Coaches, scouts and writers have been trying to figure out all season who it is Simpson's running style reminds them of. He has exhibited the raw burst of speed that Mel Renfro had in college and some of the deceptive moves of Gale Sayers. But he also slams in there and breaks tackles like Jim Brown. Give him daylight, and he slides through with the nifty balance of Jon Arnett.
As deft as any move Simpson ever made was the one Southern Cal used to land him and keep him hooked for an extra year at City College of San Francisco when O.J. truly wanted to leave. Simpson was born and grew up in San Francisco, where his father is a custodian for the Federal Reserve Bank. When he graduated from Galileo High School, which also turned loose such athletic figures as Joe DiMaggio, Hank Luisetti and Lawson Little, his transcript was not the kind that had Harvard seeking out his father at the Federal Reserve. O.J. entered City College of San Francisco in the hope of making good enough grades to get into a major college eventually, probably California. But as soon as he put on a football suit, other schools became interested, among them USC.
"When I decided I wanted to go to USC after my first year in City College, I still did not have the grades," says Simpson. "So I had to make a big decision. Arizona State and Utah sounded good to me because I could go to either one and play ball right away. I almost enrolled at Arizona State, but the USC coaches talked me into holding out for the big time. That is the luckiest thing that ever happened to me, even if I did have to spend another year going to junior college."
By leaving the San Francisco area to go to school down south, Simpson was following at least one pair of noteworthy footsteps: Gary Beban's. "Why, Beban has been my idol," says Simpson. "Seriously. It's funny. He's from my part of the state, and I followed him closely for two years while I was in junior college. I watched him play on television, and in the Rose Bowl and all. He's great, man. It sure seems strange to be on a team now that wants to beat him."
Gary Beban, the UCLA answer to Orange Juice, is one of those athletes who do things with infuriating ease. He passes with classic form, and he runs gracefully, almost in slow motion except that he manages to turn the corners and slide through. When his passes are in the air, the ball somehow looks longer, and the spiral is perfect, as if Beban has figured out exactly how many rotations it should make. His ball handling is superb, his faking even better. But above everything else, Beban has poise.
Says a scout: "He is about the most self-assured player I've ever seen. He knows exactly what he is going to do, and he will spot things out there, file them away mentally and use them on you later. You don't judge Beban on how much he does, not on his statistics. He beats you with the 'when' he does something. Invariably it's at the perfect time."
Prothro has often said that Beban can beat you with a run, pass, fake or call, and that his ability to change plays at the scrimmage line is perhaps his finest asset. A familiar sight for three seasons has been Beban behind the center, shifting his backs, then checking, raising his head to survey the defense and shouting another play that unfolds perfectly. In the clutch.
"There's something about the way he manages things out there that gives everyone confidence," says Fullback Rick Purdy. "You just know whatever he calls is right." Not that he always does what he calls, as Purdy discovered in the Stanford game three weeks ago. Twice in scoring situations Beban announced in the huddle that Purdy would run a play simply called "power," a smash into the line, and twice Beban, without telling anyone, kept the ball and walked over for the touchdowns that rescued the Bruins from a poor day, 21-16.
"I think he should have told me, at least, what he was going to do," Purdy says. "The first time, I almost killed myself scrambling around to find the fumble when he took the ball out of my stomach."
Beban grins. "I'd seen the way the end defensed us on the play earlier, and I just knew if I kept the ball I'd fool everyone. By not telling anybody, it was even more authentic. I could hear Rick cussing because of his fumble when I went around end, and I had to laugh."