On that snowy afternoon in 1973 when he set the NFL single season rushing record at 2,003 yards, O.J. Simpson came out of the game and, well, let's let him tell it: "I was in the locker room all by myself right before the game ended. I started walking around thinking how I couldn't wish to be anything more or anyone else. I was part of the history of the game. If I did nothing else in my life, I'd made my mark." O.J. describes the feeling at that moment as something like "floating."
We catch up with 36-year-old O.J., who first ran through defensive lines and next ran, and even flew, through airports, as he runs through his nicknames. There is, of course, "Juice," which is short for Orange Juice, which is long for O.J., which is short for his real name, which is another story to be dealt with later on. Then there's "Headquarters," which has to do with the size of O.J.'s head, which is rather large. ("When I was a kid I was so embarrassed at how big my head was that I always wore hats. The first few days of my rookie year at Buffalo I couldn't practice because they couldn't find a helmet large enough to fit me. But Richard Burton told me that all the great actors have large heads and big faces. Large canvases. Burt Reynolds, Clint Eastwood, Meryl Streep.") Then there's "Filibuster," which has to do with O.J.'s tendency to engage just about anyone in conversation, which is as rare in a celebrity as it is welcome. ("Friends come over my house to watch football on TV, and I talk so much all I hear is--'Juice, shut up.' They all want to know how Howard's going to get a word in edgewise.")
That's Howard, as in Cosell, as in "Monday Night Football," as in The Booth where the drop-dead devastatingly handsome O.J. will be (did anyone say, ensconced?) for seven regular season games, the Pro Bowl and one exhibition game this year starting tonight with the Redskins versus the Dolphins, as in, perhaps, Kismet, which is somewhere south of Green Bay.
It is Cosell who has said, if you want to be a sportscaster you must either be a former superstar athlete or a gutteral illiterate. Certainly O.J. was the former. He was, in his time, without peer as a running back. "I've always felt I'd end up doing 'Monday Night,' " O.J. says, between sips of--what else--orange juice. "In 1976 it looked like I was going to retire. I was with ABC then, and I talked with Roone Arledge, major-domo of ABC Sports and News ; he wanted me in the booth. But when I finally did retire in 1979 I was under contract to NBC. Obviously, coming back to ABC I wanted the booth. I never would have done the 'Game of the Week' for NBC. That's just analysis. But 'Monday Night' is special. I'd have done it any time. It's more entertainment than reporting, more like a conversation than analyzing. And it's Prime Time." (It's game face time. Put on your high-heel sneakers, wear your wig hat on your head.)
"You get more visibility working 'Monday Night Football' than you do being vice president," says ABC's college football analyst, Beano Cook. "And the job in the booth is more important."
The "Monday Night" starting team of Cosell, Frank Gifford and Don Meredith remains intact. For those games that Meredith passes up, O.J. replaces Fran Tarkenton as the third man in the booth, a substitution rumored in television circles for the better part of a year. "If I was in or not, Fran was out," O.J. says. "He was his-tory anyway." It is said that ABC executives considered Tarkenton's on-air style essentially negative and wanted Fran to Scram. "It's a real good move for ABC," says a CBS sports executive. "O.J.'s one of the class acts in sports." Undoubtedly O.J. will be more positive, more upbeat than Tarkenton. In fact, O.J. is such a thoroughly pleasant man that if he was any more upbeat, he would levitate.
The reasons for hiring O.J. are clear: His name carries great marquee value; his ebullience is immediately attractive; his rapport with Cosell is both obvious and deep. But he has little experience as a football commentator; a Hula Bowl and a couple of Rose Bowls do not an oeuvre make. And even if "Monday Night" is the catbird seat, isn't it a curious thing that Keith Jackson, Fred Williamson, Alex Karras and now Tarkenton have all come and gone? "Other than learning the names and numbers, when I did the Rose Bowl, I just ran in the booth and talked. This week I've been in a panic. I even had them ship me highlight films so I'd learn about these teams; I haven't looked at films since I played . . . I just don't know how I'll do. I know the game, and I tend to be colorful, but I may get a little long at times. I've just got to try and be myself. The less I say, probably the better, these first few games."
One thing he says he won't do is back off any issue that comes up, including the biggest one in the NFL today, drugs. O.J. has spent his adult life in two worlds--pro sports and Hollywood--where drug use is likely to happen on any day ending in "y." To think that he was blind to it would be naive. "When I first came into the league there was some heavy drinking going on--heavy drinking," he says. "As a rookie, before practice I'd go past the cars in the lot and have to wake some of the guys up--they'd gotten so drunk they'd fallen asleep in their cars. Then, in the early '70s, the kids coming into the league were in the marijuana group; there was very common marijuana use in the league, just as there was on the college campuses. In the late '70s there was a changeover from marijuana to cocaine. I think coke use is down from two years ago. I think guys are getting scared off it because of things like freebasing. I can't believe that 50 percent of the players use it; I don't think any players play on it. But I think exposure to it is probably 100 percent. You can't tell me that any of these guys haven't seen it or wouldn't be able to get it if they wanted it. Sports should be the last place in society it would surface, and if it has surfaced there, it's got to be everywhere. I think players who are moving it ought to be nailed to the wall, but players who are using it should be helped."
In the last five years O.J. has gone through retirement, a highly publicized divorce and an obvious period of readjustment. Unlike so many other ex-jocks who have attempted to recreate themselves in the booth when they could no longer do it on the field, O.J. has followed the example of Jim Brown and Joe Namath in trying to make it as an actor. He has appeared in such memorables as "The Towering Inferno," and such forgettables as "Killer Force" and "The Cassandra Crossing." He formed a production company, and NBC aired his two TV movies, "Goldie and the Boxer" and its sequel, "Goldie and the Boxer Go to Hollywood." (Before you giggle, remember who costarred in "Bedtime for Bonzo.") As an actor, he's no Olivier, then again, if you needed six yards, would you give the ball to Sir Laurence?
"I felt I had to get away from sports for a while if I was going to have any chance to make it in films," O.J. says. "Also I knew it'd be difficult for me to adjust to not being a player, so I had to immerse myself in something entirely different." There isn't the slightest twinge of regret in his voice as he says, "I've been happy. I'm a realist. Obviously I'm not a Dustin Hoffman. I have to play an athletic type, just as Woody Allen has to play a wimp type. No matter how many acting lessons I took, the public wouldn't buy me as Othello. Jim and Joe and I have been victims of being great athletes to some degree. I recognized that and tried to carve out a niche that was good for me: The guy who can be led astray briefly into something shady--but essentially a good guy. I don't mind playing myself. I like myself. And I like to think that the public sees me as a good guy . . . I had a gift as a football player, and I didn't want to cheat that gift. I'm proud that when I played I was the best. But I don't have to be the best actor. I'm not that competitive anymore. I left it on the field. I think maybe Jim didn't. Maybe all that anger that he projects is because he retired too soon, and he didn't get all of it out."
And yet O.J. isn't completely satisfied with the scripts that come at him. "They aren't great roles. Mostly third and fourth leads--add a little color, so to speak," he says, laughing knowingly. He is asked if he might have liked to be in the "Rocky" series. The character Rocky intrigued me, but not Apollo Creed," he says. "Now, if they'd given me 'Saturday Night Fever'--that's a different story." A mischievous glint comes into his eyes and he says, "The boy thought he could have smoked in that."
Okay, we promised the name story. Here it is:
The O.J. stands for Orenthal James.
(What? You don't know anyone named Orenthal? Come on. The next thing you'll say is that you don't know anybody named Gurcel.)
O.J.'s mother had four sisters. The deal they had was that all five women took turns naming each other's children. When Eunice Simpson had her third son it was her sister Jonnie Mae's turn to give the name, and she picked, Orenthal. She said she'd heard it somewhere, though nobody has been able to ascertain exactly where. Later, Jonnie Mae had another shot at a male child in the family and chose, Gurcel. Probably heard that one the same place she heard Orenthal.
"But when it came to naming her own children my aunt wouldn't let anyone do it but her," O.J. says, his smile a Halloween pumpkin. "She had three kids. She named them Stanley, Stewart and Pamela."
It only Hertz when he laughs.