cone.
Simpson wasn’t just a jock. In addition to football, he became a movie star. He was playing for the Bills in 1974, when he appeared in “The Towering Inferno” with Paul Newman and Steve McQueen. I remember seeing the film in a Buffalo theater, and everyone in the show screamed and yelled “Juice” every time O.J. appeared on screen.
After football, he smoothly shifted into TV sports announcing. He was constantly seen doing commercials and his Hertz rent-a-car TV spots were classics.
Everybody loved O.J.
Until June 12, 1994.
Nicole Brown Simpson, O.J.’s wife, and her friend, Ronald Goldman, were stabbed to  death on that date. It happened outside Brown’s apartment in Los Angeles.

A week later, O.J. was a suspect who led police and television cameras on the famed low-speed “Bronco” car chase that lasted about 90 minutes.
I watched that chase in shocking amazement. I kept wondering: What the hell happened to O.J.? Where was the nice guy who gave us all he had on the football field and was so beloved in Buffalo? I used to cheer for this guy – he made me feel proud of my team and also a part of something bigger – my community.
Simpson turning into Mr. Hyde didn’t seem real. It was like O.J. was doing a goofy –though tragic — version of his “Naked Gun” movies. I kept waiting for Leslie Nielsen to show up.
But it was real.
O.J.’s trial became a statement about race relations in America. He said the glove didn’t fit and, thanks to lawyer Johnnie Cochran, O.J. beat the rap, although later lost a civil case regarding the deaths.
Things were never the same for The Juice.
He became a notorious figure in American culture. The media star burned out.  In 2008, he was convicted of armed robbery and kidnapping in another case. He served nine years in a Nevada prison.
Even in Buffalo, most thought of him as O.J. the criminal, not O.J. the football hero.

Simpson taught me a hard lesson about media superstars and sports heroes. They are not always what they seem to be. We tend to judge their lives on what they do between the lines on game day.
But away from the field, fans and cameras, they may possess a much darker side.
Simpson was 76, when his family said he died Wednesday from prostate cancer.

It was hard for me to feel grief, although there was sadness for this one-time hero of my youth. O.J. didn’t deserve sympathy, he was a criminal and maybe far worse. But there was a time when he made my team and my city a better place.
And, like so many of my bittersweet Buffalo Bills’ memories, O.J.’s death makes me ponder what might have been.

Tony Violanti writes about music and entertainment for Villages-News.com. He was inducted into The Buffalo Music Hall of Fame as a music journalist.

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