I was about 10 years old and attending my first Bills playoff game against Miami. This was the famous ’90 divisional game where it was cold and snowy and you couldn’t feel your legs. Our seats were in the end zone and we were right above where the players come out. Great seats, right? At about 25 minutes to kickoff, I noticed that the crowd around us started to cheer. I wasn’t exactly sure what they were cheering for because none of the players were on the field yet. This was not like a touchdown cheer, but like a golf clap mixed in with a few “Yeahs” from the crowd. You wouldn’t have noticed the cheering if you sat a few sections over, but if you were hanging where I was, you’d know a buzz came over the crowd.
At that point, a few other fans pointed to the field and a man with a microphone and a big old trench coat was walking on the field. Everyone started yelling “Juuuuuuuuuuice” while this guy was talking into a camera. After he was done, he started to walk back towards where the players were to come out and a few people in our section got up and started clapping faster and pointing to the guy. The mystery TV guy looked at the crowd and clinched his fist in air for acknowledgement towards the crowd.
I looked at my sister and asked, “Who the hell was that?”
“That’s OJ Simpson and he’s the greatest Buffalo Bill of all-time.”
Without question, Jim Kelly is the most popular ex-athlete in Buffalo right now. Whenever the guy talks, people listen. Whenever he has a golf tournament or a camp for kids, people come. Whenever he says he wants to keep the Bills in Buffalo, people rejoice. If the guy ran for mayor, he wouldn’t have to invest any money into his campaign because he’d win going away. That’s probably why Jimbo has always stayed around after his playing days because we kiss his ass like he’s a king.
But before there was Jimbo, there was OJ. The thing OJ had over Kelly was that he was more famous outside of WNY. He was a celebrity. He was one of the first athletes to get endorsements. Growing up, I never watched OJ play, but I sure did watch him on TV a lot. He was a studio analyst for NBC’s NFL coverage, he was a co-star in the hilarious Naked Gun series, and he was in commercials. The thing I liked most about OJ during this time was that he was a total Buffalo homer. We all know that if you kiss our asses and put the city over, we will love you for life. That’s all we want….Acceptance.
Since the Bills were actually good then, OJ would always gloat about the team and how great the fans were. He was like Chris Berman in his homerism tendency, but he actually played the game and when you saw him, you thought Buffalo Bills. Next to Berman, OJ was probably my favorite analyst as a kid because he loved us and we loved him back.
Of course, we all know what he did during his playing days, as he was the face of the franchise, rushing for over 2,000 yards during the ’73 season. The 70′s weren’t exactly a great time for Bills fans when you consider the losing streak against Miami and making the playoffs only once during the decade. However, OJ was our saving grace. At least we had him. He entertained us on Sundays when the Bills had a snowballs chance in hell in doing real damage to the league. He was our guy. A guy who would goto The West Side during his playing days and play with kids on the street. People could talk OJ into taking a little league game and talking to kids for free about staying away from drugs. A movie star. A celebrity who was one of our own. A guy we genuinely loved.
Of course, things changed during the summer of 1994.
OJ was accused of killing his ex-wife and her boyfriend. It was a shocking turn of events for him and his relationship with Buffalo. No one could believe it at the time. OJ? A murderer? No way! He had to have been framed. It was shocking. It would be like if Stevie Johnson or Ryan Miller or Lindy Ruff were going on trial. Here’s how Larry Felser talked about OJ after he was accused of murder to give you an idea about how shocking it was:
“I have been in this business all my adult life. I have written thousands of stories and columns. This is the most dispiriting, most distasteful thing I have ever written. I have known O.J. Simpson for 25 years. The man I know is not the tabloid personality I have been reading about with horror for the last seven days. Nothing makes sense in this entire sordid, bizarre episode. There are no explanations, at least rational ones.”
It was yet another tragic Buffalo story. I mean, here’s arguably our greatest athlete in Buffalo history and he’s going to trial for murder? Hollywood would reject that movie script in two seconds. From the famous Bronco chase, to Lance Ito, to Johnny Cochran, to “If it doesn’t fit then you must acquit”, what happened during the next 15 months changed the face of the media, OJ and our perception of athletes.
What if OJ had an alibi?
So you know, this revolves around if OJ never went to trial. What if on the night of June 12th, 1994 OJ had 10 friends support a story of drinking beer with him at a Lagana Beach hot spot? OJ alibi=No trial. Sure, he was acquitted of charges, but for the most part, a number of people thought he was guilty.
Prior to the OJ Case, the only time I can remember an athlete getting in as much hot water was when Mike Tyson was convicted of rape in 1992. Heck, the only coverage of the story consisted of Charlie Steiner sitting in a lobby outside of the courtroom discussing the case. I’m sure if that case took place today, we would be seeing interviews with Dr. Phil and Anderson Cooper.
The OJ case broke barriers. It became the poster child of what the media has become today. Tabloid journalism that tries to sensationalize every story. Forget after school specials, because I remember coming home after school and watching the trial live on CNN. The monster ratings of the trial led to sports outlets covering athletes beyond the field. If an athlete is arrested for beating their spouse or bringing an illegal firearm to the club, it is going to make the top of SportsCenter. It also lead to other non-sports personalities, like Geraldo, to become TV lightning rods that you see spin offs of on TV today.
If there’s no trial, does the media evolve into tabloid journalism? Maybe the Kobe rape trial or Tiger’s lady problems lead to that, but we are talking years later after the fact.
As far as the Buffalo connection goes, OJ has become a leopard or taboo subject here. No one really talks about him anymore and when you bring up greatest players in team history, fans avoid him like the plague because it brings up the horror of two people dying.
Fans want to remember their heroes, when they were young and strong and seemingly at their most immortal stage of their lives. Not when he’s in a high speed chase in a White Bronco, or him sitting in a court room, or two innocent dead people, or someone who planned to write a book about how he would have killed his Ex-Wife, reminding you that heroes aren’t perfect and they can definitely have a lot of demons in them.
Besides his name hanging up on the Wall of Fame, the Bills organization doesn’t talk about him. I remember a few years back, OJ actually went to a Bills game and by reports, the Bills weren’t too pleased he showed up. I’m pretty sure the Bills aren’t going to celebrate the 40th anniversary of OJ going over the 2,000 yard mark next year while he’s sitting in jail.
If OJ has an alibi, we would be debating him as the most popular and best player in Buffalo history. He’d be mentioned in the same breath as Jim Kelly. Just realize that when you say Jim Kelly and Thurman Thomas to people outside of 716, people will mention four SB losses pretty quickly. If OJ didn’t go to court, outsiders wouldn’t say loser. They’d say legendary player because you didn’t think losing or SBs with him. Now they say murderer. Football doesn’t even get mentioned.
That’s just how big he was before the trial. The guy was on Letterman and the cover of Rolling Stone for crap sakes. Maybe he would have been a part of the Jim Kelly group to buy the Bills. Alas, he’s nothing more than a black sheep here. A bad son that parents don’t like talking about because it brings up bad memories, baggage and grief.
Yes fans, pound for pound, arguably our greatest player in Buffalo history is sitting in jail cell as we speak. How sad it must have been for Buffalo fans to watch their greatest athletic hero fall from grace in such a bizarre, dramatic fashion.
It still doesn’t seem real after all these years.
Be sure to check out the archives for the biggest “What ifs?” In Buffalo History.