"Look at this, the kid gave me a black eye on the play," said Jim Hudson, the Jets' safety, revealing a right eye that was indeed puffed and discolored. "I can't believe it. He dropped me with a stiff-arm. It's never happened to me before."
Three years later Lou Saban arrived to coach Buffalo. The architect of 1,000-yard runners—Cookie Gilchrist on the old AFL Bills, Floyd Little at Denver—Saban would build an offense for O.J. "One day Lou came into a meeting," says Left Guard Reggie McKenzie, one of the five big linemen Saban put up front for O.J., "and he went around to the wide receivers—Haven Moses and J. D. Hill and Bobby Chandler—and said, 'Haven, if you don't block, I can't use you.... Bobby, if you don't block, I can't use you....' like that. They were wearing those old one-bar helmets, but after practice they all went in to see Tony Marchitte, the equipment man, to get two bars, loops and everything else put on their helmets."
There was the record 2,003-yard season in '73, with the 250-yard opening game against New England. "That's probably my alltime No. 1 game," O.J. says. "I came in with a bad rib; we'd lost all our preseason games; they were cocky. It was my first NFL record game. It got us off winging."
By the fourth game the yardage record was beginning to take shape. O.J. hit the Eagles for 171. "At halftime I wrote the word TACKLE in three-foot-high letters on the blackboard," says Philadelphia Coach Mike McCormack. "We keyed on him wherever he lined up. We just couldn't tackle him." On Dec. 16, O.J. needed 61 yards in the snow and sleet of New York's Shea Stadium to break Jim Brown's single-season record. He got the record in the first quarter. He needed 197 yards to hit 2,000 for the season; he got 200.
"I remember one meeting after a Thursday afternoon practice before that game," McKenzie says. "All the offensive linemen got together on our own and took in an extra can of film to look at. Afterward—I'll never forget looking into each other's faces—we started chanting, 'We're not gonna be denied.' "
For O.J. it ended in Buffalo in 1977 with a knee operation after the seventh game. He said goodby to his teammates in the locker room. "Lemme have your jersey, man," said Jim Braxton, O.J.'s 240-pound blocking back. "Only if I can have yours," O.J. said, and pretty soon they were coming over, one by one, handing him their jerseys and shaking his hand. He had a feeling he wouldn't be back. Lou Saban had quit the year before, and O.J. had come on strong about a series of moves that shipped out some of the Bills' prime talent—Ahmad Rashad, Mike Montler, J. D. Hill, the Crack-back Hill whose wipeout blocks from the outside had helped O.J. pile up so many yards. On March 24, 1978 he was traded to San Francisco, his hometown.
"Home at last, great God Almighty, I'm home at last," O.J. said.
Home. Potrero Hill, where he had grown up in a series of World War II temporary homes built for the shipyard workers, a row of barracks-like structures called The Projects. One day last week O.J. took a slow cruise through the old neighborhood with Al Cowlings, the 49er defensive end who had grown up in the same place.
"There's the corner where I got busted for the first time," O.J. said. " Connecticut and 20th, Sam's Superette, that wall right there. We were getting things together for a party, picking up a little food at one store, a little wine at another, and there's where the police caught up to us."
"You wanted to run for it, remember?" Cowlings said. "I said, 'Uh, uh, no way.' You just figured you had the best chance 'cause you were faster than anybody else."