"Hey, man," a Shea Stadium functionary confided to a Buffalo Bill on the sidelines at the Dec. 16 Bills-Jets game, "the Juice still needs three yards."
"Four," said the Bill, brushing aside the impertinence.
On the next play, with 4:26 remaining in the first quarter, O.J. Simpson gratefully accepted blocks from the left side of his line and churned through the snow for six yards to break Jim Brown's 10-year-old National Football League single-season rushing record of 1,863 yards. As befits an occasion of such historic moment, referee Bob Frederic stopped the game and ceremoniously returned to Simpson the ball he had just carried, whereupon the Juice toted it to the sidelines for safekeeping while most of the 47,740 shivering fans rose to applaud.
Simpson's teammates seemed curiously unmoved, however. They dutifully clapped him on the shoulder pads and noisily extolled him—"Way to go, Juice"—but there was little pizzazz in the celebration. It was obvious then that they were looking beyond this achievement to others just ahead.
"More, Juice, more," they chanted as Simpson jogged back to the huddle in his lazy-dog style. "Let's get more."
There was much more. And when, with 5:56 remaining in the game, Simpson burst over left guard for seven yards to the New York 13-yard line, the Bills stormed onto the field and hoisted him to their shoulders in a scene that was reminiscent of an old Jack Oakie picture. For now the Juice had done it: He had surpassed a hitherto unthinkable distance—2,000 yards—and he had triumphantly closed out a season unparalleled in the history of professional football. There was no need for more.
In this game alone Simpson had exceeded the legendary Jim Brown's records not only for yardage gained but also for most carries in a season. He surpassed Brown's 305 carries on the same play on which he surpassed his 1,863 yards, and he finished the season with 332 attempts, an average of nearly 24 a game. He had gained 200 yards for the second game in succession and for the third time in a season, both records, and he had enabled the once derided Bills to become the game's first 3,000-yard rushing team, replacing last year's Miami Dolphins as the NFL's alltime top rushers. Earlier in the year he set two other records by running for 250 yards against the New England Patriots and by carrying the ball 39 times against the Kansas City Chiefs. Preeminently, though, he became pro football's first 2,000-yard man—a 2,003-yard man, in fact, when statistics were revised after the game, which, incidentally, the Bills won 34-14 to close out the season with a 9-5 record, their best in seven years.
What is perhaps most remarkable about Simpson's record spree is that it was made possible by two games played on fields of such Siberian frigidity that they were fit only for eluding wolves. It snowed throughout the game the previous Sunday at Buffalo when Simpson gained 219 yards against New England, and, if anything, it was snowing even more fiercely in New York City last Sunday when he gained 200 yards. While teammates and foes alike were battling futilely to gain purchase on the frozen tundra, Simpson, a native San Franciscan who played for USC in the tarnished sunlight of Los Angeles, traversed the snowscape as swiftly and as surely as an avenging Cossack.
The Juice is really more than a record-breaking record breaker; he is a swashbuckling runner who calls to mind the derring-do of Hugh McElhenny, Jon Arnett, Willie Galimore and Gale Sayers. The 228-pound Brown, who retired in 1966 alter nine seasons with the Cleveland Browns to pursue cinematic immortality, was a punishing runner with breakaway speed. Simpson, while no wraith at 212, is the sort of escape artist beloved by fans.
"O.J. senses tacklers," says Houston Oiler linebacker Dick Cunningham, a former teammate. "He makes cuts that are uncanny. It's almost like the guy coming up behind him is yelling, 'Here I come. You better go the other way., "
Or perhaps he is, as Hall-of-Famer McElhenny once saw himself, "like a little kid walking down the middle of the street after a scary movie. He can't see anything in those shadows, but he knows something's there he'd better get away from."
Simpson admits to such sensitivity. No matter how low the temperatures—and they can be cruelly low in Buffalo—he always wears short-sleeved jerseys, exposing bare arms. "I can feel the tacklers better that way," he says. "I can feel their touch, and in a football game I just don't want to be touched. The more I feel that way, the better the game I play."
He is hardly an untouchable socially. In contrast to the frequently surly Brown, he is relentlessly congenial. And, if that were not enough, he also seems genuinely humble.
The Jet publicity people, anticipating the record onslaught, had set aside a special interview room for Simpson after Sunday's game, where he could preside with Kissingerian imperiousness over the press corps. Simpson entered this chamber with his entire offensive team in tow. "These," quoth he, "are the cats who did the job all year long." And he introduced them all—wide receiver J.D. Hill; flanker Bob Chandler; tight end Paul Seymour; tackles Dave Foley and Don Green; guards Reggie McKenzie ("My main man") and Joe DeLamielleure; center Mike Montler; quarterback Joe Ferguson; and fullback Jim Braxton.
"O.J. gives credit where credit is due," said Ferguson, a rookie whose unfamiliarity with NFL defenses hampered the Bills' passing game, permitting opponents to stack their defenses, albeit unsuccessfully, against the Juice's flow. "He's helped me on the field and off. Nobody here is jealous of him. He hasn't got an enemy in the world. All of us wanted to see him get the yardage."
"A record is a collective thing, anyway," says McKenzie, echoing the sentiments of the runner he blocks for. "I'm just thankful to be on the offensive line that broke Jim Brown's record."
Simpson himself is not convinced that his record is etched in granite. When asked after the game if he thought 2,003 yards would last, he commented quickly, "No, someone will come along and break it, but I hope to stay in the league until these guys [his offensive line] get so old no young back can get behind them to break my record." [Eric Dickerson of the Los Angeles Rams did gain 2,105 yards during the 16-game 1984 season. Simpson played in a 14-game season.]
The pressure in anticipating the breaking of the record may have reached him last week. He refused to accept telephone calls at his New York City hotel and protested mildly when photographers hounded him during the game. "Look, man, I can't do that here. C'mon now, no pictures now."
Throughout the season O.J. had fought to banish the accumulating figures from his mind, even to banish the thought of Jim Brown. There is a peril, he discovered, in keeping tabs on oneself.
"If you think about how much you're gaining," he said recently, "you're not thinking about winning the game. Actually, people are always asking me what I'm thinking about when I'm running. The answer is, nothing—or at least it used to be. But when you get close to a record, you think to yourself, If I'm this close, I might as well get it.
"But I still try not to keep track. Once during a game I heard the guy on the P.A. system announce that 'O.J. Simpson has such and such yards.' It scared me. I went down to the end of the bench and just batted myself in the ears, trying to get it all out of my head. Football is a team game. You can't be thinking about these other things."
It is unlikely, however, that "these other things" escaped Simpson's attention on Sunday. They were definitely on the minds of his teammates, who, in the bitter cold, continually exhorted one another to "open it up, open it up for the Juice."
Simpson steadfastly avoided such chatter. Huddled in his parka, he sat mostly in solitude on the bench, occasionally exchanging views on blocking assignments with Braxton or Hill, avoiding always the obvious.
But even he gave way to the occasion when Ferguson leaped high after first examining the yard markers to make certain that his friend and teammate had exceeded 2,000 yards. Hoisted aloft by his pals, Simpson raised his left fist in triumph. It was over, and he was through for the day and for the season.
There were no characteristic Simpson long-gainers in this game, his lengthiest run being a 30-yarder on the second play from scrimmage. The nearest he came to bursting free was on a patented sweep of right end in the third quarter. He seemed to be on his way down the snowpacked sideline when he was finally hemmed in by the Jet secondary after a 25-yard gain. It was one of three runs of more than 20 yards that he had during the day. Against New England the week before, he had broken loose on a magnificent, snow-churning 71-yard dash. This day he was more workmanlike, more Brownlike.
There are similarities between the game's two supreme rushers. Simpson wears Brown's number, 32, and, like the older man, aspires to a show-business career when his playing days are over.
"Actors have an air about them that athletes don't have," O.J. said the other day, looking decidedly untheatrical in his USC warmup jacket. "You know how people look at Jim. He's that tough guy beating up on everybody, throwing women out windows and shooting up all those people in the movies. Really, he's a good guy. But he has a very forceful way about him and people keep their distance. With me, well....
"But it's a real trip being somebody else. I've done a few things in the off-season, and I have my broadcasting. When I was at SC, I used to work in the studios and I'd watch some of those directors. I think I learned a lot, a lot of technique. I want to play at least two more seasons, until I'm 28. In two more years I'll be financially able to do what I want to do, even if it's nothing. Of course, if we're close to the Big One, I'll want to be there."
Brown, who performed in the pre-Super Bowl era, retired when he still had playing time left, but Simpson insists the actor has never influenced him in anything concerning his affairs. They are friends of a sort, near neighbors in Los Angeles, and Simpson occasionally plays basketball at Brown's house. They will talk sports, "although never business," says O.J., "business being football."
Brown is under the impression that he first met the man who broke his records when Simpson was an All-America and a Heisman Trophy winner at Southern Cal in the late '60s. But Simpson recalls an earlier meeting.
"I really first met him when I was just a kid in San Francisco. It was after a 49er game—I was a big fan of McElhenny and Joe Perry—and a bunch of us had gone across the street from Kezar Stadium to an ice-cream parlor where we used to hang out after games. We were just messing around in there when who should walk in but Mr. Jim Brown himself.
"Well, you know how kids are. We started fooling around, mumbling things, and finally I just walked right up to him and said, 'Mr. Brown, someday I'm going to break all your records, wait and see.' I know it sounds unbelievable now, but I was just kidding around.
"Brown hardly looked at me. He just kind of walked away with a smile on his face. Now that we've gotten to know each other, I felt I could ask him if he remembered that. time. Naturally he didn't remember it at all. Why should he? Just some dumb kid."
Mr. Brown might have occasion to remember it now.
Simpson's final gain of seven yards gave him 2,003 for the season.
This is one of 40 classic Sports Illustrated stories to be presented during 1994 as a special bonus to our readers in celebration of our 40th anniversary.
"You know how people look at Jim [Brown]," O.J. said. "He's that tough guy beating up on everybody, throwing women out windows.... He's a good guy. But...people keep their distance. With me, well..."