O.J. Simpson. Remember him? Big, graceful guy in a red and gold uniform. Used to carry the ball 30, 40 times a game for USC. Nearly always made 100 yards, sometimes 200. Tremendous drive, 9.4 speed, tough enough to take the shots and come right back. Alltime All-America. Won the Heisman Trophy. Going to be All-Pro as sure as a wolf will eat a chicken. So, what happened? He went to Buffalo and disappeared. Sort of like he fell into a snowbank, maybe with just his shoes sticking out, and people would come by and say, "I think that's O.J. in there, but I don't see enough of him to know for certain."
Two entire football seasons have gone by since Simpson became a pro, and he has done hardly any of the things many thought he would do—like gain 1,000 yards rushing, lead the league in kickoff returns and in scoring, be recognized as an authentic superstar. This is particularly galling to O.J. because he knows in his heart that he is an authentic superstar, and that it is partly his own fault he hasn't shown it. "The last two years I was playing football just for the money," he said last week as the Bills prepared to meet the Falcons in Atlanta. "I couldn't wait for the season to end so I could get out of Buffalo and go back home. Well, man, I finally realized that was no way to be. I had to get my mind right and go to work."
Early this summer Simpson and several other Bills, including Quarterback Dennis Shaw, got together near their homes in California and agreed to quit complaining about Buffalo and about their head coach, John Rauch. Whether they would have been able to stick to the Rauch part is dubious, since he was not likely to have altered what the players considered a weird fondness for meetings, long workouts and rule making. In particular, Simpson felt Rauch was misusing him, not letting him run enough, making him run off tackle or up the middle too often, frequently sending him far downfield as a pass receiver to whom the ball was seldom thrown.
But before Simpson and most of the other veterans arrived at the Buffalo training camp at Niagara University, Rauch solved one problem for them in astounding fashion. On a TV show he had criticized two popular Buffalo players—one recently retired, the other traded—and Bills Owner Ralph Wilson told Rauch he was going to make a statement defending them. "If you do that, get yourself another coach," said Rauch, a rash statement for a man whose team had lost 20 of 28 games in the past two seasons.
That afternoon, Simpson ran into Harvey Johnson, the Bills' director of player personnel. "Uncle Harvey, how you doing, man?" said O.J.
"I am now the coach," said Johnson, "and we now have a new offense. It is called O.J. left, O.J. right and, occasionally, O.J. up the middle."
Then Johnson noticed Simpson's mighty Afro and new mustache, which looked like sideburns growing on his chin. "What are you doing with that hair on your face?" he said.
"My wife likes it," O.J. said.
"Don't fumble," said Johnson.
Despite the fact that the Bills blamed most of their troubles on their coach, as losers often do, Rauch was the same man who had a 33-8-1 record and an AFL title at Oakland. The Bills were young, thin at some positions and in transition from the tough old bulldog teams of the mid-'60s to the greyhounds of today. Also, last year they had a rookie quarterback, Shaw, and several serious injuries—one of which, in the eighth game, put O.J. out for the season.