Note: I had written this for an encyclopedia and then the project itself got cancelled. So, I decided to upload it to my site.
Orenthal James “O.J.” Simpson initially rose to fame because of his collegiate football performance at the University of Southern California (USC) where he set records for rushing yards gained, was named All-American (1967-68), won the 1968 Heisman Trophy, and played in two Rose Bowl games. He then gained more fame as an outstanding professional running back, known for his speed and dexterity, and then as a sportscaster and for his performances on television and in film. In 1995, he was charged with the murder of his wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and Ronald Goldman, with the television proceedings one of the most attention-garnering trials in United States history.
O.J. Simpson’s Childhood
O.J. Simpson was born on July 9, 1947 in the low-income Potrero Hills neighborhood of San Francisco, California as the third of four children by James “Jimmy” Lee and Eunice Simpson; his unusual first name was said to be an aunt’s suggestion. He was said to hate the name, but his initials—which also stood for “orange juice”—ultimately gave rise to his nickname “The Juice” that referred to his electrifying energy. Simpson’s father was in and out of his son’s life, while his mother worked nights as a hospital orderly, and then as a San Francisco General Hospital technician in the psychiatric ward.
He developed rickets as a young child, which left him bowlegged and pigeon-toed. Because his mother could not afford surgery, he became known as Pencil Pins. He nevertheless became interested in and good at playing sports, although he was clearly a troubled youth.
Simpson often told a story from 1962 when he was a sophomore. Sometimes, he mentioned being caught stealing from a liquor store; other times, fighting with his gang, the Persian Warriors. In both versions, he was awakened by a knock on his apartment’s door, and it was Willie Mays, the San Francisco Giant’s centerfielder. Mays drove Simpson to his house where they talked sports, and this allowed the high school athlete to see what material goods could come his way with high-level sports achievements. In his autobiography, written decades later, he identified this as the moment he saw the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow (Toobin, 2015), and this became the driving force of young Simpson’s life.
In an authorized biography (1974), the author Larry Fox also described Simpson’s troubled childhood, which included shoplifting, throwing rocks as buses, constant fights and more. In a Playboy interview, Simpson himself said that, if it hadn’t been for football, he’d have been in jail for three years (Toobin, 2015).
After graduating from Galileo High School in San Francisco in 1965, where he played tackle and then fullback on the football team, Simpson played football and ran track for two years at a local junior college: City College of San Francisco (CCSF). During those two years, he averaged nearly ten yards per carry, scored 54 touchdowns, and was named a junior college All-American, an honorary title given to outstanding athletes in the United States at the collegiate level. In response, numerous recruiters from four-year colleges visited him and he chose to transfer to the University of Southern California (USC), a school that he admired as a child and one that provided high media exposure.
Coached by John McKay, the USC Trojans had a 10-1 record in 1967, a year in which Simpson rushed for 1,543 yards, the most nationwide, and scored 13 touchdowns. That year, he was also named as an All-American and a close runner-up for the Heisman Trophy. USC played in the Rose Bowl against the Purdue Boilermakers; Purdue won, 14-13.
That year, Simpson married Marguerite Whitley. This marriage lasted for a dozen years.
In 1968, Simpson rushed for 1,880 yards with 23 touchdowns, again leading the nation. He was once again named an All-American, and USC once again played in the Rose Bowl. This time, the USC Trojans played against the Indiana Hoosiers, beating them 14-3, with Simpson named the Rose Bowl Player of the Game after scoring both touchdowns. That year, he won the Heisman Trophy.
Altogether, at USC, Simpson played 22 games, in which he scored 36 touchdowns. During those two seasons, USC had a record of 19-2-1. To honor him, USC retired his number: 32. While at USC, he also finished sixth in 1967 in NCAA’s 100m-dash, and he also served as third leg on the 440-yard relay that won an NCAA title and set a world record.
In the 1969 American Football Conference (AFC) draft, he was the first overall pick by the Buffalo Bills; the following year, the AFC merged with the NFL. He was a popular player with the fans, with celebrity status. In 1973, Simpson set a single-season rushing record with 2,003 yards and, in 1975, he scored the most touchdowns to date in a single season (23), and he led the NFL in rushing four times (1972, 1973, 1975 and 1976). He was traded to the San Francisco 49ers, his hometown team, in 1978. Suffering knee injuries and arthritis, he retired in 1979. At that time, his total yards gained of 11,236 was the second highest, all time. He had also appeared in six Pro Bowls (1970, 1973, 1974, 1975, 1976 and 1977) and, at his retirement, was the highest paid NFL player, receiving $806,688.
In 1985, Simpson was inducted into both the College Football Hall of Fame and the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
After retiring, he worked as a sportscaster, the color commentator for Monday Night Football from 1983-1985. A color commentator serves as an assistant to the main sportscaster, often providing insights to supplement play-by-play.
While playing college and professional football, he had already started his television and film career, starting with a bit role on Dragnet in 1968. Some of his most well-known films include The Towering Inferno (1974), The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! (1988), and The Naked Gun 2 ½: The Smell of Fear (1991).
Before signing a professional football career, he had already signed a $250,000 endorsement contract with Chevrolet, one of the largest celebrity endorsements to date, especially unusual for a black athlete in that era. In 1975, he began to represent Hertz Rent-A-Car in advertisements, racing through airports to reach his rental car. He also endorsed Schick, Royal Crown Cola, Foster Grant, Wilson Sporting Goods and Tree Sweet orange juice.
In 1977, Simpson and his family moved to Brentwood, California where, in 1978, their daughter Aaren drowned in a backyard swimming pool. After her death, Simpson and his wife divorced; their other children are named Arnelle and Jason. Soon afterwards, he invited a young waitress named Nicole Brown to move into his home. They married in 1985 and, four years later, he was arrested for spousal battery. He received probation, along with fines and community service hours, but this was the start of a downward spiral. Brown filed for divorce in 1992 and, on June 12, 1994 she was found stabbed to death, alongside a waiter friend named Ronald Goldman.
The Los Angeles Police Department suspected that Simpson may have committed the crimes, despite having provided an alibi. Then Simpson’s childhood friend, Al Cowlings, led police on a slow-speed chase for 60 miles with Simpson in the car, a chase appearing live on television in front of 95 million viewers.
Simpson was charged with double murder and the trial appeared on national television, with Simpson represented by a “dream team.” One statement made by an attorney about a glove said to be Simpson’s became famous: “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.” When Simpson was acquitted on October 3, 1995, the nation’s response was divided by racial lines. The LAPD was accused of being racist by some people, while Simpson was considered unfairly untouchable because of his wealth by others.
He continued to proclaim his innocence, but was no longer desired as a spokesman, commentator, or actor. In a 1997 civil trial, the jury found Simpson liable for the two deaths and he was ordered to pay compensatory and punitive damages of $33.5 million.
Simpson moved, along with the two children he had with Nicole (Sydney Brooke and Justin Ryan) to Florida, and he wrote a book titled If I Did It. In this collaboration with Pablo F. Fenjves, he shared how he might have killed the pair, if he had done so. Its intended publication in 2006 did not take place. In 2007, a bankruptcy court awarded book rights to Ron Goldman’s family, and they agreed to its publication in 2007.
Later in 2007, Simpson and several other men entered a Las Vegas hotel room of a sports memorabilia dealer while armed and took items that Simpson claimed were his. Simpson was charged with and found guilty of armed robbery and kidnapping. He was sentenced to 9 to 33 years in prison and was granted parole in 2017 after serving the minimum sentence. At the time of Simpson’s release, he was 70 years old.
BBC News. “OJ Simpson: A History of the Fallen US Football Icon.” BBC News, July 20, 2017.
Becker, Stephanie. “O.J. Simpson’s Rise and Fall, From Football Player to Prisoner,” CNN.com, July 20, 2017.
Fox, Larry. 1974. The O.J. Simpson Story: Born to Run. Dodd, Mead: New York.
Gale Group. “O.J. Simpson.” Encyclopedia.com, 2004.
Simpson, O.J. 2008. If I Did It: Confessions of the Killer. Beaufort Books: New York.
Toobin, Jeffrey. 2015. The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson. Random House Trade Paperbacks: New York.