O.J. Simpson was unresponsive last week to the basic needs of America's pro football cult. Just when it appeared that popular demand would result in Canton, Ohio being assigned to him as a permanent summer home, or at the very least in his being named to the Supreme Court, Simpson had this deplorable afternoon in Buffalo, the city of his labors. He gained only 138 yards rushing. It was as if the supreme French chef had served the pot-au without the feu. As if Givenchy had shown only bathrobes and sailor hats. As if John Steinbeck had written Travels With My Gerbil. Sure, the Bills had crumbled the Denver Broncos as easily as they had mangled the Jets and the Steelers in their previous two games, but O.J. had not galloped for his customary 4,000 miles. In the aftermath a rumor circulated that Reggie McKenzie had wept.
On the other hand, think of it this way: O.J. has gained 538 yards in only three games, and 35 years ago—is 1940 that long ago?—a sidestepping judge named Whizzer White led the NFL in rushing for a season with 514 yards. Or consider that O.J.'s 538 yards is the best beginning ever for a pro running back, including all of those years Jim Brown trotted up and down the spines of cornerbacks and safeties.
Or better still, get out your pocket calculator and multiply Simpson's per game average of 179.3 yards by 14, the number of games in a season. If your Bowmar Brain doesn't blow a transistor, you'll find out that O.J. is headed for exactly 2,511 yards rushing in 1975. That is five playing fields more than he gained two seasons ago when he set the record and became the sport's first 2,000-yard runner.
But enough of this new math. O.J. Simpson lives. He is the light, the spirit, the guru of all running backs. He became that as a collegian at USC, when he was merely brilliant enough in only two seasons to make everybody's alltime, 100-year team. And now, after a slow start in Buffalo that was largely attributable to the coaching genius of such pillars of the profession as John Rauch and Harvey Johnson, who thought in terms like "Hey, gang, I've got an idea; let's use him as a decoy," O. J. has immortalized himself as a pro.
As anyone who ever saw him at USC knew, Simpson was destined to become the best there ever was, if he could stay healthy and if he was given the opportunity to carry the ball behind a group of linemen who could block as well as Donald Duck's nephews. He missed that opportunity in his first three seasons in Buffalo under the marvelous tutelage of first Rauch and then Johnson. Although O.J. always said, "The more I carry the ball, the better I get," in no season from 1969 through 1971 was he called on often enough that he was able to gain as many as 750 yards. It was not until Lou Saban returned to Buffalo as the head coach that O.J. was unloosed.
Simpson says, "A running back is one of the few players on a team who can step right in as a rookie and from the start play his position as well as he'll ever be able to play it. Frankly, I think my best years have been wasted. When I came to the pros I was 22 years old, I could run the 100 in 9.4 and I was at my best athletically."
But it may be that Rauch and Johnson did O.J. a favor. They could have worn him down by running him behind Buffalo's old offensive line. It could not compare with the Bills' current bunch of blockers—The Electric Company. Turns on The Juice. Get it? Welcome to headline-writers' heaven.
As John Brodie, the ex-49er who is now a quarterback for NBC-TV, says, "The only time an offensive lineman ever gets his name mentioned is when he's caught holding." Simpson long has been on a campaign to change all that. He always gives lavish credit to his blockers, invariably referring to himself and his exploits in the first-person plural. In short, O. J. is the first one to acknowledge that at least part of what he has become is the result of the work of these great Americans:
?Mike Montler. He is the center. He snaps the ball to Quarterback Joe Ferguson, who then hands it to O. J. If Montler refuses to snap the ball, there is no play. He is 6'4", 245 pounds and he played at Colorado. New England thought Montler was too slow to be a tackle. He is. The Bills took him on two years ago because they thought he could play center. He can. He's a strong drive blocker, which is as essential to the well-being of a good ballcarrier as a deodorant endorsement.
? Reggie McKenzie. He is the left guard. That means he pulls a lot to lead O.J. around the right side of the line. McKenzie is 6'4", 244 and he played at Michigan. He might have been slightly overrated among left guards in the past because his close friendship with O.J. had gotten him considerable publicity. But this year he may no longer be overrated because he is an improved pass blocker, which makes him a better friend of Joe Ferguson's. If it does a runner good to have a high-spirited cheerleader on the squad, O.J. certainly has one in McKenzie.