Chasing 2,000 in ’73

This is about O.J. Simpson the football player. One of the forgotten parts of his football story is this: The guy was a bust.

You have to understand that when the Buffalo Bills drafted Simpson with the first overall pick in the 1969 draft, the most conservative theory was that he immediately would become the best running back in the NFL. The more daring believed he would alter American sports.

There had never been a football player quite like him. When Simpson came to Southern California after two years at City College of San Francisco, one of the first things he did was run the third leg of USC’s world-record 440-yard relay (he also finished sixth in the 100, running it at 9.4). But he was not like “Bullet Bob” Hayes, a world-class sprinter who became a football player. Simpson was a football player first and foremost. He was big, strong and mind-bendingly elusive. They called him “Juice” because of his O.J. initials, but it fit because he ran like electricity. His first year at USC, he ran for 1,543 yards despite missing some time for injury. He finished second to Gary Beban in the Heisman voting.

The next year, he set the NCAA record with 1,880 rushing yards and 23 touchdowns. He won the Heisman in what remains the biggest landslide in the award’s history.

1967: O.J. Simpson, 1,750 point margin over Leroy Keyes

2006: Troy Smith, 1,662 point margin over Darren McFadden

1993: Charlie Ward, 1,622 point margin over Heath Shuler

1991: Desmond Howard, 1,574 point margin over Casey Weldon

1998: Ricky Williams, 1,563 point margin over Michael Bishop

When Simpson was drafted, he immediately demanded the biggest contract in the history of American professional sports: $650,000 over five years. Bills owner Ralph Wilson was aghast, and there was a standoff — Simpson threatened to become an actor and skip professional football entirely — but, in the end, Buffalo HAD to sign Simpson. He was being called the next Jim Brown before he ever took a single snap.

And then … nothing happened. For three years, Simpson was a virtual nonentity. He was injured, he was ineffective, he was bored out of his mind. While Brown led the league in rushing each of his first five seasons, Simpson didn’t even approach 1,000 yards in any of his first three seasons. His first coach, John Rauch, was unimpressed:

“I couldn’t build my offense around one back, no matter how good he is,” Rauch said. “It’s too easy for the pros to set up defensive keys.”

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His second coach, Harvey Johnson, was more amenable — he devised a new offense. “It is called O.J. left, O.J. right and, occasionally, O.J. up the middle,” he said. But that didn’t prove any better for Simpson. The Bills were atrocious — they went a combined 8-33-1 in those three years — and the offensive line opened no holes, and Simpson was unremarkable.

“I was playing football just for money,” Simpson told Sports Illustrated. “I couldn’t wait for the season to end so I could get out of Buffalo and go back home. Well, man, I finally realized that was no way to be.”

In 1972, the Bills hired a tough old linebacker named Lou Saban as head coach, who had a knack for building rushing attacks. In his first go-around as Buffalo coach back in the old American Football League days from 1962-1965, he had made a star out of Cookie Gilchrist. Then, Saban went to Denver and built up the Hall of Fame resume of Floyd Little.

Simpson noticed Saban’s impact immediately. “Now, the holes are there,” he said with genuine surprise in his voice.

“Personally,” he added, “I would like to lead the league in rushing.”

That would happen in 1973.

Prior to that, Simpson was not quite the superstar he wanted to become; he was unable to separate himself from players like Larry Brown or Mercury Morris or Larry Csonka. Many thought he danced too much around the line. Many wondered when he would do something amazing.

* * *

From the very beginning of the 1973 season, Simpson was locked in. First game of the season, he rushed for an NFL-record 250 yards against New England. Simpson would later call it his greatest game.

“It was like Grant going through Richmond,” Patriots coach Chuck Fairbanks said, another bit of proof that people could say whatever the heck they wanted then. Fairbanks had figured the best way to stop the Juice was to force him to run inside*.

*This reminds me of the time that Kentucky’s Jamal Mashburn scored 33 points in a dominating victory over South Carolina. After, Gamecocks coach Steve Newton insinuated that the team’s plan had been to let the sharpshooting Mashburn shoot 3-pointers.

“I don’t know about that coaching decision,” Mashburn said afterward, shaking his head.

Simpson ran for 100 yards in each of the team’s first five games. That gave him 813 yards after five weeks, putting him on pace for an inconceivable 2,276 rushing yards for the season. That would smash Jim Brown’s seemingly-untouchable NFL record of 1,863 yards. Nobody other than Brown himself had come withing 350 yards of that record.

Simpson got stuffed by Miami’s no-name defense (55 yards on 14 carries) and was forced to sit out most of the fourth quarter with an injured ankle. But the next week, on Monday Night Football, he carried a then-NFL record 39 times for a bruising 157 yards and became the first NFL back to gain 1,000 yards in the league’s first seven games.

‘We got a 1,000 in the first seven,” Simpson said. “We’ll go for another 1,000 in the next seven.”

It was the first mention of the preposterous: A 2,000-yard rushing season. And as soon as Simpson mentioned it, the idea lost momentum. A week later, he had what was probably his worst game of the season, as the Bills got shut out by New Orleans and Simpson was held to 79 yards (and got stopped on fourth-and-1 with the game on the line). A week after that, he failed to get 100 yards against Cincinnati.

He did manage to gain 120 yards against that ferocious Miami defense the second time. Through 10 games he had 1,323 yards, 124 behind the record pace of Jim Brown.

“At one point, I went to the edge of the bench and began to talk to myself,” Simpson told reporters. “I told myself to concentrate on the present game and not on Jim Brown’s past.”

Simpson had back-to-back 100-yard games at Baltimore and Atlanta. That meant he needed 280 yards in the final two weeks to break Brown’s record, a tough trick.

Only the Bills played New England again, and Simpson did love playing Chuck Fairbanks’ Patriots. Snow covered the turf at Buffalo’s Rich Stadium. It was a cold, damp, windy day — at one point Simpson said he couldn’t feel his toes. But he rushed for 219 yards on just 22 carries, breaking long run after long run against the helpless Patriots.

That left him just 61 yards shy of Brown’s record with a final game against the New York Jets.

“We’ll get it,” Buffalo guard Reggie McKenzie said, “even if we have to run the Juice 64 times.”

Fairbanks knew it wouldn’t take that much. When asked if he thought the Jets could shut down Simpson, he offered another one of his classics: “Sure,” he said. “If they break both of his ankles.”

Note: What makes that quote classic is the BOTH ankles part. One broken ankle would not be enough.

Fairbanks was right. Simpson’s offensive line decided before the game at Shea Stadium that the best thing to do was to help Simpson break Brown’s record in the first quarter to leave no doubt. “Then,” they told Simpson, “you can start running.”

It was an effective strategy. Late in the quarter, Simpson ran for 6 yards to give him 1,865 for the season, breaking the record. The game was stopped, the 60,000 or so at the stadium gave him a standing ovation.

But the Bills players were reserved. They didn’t want Brown’s record — that was a given. They wanted 2,000 yards. And so the Bills kept feeding the ball to Simpson, over and over and over again. He would carry the ball 34 times in all. With 5:36 left in the game, Simpson broke a 7-yard run that put him over 2,000. And then his teammates rushed the field and carried him on their shoulders.

“It’s almost something I can’t comprehend,” Simpson said after the game. And then he told a story of how, when he was a boy, he once saw Jim Brown in a candy store. Later, he would say it was after a 49ers-Browns game. In both versions, he said to Brown: “Hey, someday I’m going to break all your records.”

Four years later, Simpson was out of Buffalo. Six years later, he played his last game. He was asked then about that record and the thrill of being O.J. He shrugged.

“Fame,” he said, “is a vapor. Popularity is an accident. And money takes wings. The only thing that endures is character.”

“Where did you get that from?” his friend Al Cowlings asked.

“Heard it one night on TV,” he said.

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