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Hofer admits that when he was told he would be replacing O.J., he didn't know how to act. "I felt a little awkward, to tell you the truth," Hofer says. "I mean, how would you feel, replacing one of the greatest runners ever to play the game? O.J. made me feel very comfortable in the situation, though."
There was no bitterness. No harsh words. Any resentment that might have been felt was kept on a very low cooker. Class and style have been O.J.'s trademark for 13 years, ever since he burst onto the national scene as a junior tailback at USC in 1967. Class and style were part of the package the 49ers got when they acquired O.J. from Buffalo in 1978 in exchange for five draft choices.
When Edward DeBartolo Jr., the 49ers' 33-year-old owner, is reminded that he's paying $733,358 a year for a player who can no longer go the distance, he bristles. "I'd do it again in a minute," DeBartolo says. "I have the utmost and highest respect for him, more than for anyone I've ever met. He's giving us everything he has—his guidance, his leadership. He's going out like a man."
His voice softens. "I just wish I could have been his owner when he was 22."
O.J. at 22 was a confused rookie in a Buffalo system he could never understand, a decoy while Coach Johnny Rauch, one year removed from the fling-it-up offense at Oakland, chose to build his attack around Jack Kemp's 34-year-old arm instead of O.J.'s legs. Rauch had O.J. bulk up to 217 pounds and told him to crack in there tough when he was running inside the tackles, and never mind all that stutter-stepping and looking for daylight.
University of Minnesota Coach Murray Warmath, who remembered the way O.J. had dazzled his Golden Gophers for 236 yards and four touchdowns the year before, shook his head and said, "If they try to make a power runner out of him, it's like putting plumber's tools in the hands of a violinist."
Simpson had set 13 records at Southern Cal. In his senior year he had averaged almost 35 carries and 171 yards a game. Years later, when O.J.'s USC coach, John McKay, was going through the expansion miseries at Tampa Bay, he'd say, "I keep a picture of O.J. Simpson at my side at all times to remind me of the days when I knew how to coach."
UCLA game, 1967, O.J.'s junior year, the winner goes to the Rose Bowl. Fourth quarter, and O.J. was having a case of the fumbles, and the assistant coaches were screaming to get him out of there. "Be patient," McKay said. "He'll do it." And then, bam! Blast-23 off right tackle.
"Third-and-nine, and the quarterback audibled into it," says Craig Fertig, one of the USC assistants who were doing the hollering. "The guard and tackle both missed the audible. There was no blocking. O.J. just picked his way through the whole mess, 64 yards for the TD that put us in the Rose Bowl."
The 1969 season O.J. was playing decoy in the NFL for a 34-year-old quarterback. He opened his pro career with an inauspicious 35-yard day against the Jets, but in the locker room the Jets were talking about one play: O.J.'s eight-yard touchdown run. He was pinned, made a 180-degree cut in full stride, shot between two Jets and was into the end zone before they knew where he was.