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O.J. and me

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... I looked up and found myself gazing at the unmistakable profile of Orenthal James Simpson.


It was a stormy late Sunday afternoon in November back in the early 1990s. I was in the Pittsburgh International Airport, seated in an easy chair in the VIP lounge of a major airline. The lounge was VIP in the sense that all one had to do to gain access was pay a couple of hundred bucks for the annual membership fee. I was on the rubber chicken circuit traveling around the country in those days, and spent a lot of time sitting in airports, so the annual fee seemed well worth the price.

I had spoken at a brunch that day, and my flight home had been delayed by the weather, so I was biding my time watching the late afternoon NFL game on TV when I became aware of someone taking a seat in the chair next to me. At first, I didn't even bother to look up to see who it was, but glancing toward the floor I couldn't help but notice that he was wearing very fancy cowboy boots, which appeared to be crafted out of alligator skin and that his legs were swathed in expensive leather slacks. So I looked up and found myself gazing at the unmistakable profile of Orenthal James Simpson.

At that time, he was already exceedingly famous but had not yet reached the level of infamy that the stabbing murder of his former wife would bring. He was, however, the only player in NFL history to have rushed for over 2000 yards when the seasons were only 14 games in length. In his post-playing career, he had become an NFL commentator (which, I realized, must have been why he was in Pittsburgh that day -- the Steelers had played at home in an early game) and a movie actor. He was little better than average at either endeavor, his delivery being somewhat wooden, but he was aided greatly by his fame and good looks.

It was his long-time role as a spokesman for Hertz, the car rental company, that kept his fame alive, though. The iconic commercials showing him racing through airports, leaping over luggage, and dodging little old ladies to make his flight were instantly recognizable by everyone.

Having no idea whether he'd blow me off or not, I introduced myself and said that I was a friend of Will McDonough, the legendary The Boston Globe sportswriter whose sources within the NFL and its teams were such that they led CBS to hire him as a commentator, usually working the games alongside Simpson. The old running back turned out to be happy to have someone to chat with (probably because there was no female in the vicinity to hit on; he had the well-earned reputation of an incorrigible womanizer). At one point in our conversation, I mentioned that most of the old Patriots players that I'd come across at various charity events had trouble with their leg joints as a result of the football culture of playing even when they were hurt. I asked O.J. what kind of shape his legs were in.

"Aw heck," he said (well, that's not exactly what he said), "You could outrun me." He lifted his leather pants leg and exposed a knee that looked like a jigsaw puzzle that had been cut so often by surgeries. It looked much like one of Bobby Orr's knees, both men having had most of their procedures done in the early 70s, before the age of less invasive-arthroscopic surgery. I asked Simpson how, with bad knees, he was able to shoot all those Hertz commercials that showed him racing through airports. He said that they took all day to shoot and then were creatively edited to give the impression that he was running at top speed.

At one point, an airline representative informed Simpson that his flight to Los Angeles was boarding. Simpson thanked him and kept on chatting. After a few more warnings about his flight's impending departure, he finally picked up his bag, and without so much as a "see ya later," headed on his way. I figured he timed his exit from the lounge so that he'd be the last to board his flight and that everyone else on it would be seated, see him boarding, and imagine that he'd been racing through the airport, just like in the commercials.

Fast forward several months. I was on Nantucket for John Havlicek's annual fishing tournament to benefit the Genesis Fund. One of the regular attendees was Will McDonough, O.J.'s broadcast partner on the NFL games. A movie screen had been set up in a large tent behind the hotel where we were headquartered, and the NBA finals were being shown on it. Suddenly, it was preempted by the infamous Ford Bronco slow-motion chase in which Simpson, who had been named as a person of interest in the stabbing deaths of his former wife, Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, rode in the backseat with a gun to his head, threatening to pull the trigger. McDonough, who knew him well, was sure that Simpson would never harm himself, insisting that, "He just loves being O.J. Simpson too much." Will was right on that score.

We all know that after riding around in the Bronco for a few hours, Simpson returned to his house none the worse for wear and that after a month-long trial, which held the nation in its grip, the jury acquitted him in a controversial decision.

He had won great fame in his time and he beat the murder rap in court, but he has never been able to outrun the verdict of public opinion. It has haunted him all his days ever since and will continue to haunt him to his grave and beyond.

One wonders if that will also be the result of another recent high-profile case that was tried in the United States Senate.

- Dick Flavin is a New York Times bestselling author; the Boston Red Sox "Poet Laureate" and The Pilot's recently minted Sports' columnist.

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