"I judge a runner by the thrills he gave me, not by the records." -- O. J. Simpson
We will be seeing more of Orenthal James Simpson, of course. Much more.
We will see him vaulting over barriers en route to airport rental car counters for Hertz. We will see him on the tube making pitches for various other products, including citrus: the Juice from California peddling the juice from Florida.
We will see him increasingly as a commentator for NBC-TV, and as one of the five "hosts" for that network's massive, 150-hour coverage of the Olympic Games from Moscow next summer.
And we will see him starring in flicks produced by his own film company, Orenthal Productions, including one coming up Dec. 30 on NBC, entitled "Goldie and the Boxer." (Simpson points out, smillingly, that he plays the boxer.)
But after this week, we never again will see Simpson in the role in which he first and permanently thrilled us: taking a handoff or a pitchout cutting and running for daylight with incomparable grace.
We never again will see the Juice flowing, gliding with balance and moves that Nureyev could envy, leaving would-be tacklers down on the field -- frustrated victims of straight arms and stutter steps, fakes and sprints and balletic leaps, a powerful choreography that elevated running with a football to an art form.
Having carried the ball more times (2,402) than any previous running back in pro football history, for more yards (11,336) than anyone except Jim Brown (12,312), and having gained more ground in one season than anybody else (2,003 yards in 1973), Simpson is retiring as a football player on Sunday, after 11 pro seasons.
He will not even accompany his team of the last two years -- the San Francisco 49ers, whom he dreamed of playing for as a kid growing up in the tough, unsightly Portero Hill section of this scenic City by the Bay -- when it flies back here following the final game of the season in Atlanta.
He will fly instead directly to his home in Los Angeles, to plunge right into the hectic schedule of what 49er Coach Bill Walsh calls "O. J.'s business and entertainment empire."
Unlike so many fading stars of the gridiron who approach the end of their athletic careers with fear and apprehension, Simpson knows that there is life after football. He is already a one-man conglomerate with an annual income estimated at $2 1/2 million, only $733,358 of which comes from his employment by the 49ers as a part-time back and full-time inspiration.
Because he is bright, affable, charming, articulate and credible, a public relations man's dream-come-true, Simpson is in constant demand for endorsements and appearances. So much so that NBC, which would like to use him more, cannot squeeze into the Juice's tight schedule except for the Olympic Games and trials, at least until next football season.
So we will be seeing more of him. Much more. But as No. 32 in a football uniform.
And since it was as a running back that fans first fell in love with him -- before his dazzling smile and personality took over and made him a unique superstar of sales -- his free-wheeling broken field style will remain a cherrished memory.
"If it were merely numbers that distinguished a runner, people would never remember Gale Sayers.I though nobody was as exciting or fluid as Sayers," Simpson said last week.
"In the case of a Jim Brown or an Earl Campbell, there's an awe of their ability. They are physical marvels. But as a kid, I wanted to be Gale Sayers. I don't think any kid can want to be a Jim Brown."
He was saying that Sayers, the Kansas and Chicago Bear great whose career was curtailed by injuries before he could amass statistics in the Brown-Simpson league, electrified spectators with moves and runs that seemed impossible with a body less extraordinary than Jim Brown's. That is what the young Simpson admired. And that is what he went on to do as well.
Simpson is sure that his records will be broken. That is inevitable. "I thought the 2,003 yards would be broken this year. As long as they had a 14-game season, I though it might stand up, but when they went to 16 games, I knew it wouldn't," he said.
"I'll keep an eye on them. I keep an eye on all runners. I saw in the paper last week that Earl Campbell has 18 touchdowns, and I thought, 'Five more and he'll break my record. I know they'll be broken, but they help me to feel that maybe I was the best of my time. All I can do is put them out there."
Simpson was asked recently, if he could have written the scenario of his farewell to football, how he would have it end.
"It would have been great to finish in the Super Bowl," he said, "to score the winning touchdown with no time left on the clock and just keep running into the tunnel.
It won't end that way, of course. He never played in a Super Bowl, and was never part of a great winning team. He is playing out the string as a 32-year-old substitute back on a rebuilding 49er team that goes into its final game 2-13, assured of at least a tie for the Nfl's worst record in 1979. But he says he has no regrets.
"You can't regret that. You can say, 'Oh, it would have been nice to play on a championship team,' but that isn't what happened. I never got the chance to play in one of those organizations, so I can't look back and regret it. It was out of my hands. I did the best I could under the circumstances I had," he said.
"I feel good about ending it here. As a kid I always prayed and hoped and dreamed of being a 49er, and I've gotten that opportunity. That's all anyone can ask for. I've had a great pro career, and the opportunity to play for my hometown team, and I can't imagine it being much better."
He is something of a civic treasure in San Francisco, the black Golden Boy of the Golden State, not only as an athlete but as a kid who came out of a rugged neighborhood and became a national symbol of success-through-decency.
Last Sunday, officially designated as "O. J. Simpson Day" in San Francisco, he was honored in ceremonies before the 49ers' last home game of the season. Then his team went out and got its second victory for him, over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 23-7.
With only 1:31 left in the game, and the outcome already assured, 44,506 spectators at Candlestick Park were screaming: "Juice, Juice."
Simpson trotted onto the field. As the crowd roared, he took a pitch-out, made the old stutter-step, and sprinted around the left end for 17 yards and a first-down that brought unbridled pandemonium: "Juice, Juice."
That may have been O. J.'s last run. It is not known jet whether or not he will play in Atlanta on Sunday. This will partly depend on the condition of Paul Hofer, the fourth-year man who took his place as a starter after the 11th game of the season, but reinjured bruished ribs on Sunday.
It will also depend on the disposition of Coach Walsh, who has said repeatedly that it would be "demeaning, an insult" to start Simpson merely as a gesture to his past greatness or to put him in on a goal-line situation to score one last touchdown, as he could have done last Sunday, as many fans wanted.
"That would have been tokenism, pure tokenism," said Walsh, who put in Lenvil Elliott and let him score on a one-yard plunge instead. "More dramatic than a one-yard touchdown was the run he made at the end of the game. There was just a little flash of the old brilliance, and that's what I hoped he would reveal."
After that dash, Walsh took Simpson out of the game, hugging him as he came off the field, beaming.The rest of the 49ers were there to grab him and shake his hand. In the front of the line was defensive end Al Cowlings, who is also retiring, a lifelong friend who grew up with Simpson in the Portrero Hill section called "The Projects" and played with him at Galileo High.
"That was like a storybook to me," said Walsh. "For him to break back on the pursuit as he's done so many hundreds of times and to make a sizeable gain, and then be taken out of the game with the crowd receiving him like that. It's the ideal conclusion of his career here, and I just feel super about that."
Simpson felt super about it, too.
"It was a good day, a good, good day, and I enjoyed it," he said of the afternoon that had begun with pre-game ceremonies bringing together his parents, old high school coaches, friends, John McKay, his college coach (now coach of Tampa Bay), and "most of the people who have been important in my career."
He was back in the dressing room now, and his teammates were crowding around him, pleading like little kids for the chance to pose for a picture with him.
"Coach said he was going to put me in for one run, then take me out," Simpson recalled. "He said, 'We're trying to decide what to run,' I said, 'Let's run one of those release plays,' and it worked.
"I just wish I could have broken it. The last guy had position on me, and I wish I could have spun on him, but I'm happy with it."
After all, Simpson's left knee has been operated on three times in the last two years, the last to remove six pieces of floating cartilage and a cyst the size of a lemon. He does not have his old speed. But he was inspired, hearing the old chorus of "Juice, Juice."
"That felt good. It's been awhile since I heard that," he said. "And you know what? I felt fast on that play. I thought, 'Hey, what's happening?' I felt FAST!"
The Touching pre-game ceremonies had been simple, at Simpson's request. There was none of the drawnout gift-giving and tearful pageantry that characterized, say, John Havlicek's farewell tour through National Basketball Association cities. Perhaps this had something to do with the two tragedies of Simpson's personal life in the last year: his divorce from his wife Marguerite, and the drowning death of their 2-year-old daughter Aaren in August. These are subjects from which he politely, understanably steers away.
O. J. thanked his fans "for your support and your applause. I already know that's what I'm going to miss most." He knows that he will miss football. But he is prepared.
"I figure if I'm going to have some problems adjusting to not being a ballplayer, it will be next August or September, and I plan to be very busy at that time. I'll be back from the Olympics in Moscow about the time they'll start playing pre-season games, and this is the first time in 18 years that I won't be training in August," he said.
"I've never driven across the United States. I've neer seen Monument Valley or where Abe Lincoln's log cabin is. Al Cowlings and I are going to fix up a bus into a mobile home, take two gorgeous ladies, and drive across the country. We'll stop at the NFL camps in Buffalo, Minnesota and out here, to see a few friends. We'll just stand on the sidelines with a beer and laugh at those guys."
All in all, he said, he has "no remorse, no regrets." He has had fun. Now he feels a bit nostalgic. "It's joy for us, too.
And O. J. Simpson has made it a joy for us, too.