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Vintage Juice 1864

How O.J. Simpson topped Jim Brown's single-season rushing record and broke the NFL's 2,000-yard barrier

Posted: Tuesday September 11, 2007 3:28PM; Updated: Tuesday September 11, 2007 3:59PM
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By Ron Fimrite

This story was originally published in the Dec. 24, 1973 issue of Sports Illustrated.

"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 after 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.

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