It was late afternoon, Monday, June 13, 1994. Working for what was then one of America’s last remaining evening newspapers, The Buffalo News, I vividly recall the shock of nearly 1,300 employees as the report of a double murder in the Brentwood section of Los Angeles appeared in our evening edition. I also remember well the distinct denials that such a crime had anything to do with the city’s favorite son, O.J. Simpson.
The ‘Juice’ most everyone knew back then, whether through achievements on the football field or theatrics on the television screen, was the man people in Buffalo had come to love and adore. Charismatic, fashionable, gregarious, handsome, highly talented and full of personality, O.J. had created a haven for himself unlike any athlete of the day. Of his 11 years in the NFL, O.J. Simpson spent nine of them in the bitter cold, yet genuinely warm city of Buffalo. Located within throwing distance of Lake Erie and the Niagara River, Buffalo sits as far west in the state of New York as one can go. Likewise, the way of life for its people is as far from that of the big city some 380 miles to the east — whether we’re talking simple values or navigating the weather. Having been in and out of the confines of a newspaper building in the heart of downtown Buffalo countless times, I can attest to just how bitter ‘bitter cold’ is and uniquely kind the people of the city are. I can also vouch that Buffalo’s love for the Bills ranks as deep as any I’ve seen in my lifetime and that’s saying something. Tuscaloosa and Dallas come close but as the Buffalo Bills go, so goes Buffalo and in those years, O.J. was at the center of it all.
By 1973, the people of Buffalo had fully embraced O.J. Simpson. The collective adoration of all things Simpson became more intense that year when O.J. rushed for 2,003 yards. It was the first time in NFL history that any running back had reached the 2,000 yard mark and still stands today as the record for rushing yards in a 14 game season. That four more running backs have reached 2,000 yards in a 16 game season since then is incomparable to what O.J. did while a Buffalo Bill. O.J. was not just a local hero, he was now loved by millions coast to coast and number 32 had become the favorite of kids everywhere. O.J. had it all … or so it seemed.
It was the beginning of summer and a little more than 20 years since O.J.’s record setting performance in ‘73. After the spectacle of a bizarre slow-speed chase, during which he threatened suicide, O.J. was arrested late in the night on June 17, 1994, for the murders in Brentwood and went on trial in Los Angeles six months later. In what few across the country could have imagined, a frenzied, surreal, circus-like atmosphere rather than a legitimate trial ensued and America became mesmerized for 10 afflictive months. That is was televised meant courtroom actors like Ito, Clark, Darden, Cochran, Fuhrman and Kardashian, among others, became household names. Throughout the five story complex of the Buffalo News, televisions were on and eyes rarely blinked for fear some contorted theory of innocence would be missed. Productivity dipped a bit as we watched a man synonymous with Buffalo play a jury for every lack of sense and morality it had. The country was split about O.J.’s guilt during those months, but I’m guessing most know today that O.J. Simpson had committed a crime so heinous one would have to be deranged to orchestrate it, much less do it.
It was April 1995. Along with some colleagues who lived in Los Angeles, I stood at the gate of 875 S. Bundy and wondered aloud how a man could do what was done just 10 feet away months earlier. In a space no bigger than an average bedroom, Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman were killed by a hero gone mad and who, for reasons we can only imagine but will likely never grasp, got away with it. Hours later and only a few miles from S. Bundy, we stood at the entrance to 360 N. Rockingham and thought about the sort of rage a person must have to lose all that Simpson had lost.
For crimes he and a few pals committed in September 2007, O.J. went before a parole board this past Thursday, nine years into his 33-year sentence for those crimes. Still having the charisma to appear reasonable and persuasive, O.J. made his case to be set free from the prison cell he’s occupied since October 2008. Whatever we may think of the decision, the nine years Simpson served is an example of just how true it is that everything we do has a consequence ... sooner or later. O.J. may have avoided life in prison for taking the lives of two innocent people, but for the past nine years has received a small dose of what, in my view, is the much greater punishment he should have received in ’95. Now 70 years old, O.J. is but a shell of the upright, powerful man he once was. I guess prison does that to a man. And, I suppose so does the realization that real freedom, absent real repentance, will always be at arm’s length. Escaping justice by avoiding capture or being acquitted by an irresponsible, runaway jury or simply walking out of a prison cell upon being paroled doesn’t necessarily provide freedom. To be set free and have a chance at Heaven, O.J. must come clean. Same goes for me and you.
Orenthal James Simpson was a hero loved by the good people of a place called Buffalo, a region called Western New York and a country called America. He had it all and, for reasons that don’t make sense, squandered it all. Even so, in a couple of months, the once adored number 32 will strut out of a Nevada prison he’s called home for almost a decade, but where he goes will really be no better or freer than where he’s been until he chooses to right his wrongs.
Otherwise, his destination may be Hell’s gate.