O.J. Simpson’s legacy could have been athletic heroism

It is hard now to remember this, but football great and likely murderer O.J. Simpson, who died Wednesday, once was considered one of the “good guys” in sports. His descent into (allegedly) coked-up violence was a massive tragedy.

None of what I write here is meant to excuse what Simpson almost certainly did to his ex-wife and her friend or his other strange forays into crime. It is instead to recall what was lost, and what could have been his legacy, and how he once seemed to embody the right-minded athletic hero.

First, let’s get this out of the way: Aside from Jim Brown, I’ve seen every great modern running back play live, and none ever was or perhaps ever will be as exciting, as breathtaking, to watch as Simpson was. Gale Sayers may have been as balletic as Simpson, and some had slightly more power or nearly as much speed, and a few, such as Barry Sanders, had more turn-on-a-dime juking ability. None, though, had the whole package combined with the jaw-dropping ability to make defenders look completely outclassed and utterly flummoxed, grasping at air even as they thought they were executing solid tackles. (Just watch this video.)

And no other player ever captured the imagination of the viewing public week in and week out for five years straight. Simpson matched a riveting style with unfathomably good statistics and with a large personality, smilingly and eminently likable. He had gone to tutors to learn good diction, and he turned his swagger into an amusing kind of shimmy that kids liked. And for kids who wanted their heroes to be of good character, too, Simpson seemed to oblige. He never seemed to let his exuberant confidence devolve into nasty arrogance, and he regularly made a point of crediting his offensive line and other teammates for their contributions to his success. In almost every way, he seemed to “have his head on straight.

He even had a great redemption story. Despite being a tremendously athletic youth, Simpson was a bit of a juvenile delinquent until somebody convinced the kind-hearted Willie Mays, the greatest baseball player ever, to spend time with Simpson to set him straight. Rather than show Simpson the trappings of fame, Mays took him through mundane, everyday chores such as going to the laundromat to clean his own clothes, trying to give Simpson a sense of groundedness rather than entitlement.

And the lesson seemed to stick. In the 1970s, no athlete, not even golf’s Arnold Palmer, was more ubiquitous on TV and in commercials and in movies, on the football field, and even in offseason competitions such as the now-forgotten but then hugely popular cross-sports contest called “Superstars.” (Yes, Simpson won that, too.)

Brown, whose records he broke, always claimed that Simpson was a phony who behind the scenes remained the same bad guy who necessitated Mays’s intervention in the first place. Most of us just assumed the taciturn Brown was jealous and a bad sport.

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According to some reports, though, the rampant womanizing and cocaine use were very much a part of Simpson’s life even in his 1970s heydays. Most of us fans, though, were unaware of such stories. When police first handcuffed Simpson after ex-wife Nicole was butchered, it seemed like an absurdity, an affront. O.J.? No way!

Now, though, Simpson has died to headlines indicating he’ll always be remembered first for the infamous murder trial in which most people think (as I do) that he escaped justice. It shouldn’t have been that way. Alas, that sorry fate is what his reputation amply deserved.

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