The real O.J.?

Sometimes, when people learn that I spent a half-century as a sports journalist, they want to the inside scoop on what such-and-such athletic celebrity was “really like.” O.J. was one of those athletic celebrities in question.

As the New York Giants beat writer for Newsday in the 1970s, I had a few occasions dealing with O.J., at first when he played for the Buffalo Bills and later the San Francisco 49ers.

He already was football’s superstar and had been since his glory days at Southern Cal. The way he could find his way through the maze of defensive pursuers—floating, barreling, tiptoeing, darting—was fairly astonishing. Furthermore, he delighted in the public’s adoration, answering Beatle-like mania with charm and a personal touch. “He’s always kissing babies, hugging girls, shaking hands, signing autographs,” then-49ers publicist Dave Frei marveled. More striking to us in the writing press, ink-stained wretches accustomed to arrogant, uncooperative jocks, O.J. was among the most accommodating and respectful of interview subjects.

He also was wildly popular among teammates, regularly ushering his lower-profile offensive linemen into interview sessions so they could bask in his ball-toting successes. Opponents likewise admired both his prowess and demeanor. “Tackling O.J.,” a young Giants linebacker named Frank Marion told me after a 1978 game, “is like tackling a legend. And each time I got him, he’d say, ‘Nice hit.’ I just had to look at him and not let him get away. Because he can get away.”

Still, the magician doesn’t really saw the lady in half. Rather, he masters his particular vocation, as O.J. perfected his job and polished his popular image. Neither of which guarantees a look into the soul.

So, even before O.J.’s 1994 arrest in the knife murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman; before the low-speed Ford Bronco chase televised nationally; before O.J.’s acquittal in the spectacular trial and the subsequent 1997 civil trial in which he was found responsible for the deaths of Ms. Simpson and Goldman, I wouldn’t have claimed to know what he was “really like.”

I submit, in fact, that those four parole board members who just voted to free O.J. from a 2007 armed robbery sentence couldn’t know the man any better than I did. That is not to argue for or against the parole decision—that’s way above my pay scale—but only to point out how brief encounters with boldface names such as O.J., whatever the professional setting, aren’t particularly revealing.

When O.J. told the board he was “a good guy….I basically have spent a conflict-free life,” a courtroom prosecutor might have been moved to argue, “Objection, your honor. Assumes facts not necessarily in evidence.”

Much closer to an insightful summation of the man was Ta-Nehisi Coates’ recent profile in The Atlantic that described how O.J. always has been “an escape artist.” Beginning with his ability to evade tacklers on the football field, O.J. shook off poverty in the San Francisco projects where he was raised, slipped the usual restraints on blacks to cash in on endorsements and movie deals and survived that Trial of the Century. And once again, he’s out of the frying pan.

His life story—he’s 70 now—has played out as some mixture of drama, sit-com and soap opera, wherein he went from inspiring widespread fandom to giving many people the willies. In the 1970s, I was reporting on how he repeatedly got out of the toughest spots on the gridiron. A real escape artist. Any evaluation of his character beyond that slips my grasp.

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