At the time Simpson had an astonishing 48-yard average on kickoff returns. But opponents had quit kicking to him. So for the Cincinnati game the Bills used a trick return. Simpson lined up on the right and ran all the way across the field to catch the ball. Recalls Simpson, "Going up the sideline, I got hit and couldn't pull away and couldn't fall because a guy was on my legs, and they kept coming and hitting me like I was a dummy punching bag, and I had to be carried off the field."
He was taken to Buffalo General Hospital for surgery on his left knee. "I woke up the next morning feeling sorry for myself," he says. "I was reading the paper and it said in the headline SIMPSON DOESN'T NEED SURGERY. Idiot press, I thought, can't they get anything right? But then I started wondering and pulled off the bandage and the splint, and there was my whole knee with no cut in it."
The damage was, in fact, a tear in the back of the knee, and the prognosis was rest. Simpson went home to Bel Air and got a role in a movie about an encounter session. In May he started lifting weights and made up his mind to accept his lot with Rauch and to work hard.
"I admire Rauch to a certain extent," says O.J., "because he won't ever back down on anything to anybody. But Harvey has made the game fun again. We work hard when we work, but he gives us a lot of free time. He's done away with much of the senseless stuff and the boredom. This game is changing fast, or at least the athletes are. These days a pro athlete wants to be paid for playing, not for acting like he's in military school. Yelling and fussing all the time and making you stand in line and get up for breakfast when you don't want to, all that stuff won't go down anymore. A player wants to be treated like a man. If he fouls up, get rid of him."
Although Johnson coached 12 games at Buffalo in 1968 after Joe Collier was fired, he was dumfounded when Ralph Wilson said, "Harvey, it's yours again." With that, Johnson decided he might as well take up coaching as a career and try to make it as pleasant as possible. One of the first things he did was tell his assistants they didn't have to work till midnight every night. "If you guys love to look at walls, go look at somebody else's," he said. Then he started whittling down Rauch's complicated offense. "The idea is to eliminate mistakes," Johnson says. "If I'm still here next year the offense will be even simpler. And of course I want to get the ball to O.J. in broken-field situations as often as possible."
This is clearly a sound idea. In the four exhibition games Buffalo has played to date, of which it lost two, including last week's 35-24 defeat at the hands of Atlanta, Simpson turned eight fairly short passes into 194 yards and four touchdowns. He also ran 35 times from scrimmage for a 5.0 average and another touchdown.
In 1970 Simpson caught only 10 passes. "I couldn't understand it," he says. "Take Wayne Patrick, now, our fullback. He's a heck of a fullback, weighs 250 pounds, good strong runner. But if we ran 20 screen passes, 18 of them would go to Wayne. I thought they ought to be throwing flares and screens to me so I could run in the broken field, but that just wasn't the plan.
"I'm being used now the way I was used in junior college—traps, reverses, sweeps, screens, flares—and I really like it. At USC I hit the holes quick and straight ahead, and once in a while broke a long run"—he smiles—"in a TV game. But I think the way we're doing it now is the best way for me. We've got plenty of speed, good, fast outside receivers—I'd say we could put together a 440 relay team that could beat any team in pro football—so the other clubs can't give me too much special attention. Jan White is coming on as a tight end, really blasting people, and you can't have a good running game unless you've got a tight end who can block. So I'm happy now, man. I'm having fun playing football. My first two years here I figured I'd play out my five, take my pension and quit. Now I'm thinking about playing eight years or 10 if I can make it."
Simpson is trying to become a team leader, too. "The leadership is swinging to the younger guys," he says. "It's like with the hair. Look around." When you do, you see poodle heads, sheepdogs, Sundance Kids. "The younger guys are stepping out," O.J. says. "The hair means the younger guys are not going to be inhibited, they're going to assert themselves. Of course, there's different ways to lead. I try to be a holler guy. J. D. Hill [a wide receiver], too. He's a rookie, but he's cocky and good. Some older guys like Joe O'Donnell [a guard] lead by action. And Dennis Shaw, he's a leader, his own boss, he lets you know you better get to work. Dennis is so cool it's fantastic. He's the same man whether he's in there eating dinner or it's third and seven."
The weights O.J. lifted to help mend his knee also put 15 solid pounds on him, and he hopes to play at 215; he stands 6'2". "When I used to get tired in a game, it was my back and not my legs," he says. "My back is stronger now. We've got these beautiful red, white and blue uniforms, and most of our backs and ends wear white shoes. Man, at last I feel like we're ready to fly."