The personnel director of a National Football League team recalled a time he had taken his son to see Willie Mays play baseball. Mays was on his way to the Hall of Fame, and as introduction the personnel director pictured in words the rara avis his son was about to behold. But Mays was past his prime. The figure on the field was thick with age. When he ran, his cap stayed on. At bat, he popped up. Compared with what the boy had been told to expect, the figure on the field was unidentifiable, a caricature of Mays.
Then, on another day, he took his son to see O.J. Simpson run with a football. "I remember having read a scouting report on Simpson," he said. "It ended, 'He's the greatest.' I resented that. Scouts are supposed to be objective, to be analytical. Then we saw Simpson. I did not have to explain him to my son. An authentic Hall-of-Famer, in the very prime of his athletic life. What a sight. The only football player I've ever seen who exceeded lavish scouting reports. I was moved."
There is a commercial that appears regularly on television these days. It pictures a dapper, radiantly handsome Orenthal James Simpson running to catch a Hertz rent-a-car. He is smiling as he hurdles the airport guardrail and flashes past the cheering old lady. A young man (28) obviously at the top of his career, and enjoying it. One can imagine that the car is curbside to take him to Canton for an early installation. Simpson has hinted that he would like to go out this way, more or less soaring; that the options open to him—television, movies—are lucrative enough to make him think twice about remaining too much longer in the path of mayhem. And yet....
"He worked harder this year than ever," said the assistant coach, a defensive specialist. "It's amazing, the superstar that he is, the way he works. This year he caught the ball better, he blocked better. He took it on himself to encourage our defense, knowing we're younger and need encouragement. He hollers at Earl Edwards, 'That's it, get after 'em, Earl.' He runs pass patterns all-out, hard as he can go to give our defense a better look. He talks to everybody. Jim Braxton got 160 yards against St. Louis when O.J. was used mostly as bait, and O.J. was the first to congratulate him. 'Hey, Bubby, great!' he said. Braxton said, 'Yeah, thanks to you.'
"A star like Simpson isn't paid to lead cheers. But that's O.J. I'll never forget a game with Baltimore when he started a sweep and the linebacker and the end busted through. Had him cold two yards behind the line. He stopped and made 'em miss, cut back inside and went 78 yards. It should have been a two-yard loss and he turned it into a touchdown. On the sidelines he went around congratulating all the linemen for the great job they'd done. They hadn't done a thing."
The Buffalo publicist said it had been Simpson's best year "for keeping appointments and returning calls." He said he was consistently amazed by the good humor and cooperation of the star in the face of magazine cover stories (Time, Newsweek) that never appeared and interviews that went awry. He said it reflected O.J.'s maturation, "a matter of being totally together." There had been a turning point. The publicist recalled that when Lou Saban came to be the Buffalo coach in 1972 he promised to give Juice the ball, knowing O.J. had loved being unleashed at USC as much as he hated being harnessed by the coaching staffs that preceded Saban's at Buffalo.
The result is that Simpson, under Saban, has carried for 75% of his yardage as a pro and become a happy man. This is relatively speaking. Simpson says he would like to be "appreciated" more by management, having "reached a point where I know what I have done and can do, and what I deserve." Saban had recognized what John McKay had found to be true at USC—the single most breathtaking facet of O.J.'s ability was that the more he carried the ball in a game the better he got. He could not be intimidated. In the face of fatigue, he was indefatigable. An entire defense was more likely to wane and lose its concentration before Simpson.
"A sooner-or-later back," said a onetime rival coach. "Sooner or later, no matter how hard you make it for him, O.J. will beat you. Eight, 10, 20 carries, no matter how many times he gets stacked up, no matter how much muscle you lay on him, he does not discourage. Let up on the 21st play and he's in the end zone. He has brought back to pro football the Jimmy Brown dimension—the great running back who actually gets tougher the more tired he seems to be."
Simpson can articulate this quality; he makes it sound matter-of-fact. He says that early in a game an offensive player's mind is a hive of scouting reports and his own apprehensions. He is thinking as much as he is acting, and therefore is tentative. "That's why you'll see me go off by myself, away from the conversation. I tell guys, 'Get away from me with all that stuff,' because it ruins your head. Eventually I reach a point where I stop trying to outthink the defense and begin to react instinctively to the situation—to what a guy does, whether he's trying to handle me one-on-one, whether he can take a shoulder or a head feint. I know instinctively what to expect. The more tired I get, the better I react. It's like a fighter who's hurt and fights better because he's fighting instinctively."
Simpson says of this season, "I am more satisfied as a player now than I've ever been—I'm at my peak physically and mentally, I know what I have to do, the way it should be done, without having to prove myself or satisfy my pride the way I did when I was younger. It doesn't bother me as much when I don't get the ball." Interestingly enough, the result has been the busiest, most productive year of his career. With one game to play, he needs just 104 yards for the second-best—next to his own 2,003—rushing season in history; this year he has averaged more carries (24 per game) than any back who ever played, including himself when he set the record of 332 in 1973. He beat Pittsburgh with his fourth 200-yard game, tying Brown's record. He beat New England with his first four-touchdown game.
The team executive, employed by a rival of Buffalo's, was asked what O.J. Simpson meant to professional football. "Money," said the executive.
And to Buffalo? "A barrel of money," said the executive. "Simpson is the first athlete since Babe Ruth to have a stadium built for him [the 80,020-seat Rich Stadium in Buffalo], and when they filled it they filled it for Simpson, not the mediocre team the Bills had then. They still fill it for Simpson."
The personnel director said it was money, conversely, that finally diminishes the great players. There is too much to be made, keeping them locked in the game until they decay before your eyes. He said, "In my experience, only Otto Graham quit at the top. Look at Unitas. Look at Joe Namath now, how pitiful he is." But with O.J., he said, there was this new twist. "He has a second life already under way—television contracts, big movie deals. He may quit too soon."
The personnel director estimated that O.J. has at least two more seasons at the top, and then several more of being "good enough." He said he doubted the day would come that he would have to explain Simpson to someone who was seeing him play for the first time. He said he was glad that it was not necessary to think of that for now: he was glad that a man could still see Simpson sliding through a hole and into a secondary, and over airport railings and past cheering old ladies, better than ever and better than everyone.