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My Life: Crossing paths with O.J.

By David Rogers. BLOWING ROCK, N.C. — I had mixed feelings today when learning that O.J. Simpson had died of prostate cancer. I met him in 1975, two years after he became the first player to rush for more than 2,000 yards in an NFL season and just a month before the ’75 season in which he nearly surpassed 2,000 yards again (1,817).

Our paths crossed, logically enough, on the campus of the University of Southern California, just outside Memorial Stadium where he had become one of the greatest college running backs of all time. I was walking to the tunnel that would take me onto the field at halftime of a Los Angeles Rams vs. Oakland Raiders game. I had been selected to play in what was billed as an all-star rugby exhibition for about 15 minutes during the intermission. It was quite a thrill to play in front of more than 68,000 people.

By this time, of course, Simpson was something like six years into his NFL career with Buffalo. He was cordial enough, offering a handshake. When he asked what I was doing for halftime and I told him about the rugby exhibition, he seemed impressed. “Now THAT is a man’s game,” he said.

A year later, any admiration I might have harbored for O J simpson was burned up in the exhaust of a slow moving, Ford Bronco.

I was on the front-end of a key play during the exhibition. I was playing right wing and when the ball was passed out to me there was little room to maneuver on what is a narrower football field. So I punched a high, up-and-under kick back toward the center of the field, 20-30 yards in front. On a full sprint, our flyhalf ran under the ball, gathered it in, and ran untouched to score the exhibition’s only try.

Because he had met me earlier, Simpson sought me out as we came off and congratulated me on making that play happen. He seemed to intuitively know that an improperly placed kick would not have allowed our flyhalf to be the central figure who scored. I was honored that he would even care about the play and its significance, much less my role.

After that encounter, however brief it might have been, I frequently wondered how O.J. would have done on the rugby pitch. I suspected he would do quite well once he understood the laws of the game, what he could and couldn’t do. Almost two decades later, in 1993, those thoughts and questions about O.J. and how he would have played resurfaced when I organized an inner city rugby program in Bakersfield, Calif., the Kern County Stampede.

A year later, any admiration I might have harbored for O J Simpson was burned up in the exhaust of a slow-moving Ford Bronco. With Simpson the passenger and his friend and former teammate Al Cowlings driving, a normally busy Los Angeles freeway was empty while police were engaged in a low speed pursuit of the man wanted for killing his wife, Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend, Ron Goldman, the night before.

Certainly, I did not want to believe that the same hand that had shaken mine two decades earlier had just taken the lives of two innocent people whose only crime was that they were friends. The Ford Bronco “pursuit” and his actions, for me, made the distraught Simpson look guilty.

Following the trial, filled with credible evidence against him — even with a potentially botched investigation at times — I didn’t see how he could be acquitted. Out of all the African American people throughout our country’s sordid racist history that were wrongfully lynched, executed or imprisoned for crimes they did not commit, this was the guy who was going to “get off,” scot-free?

How many times would I have to wash my right hand before it was clean enough?

Of course, he didn’t really get off scot-free. There was the lengthy civil trial and a jury that unanimously found Simpson guilty for the wrongful death of Ron Goldman and battery of both Goldman and Brown. He was ordered to pay $33.5 million in damages, $8.5 million in compensatory damages to the Goldman family, and $12.5 million in punitive damages to each family.

Not surprisingly, Simpson’s life took a downward spiral. His Heisman Trophy was auctioned off and the proceeds given to Goldman’s father. He moved to Florida so that his NFL pension would be protected (Florida does not permit pensions or residences to be seized as a way of collecting on debts).

There were brushes with the law in Florida and, perhaps most famously, the Las Vegas incident where he was accused of entering a hotel room at gunpoint and taking various sports memorabilia.

As a result of his conviction, Simpson spent almost nine years of a 33-year sentence in prison, released for good behavior in 2017.

Simpson’s death attributed to prostate cancer only underlines how much his life had spiraled downward. Caught early, there are many therapies to diminish or remove the threat. But catching it requires resources, including time and money, which Simpson may well have not had after being released from prison in 2017.

Yes, I had mixed feelings when I heard of O J Simpson’s passing on April 10. While I admired not just his gridiron talents but how, as a kid, he had used them as a way out of the Portrero projects in San Francisco. After early brushes with gangs and even the law during his high school years, he leveraged football for a ticket to USC and gridiron fame and fortune.

But in 1994, he threw it all away and I wondered how many times I would have to wash my right hand before it was clean enough.

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