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- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
Marquerite Simpson, a beautiful girl who is married to the most exciting player in college football, stood in a San Francisco hotel corridor between two suitcases that were much too big for her to carry. "O.J.," she said, "please come on and bring these downstairs. We're being picked up in five minutes."
"Just a minute," said O. J. Simpson, knocking on the door of one of the rooms. "First I've got to see what's going on in here." Simpson's life has become full of awards and public appearances and appointments; he almost always has to be someplace within the next five minutes. But last weekend he was in no special hurry, and his mind was far from football. The door opened, and he burst into the room with a laugh. Ron Copeland, the hurdler from UCLA, was playing host to a few other athletes in one of the oldest floating poker games in sports. "Well, well," said O.J., "here we are in the track season again."
On Friday night—only four days after he wound up his sensational season with USC in the Rose Bowl—Simpson competed in the 60-yard dash at the San Francisco Examiner All-American Games. He had no time to work out for the race, and even at his best he would have had no chance to win in a field that included virtually all the fastest sprinters in the country. Still, he went out of his way to be part of the opening of the indoor track season in his home town. "The meet gives Marquerite and me a free trip home to see our families," he said with typical candor, but there was more to it than that. Football is O.J.'s first love and it is going to make him rich, but track provides a low-pressure world of friends and laughs and excitement that he is not anxious to give up.
O.J. belongs to the colorful group of sprinters and hurdlers who seem to run faster and talk more with each new season. Among them he is not a football star. He is just another guy who can run 100 yards in 9.4 seconds, and half a dozen of them can run it in 9.3 or better. They like to kid him. Friday night he was greeted by Charlie Greene, the sharpest and maybe still the fastest of them all. "Hey, here's the celebrity," said Charlie. "What a shock I got one night when I was watching the Joey Bishop Show and big old ugly O.J. walked out." Earl (The Pearl) McCullouch, Simpson's USC teammate, and a world-record hurdler, said, "Just remember, when he was becoming the celebrity it was me up there doing the blocking for him." Bill Gaines, the newest member of the sprinting elite, said, "Pearl, don't tell me about O.J. and football. Just tell me where the card game is tonight."
Simpson enjoyed the needling, happy after months as the biggest man in football to be a part of the show the sprinters always put on. And the San Francisco meet was mainly their show. In this Olympic year many athletes are following careful training timetables designed to bring them to a peak in October. Some will skip the winter season and others will run only hard enough to win a few races, as Tommie Smith did Friday in the 300-yard dash. But the sprinters don't train as carefully nor do they think that far ahead. "Sure I'm pacing myself," said Greene blandly. "I'm taking it nice and easy." Then, after the meet, Charlie flew into the-15� cold of Edmonton, Alta., where he ran again on Saturday night. Greene and the other sprinters run when they are ready—and the best of them all happened to be ready Friday night. "This race," said Coach Bud Winter of San Jose State before the featured heat of the dash, "could almost be the finals of the Olympic trials."
The favorites were Greene and Jim Hines. But they were challenged by Willie Turner, veteran Mel Pender and the youthful Gaines, who fits right in with the loquacious sprinters. Gaines ("Call me Bill, not Billy") was a sensational high school runner at Mullica Hill, N.J. last year, and he would be again this year except that at 19 he is too old to compete under New Jersey high school rules. He solved that problem by moving to California, but then he was rejected by the first high school he tried because he refused to shave off his mustache and goatee. "Isn't that something else?" he asked. "How can they keep you out of school for the way you look?" Now he is finally enrolled at San Jose High, but he competes with the Santa Clara Valley Youth Village team, helping to give Coach Woody Linn one of the fastest squads in the country. "Last year I was glad to have guys who could do a 9.7 hundred," said Linn. "Now I don't even talk to 9.5 sprinters."
"I'll admit I feel worried," Greene said before the race. "I'm not really at my best for this kind of competition. I just hope I can get out in front and hold them off."
"I haven't done much work yet this season," said Hines. "I'll probably have trouble keeping up."
"Who are you guys kidding?" snapped Gaines. "If you weren't ready you wouldn't be running, and neither would I" If Bill loses many races this year, it won't be because he is awed by his elders.
Before the dash, the 60-yard hurdle race was run, and McCullouch complained more than the sprinters about not being ready. "My timing is off," he said, "and I probably won't have my usual quick start because I haven't worked on it in so long."