On the night that Jimmy Carter delivered his acceptance speech in Madison Square Garden, Buffalo Bills Owner Ralph Wilson was at a White House dinner honoring West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt. In the receiving line, President Ford asked Wilson about his football team. "You know, we have a terrible problem," said Wilson. "O. J. Simpson wants to be traded, and it's proving very difficult. Can you give me any help?" The President, perhaps thinking of that night's events at the Garden, replied, "I'm sorry, but I've enough problems of my own." Wilson pondered the response as he moved through the receiving line. "By the time I got to the end of line," he says, "I wanted to go back and ask the President, 'What could possibly be more important than trading O. J. Simpson?' "
Wilson can be excused if l'affaire Simpson has assumed presidential proportions in his mind. When O.J. came to the Bills in 1969, they were the worst team in pro football. They played in a dilapidated structure, War Memorial Stadium, which held only 45,748 spectators and was rarely filled. Today the Bills are a playoff-caliber team. They lead the NFL in attendance, playing to capacity crowds in spacious Rich Stadium, which seats 80,020 and is sometimes called The House That O.J. Built. In 1973, the new stadium's first year, the Bills sold 54,000 season tickets. Last year the figure was only 43,000, but that did not seem to matter. The presence of Simpson ensured that every seat would be sold for every game. This year season sales have dropped further, to 33,000, and there will be no O.J. Woe is Wilson.
His dilemma began about six weeks ago when he received a phone call from an unusually somber Simpson, who said that marital considerations made it imperative that he play this year on the West Coast, preferably in his current off-season home of Los Angeles. Wilson flew to L.A. the next day to meet Simpson. They had a four-hour dinner at Chasen's Restaurant during which Wilson became convinced that Simpson would never return to Buffalo, that he would retire rather than live in the East this season. When O.J. dropped Wilson off later that evening, there were tears in Simpson's eyes.
Marital problems like Simpson's are not uncommon in the world of professional sports. His wife, Marquerite, whom he married while they were students at USC, was never happy in Buffalo, where the Simpsons lived during the football season. Last fall she stayed on the West Coast, preferring to keep the Simpson children, age seven and six, in the same school for an entire year. In the meantime O.J.'s fame had grown, and he faced increasing demands on his time. His budding acting career has made the off-season his busiest time. He spent three months this winter and spring in Rome filming a movie with Sophia Loren, Ava Gardner and Burt Lancaster. And along with Simpson's fame has come acquaintanceships with glamorous people from all walks of life; there has been less and less time for his wife and children. In The Superwives, author Jeanne Parr quotes Marquerite as saying, "We have practically lost our private life.... I have been shoved out of the way, pushed and stepped on by more than one beautiful woman. I admit I'm jealous." Apparently the seriousness of the situation has finally been brought home to Simpson. A close friend says, "If O.J. does not make a concentrated effort right now, the marriage will end."
Simpson's friends and Wilson are convinced that he is sincere about making that effort—and, therefore, there is no chance he will play in Buffalo again. If Wilson had any lingering doubts, they were dispelled when Simpson refused to discuss a new contract (he has completed three years of a five-year pact) that would have given him $1 million over the next two seasons. That would have doubled his current salary and made him the highest-paid player in pro football. The Bills' 1976 media guide, which was released last week, does not even list O.J. on the roster.
On July 9, his 29th birthday, Simpson came back to Buffalo and bade farewell to teammates and club officials. The Bills play the Los Angeles Rams in an exhibition game on Aug. 28, and a misty-eyed Jim Ringo, Buffalo's offensive line coach, told Simpson, "You know, Juice, we'll be coming at you."
"I'll be ready, coach," said O.J.
The only problem with that scenario is that Ram Owner Carroll Rosenbloom says the chances of Buffalo and Los Angeles agreeing to a trade are "very slim." Much of the difficulty arises from the conditions that Simpson has placed on the deal. He insists on going to a championship contender, which limits the West Coast candidates to the Rams and the Oakland Raiders. More important, Simpson has announced that he wants to play only one more season, a disclosure that diminished his value on the trading market. Last week some of Simpson's friends speculated that he might scrap the one-season limit—if he gets to play in Los Angeles.
"I explained to O.J. that I don't have to make this trade," Wilson says, "but I told him that I would try hard to accommodate him. I also made it clear that I would not trade him for less than equal compensation." Wilson knows that he is in a weak bargaining position, that the teams he is trying to trade with assume that sooner or later he will prefer less to nothing at all. "That's what's happening now," says Wilson. "Maybe people are misjudging me. I absolutely will not agree to that sort of deal. I don't want O.J. to retire, but I'd rather let him retire than not get equal value for him."
But what is equal value for Simpson? Wilson says that it is "three quality first-line players who can step in and help us." Since the Bills, with young Quarterback Joe Ferguson, should have a solid offense even without O.J., they need help mostly on defense. Last year they gave up an average of 25.4 points a game. None of the principals will talk openly about the names being bandied about between the Rams and Bills, but informed sources say that Buffalo is seeking Defensive End Jack Youngblood, considered by some experts as the best in the NFL at that position, Linebacker Jim Youngblood and Running Back Lawrence McCutcheon, who has rushed for more than 900 yards in each of the last two seasons. Whoever it is that the Bills want, Rosenbloom says, "We can't give what they are asking. I don't think anyone in the league can."
The Rams' first counteroffer, which reportedly consisted of Defensive Tackle Cody Jones, Linebacker Jack Reynolds and Running Back Cullen Bryant, fell far short of Buffalo's asking price. Insiders say the Rams recently have conceded on McCutcheon, but they are now lumping him with 33-year-old Wide Receiver Jack Snow, journeyman Defensive Back Steve Preece and reserve Defensive Tackle Bill Nelson. When asked about the latest speculation, Wilson says, "As someone remarked the other day, we're still 2,003 yards apart."
There is a report that the Rams have offered still another deal, this one sending two first- and two second-round draft choices to Buffalo. Wilson says he is not interested in draft choices. There is a chance if matters drag on that Commissioner Pete Rozelle might attempt to mediate. Keeping Simpson in football would certainly qualify as being in the best interests of the game. History indicates that Rozelle favors settling disputes of this kind with draft choices, and perhaps Rosenbloom is holding back in hopes that the commissioner will eventually employ his considerable persuasive powers on Wilson.
Less is known of the Bills' bartering with the Raiders. Managing General Partner Al Davis contends that, since his team is very deep on defense, it has more to offer Buffalo than the Rams have. Early in the going, Bills Coach Lou Saban gave Oakland the names of eight players and said that he would trade Simpson for three or four of them, depending upon the combination. That list probably included Defensive Backs Neal Colzie, Charles Phillips and Skip Thomas, Defensive End Horace Jones and Linebacker Phil Villapiano. Before the Raiders could respond, Wilson stepped in and announced that he, not Saban, would close the deal. Matters have been at a standstill since.
Despite the fact that Oakland and Los Angeles are clearly better teams than Buffalo, it is unlikely Simpson would gain as much rushing yardage with either as he has with the Bills. Buffalo has an excellent run-blocking line, and Saban is a master at devising rushing offenses. In four years under Saban, Simpson has run for 6,196 yards to move into fourth place on the alltime list. His single-season record of 2,003 yards, set in 1973, is unlikely to be eclipsed soon. What is likely is that if McCutcheon moves to Buffalo, he will become the league's leading ball carrier.
Additional rushing titles do not mean much to Simpson. He recently told his former business manager, Chuck Barnes, that if he has to retire his epitaph will read: "O. J. Simpson was a great running back who never played for a championship team." Then he added, "I could go back to Buffalo, gain 1,500 yards and we'd still finish 7-7." That would seem to indicate that Simpson's desire to move West may be based on competitive considerations as well as marital ones.
Retirement is more of a possibility for Simpson than most people realize. He has been so successful off the field that he has transcended the need to remain in the athletic limelight. This week O. J. Simpson, the ABC-TV sports commentator, is in Montreal covering the Olympic Games. O. J. Simpson, the movie star, now commands six figures for his film roles and will soon appear as a priest in The Cassandra Crossing. O. J. Simpson, the pitchman for products and services, has just announced the signing of a lucrative long-term agreement with Tree-Sweet Products Co. to help promote that firm's citrus juices. Yes, O.J. will be pushing o.j.
If football is no longer essential to Simpson's economic well-being, it probably is necessary for repairing his marriage. The NFL season is now, in effect, O.J.'s off-season. Playing in Los Angeles this fall is the only thing that will keep him home. "I'm not looking for any glamour city," Simpson said last week. "I just want to go home."
In California, Simpson is unlikely to match the rushing yardage he had with the run-oriented Bills.
Marital woes have left O.J. unusually somber.