SUNLIT AFTERNOONS AND O.J.

By Published on .

Something of our youth and more of our innocence oozed away the other day with the headlines.

In Los Angeles, the newspapers said O.J. Simp-son was under investigation following the stabbing to death of his former wife and a young man. O.J. Simpson, the stories said, was 46.

They lie.

Could Simpson have killed? How could he have previously battered a woman? How could he be 46?

It was only a few autumns ago. Remember? Out there in Los Angeles Southern Cal had this new tailback, Orenthal James Simpson, abbreviated, of course, to O.J. "Orange Juice" Simpson, with a playful smile and a glee for the fray and a running style they hadn't seen in the West since Hugh McElhenny was carrying the football up there at Washington or maybe anywhere in the country since Harmon of Michigan or "Crazy Legs" Hirsch at Wisconsin.

I think (memories glaze and fade as to the details, if not to the style) he came out of the local junior colleges and only played a couple of years at Southern Cal but they were golden, those years, maroon and gold to be precise. And it seemed that every time you turned on television during one of those lazy autumn afternoons in the Southland, there he was at the Coliseum, running one back, the long, skinny legs not so much driving him but gliding over the green grass toward the last white line, and then riding out would come the undergraduate togged out as a Man of Troy, atop the white horse, galloping around the stadium, wielding a tin sword.

And then that wonderful, pounding USC fight song and the cameras picking up Orenthal James Simpson on the sidelines, breathing hard but grinning, a beautiful young man on whom the California sun was always going to shine.

They could have done a highlight show composed simply of Saturday afternoons against Notre Dame. They played one year at the Coliseum, in the late November sun, another year at South Bend in what I recall was an early winter's day under the gray skies and cold, and whether he ran in the sunshine or the gloom, it was as if football and youth and America itself were frozen there in imagery, the great Simpson, swift and darting, against the powerful Irishmen and Poles and Lithuanians who traditionally seemed to inhabit the ferocious Irish line.

I can't remember the scores. Or even who won, who lost. But I can still see O.J., a dark Dartagnan fencing with the huge men in blue and gold, and so often leaving them sprawled on the green in his swift wake.

If you could bottle youth and talent and joy, there it was in those USC-Notre Dame games in the Saturdays of our yesterday.

There were Rose Bowl games and All-American teams and the wonderful, corny hoopla of the Downtown Athletic Club and the Heisman Trophy and a final year of track at USC on a world-record quarter mile relay team and then it was time to become a grownup.

The NFL's Buffalo Bills drafted him and it was there that he played out most of his professional career in the cold and the wet and the snow and with the wind coming off the lake and most of the time without much of a team behind him. Buffalo always seemed wrong for The Juice. Maybe he should have played in his prime for San Francisco, in his hometown, or for the Rams, on the sunny turf where he came to stardom. But we play the hand we draw and he was the best thing that happened to Buffalo since rock salt.

Remember that year he ran for more than 2,000 yards? The final game of the season, here in New York at Shea Stadium, in the snow and the mud and the cold and he ran and he ran, tireless and unstopped. And another record fell. Not since the time of Grange, old men said, not since the "Galloping Ghost" had there been such a man as this one.

The legs went, of course, and the injuries came, the aches and pain he used to shed by Tuesday lingered into Thursday, and he walked away finally, with the same effortless grace he brought to the game. ABC took him up, Hollywood, Madison Avenue. He didn't bring terribly much to the broadcast booth; too polite to criticize, too close to the players to chastise. In a couple of movies, he was actually pretty good. He still had the smile and the looks and the easy, athletic grace. I saw him at one of those Oscar parties out there, a restaurant, I forget which, but can still see how he towered over people, taking up a little corner and making it his own, and folks came up to talk, to say hello, to rub against fame. And they were, themselves, the famous.

Maybe the best thing he ever did after football was the commercials. Sure, they were silly, but can't you still see O.J. running through airports?

Forget the stilted lines, or the stilted manner in which they were delivered, but for a few years there the idea of renting a car fetched up, ineluctably, the image of Simpson and Arnie Palmer in a convertible, driving past palm trees, heading somewhere in the sun, along for all I knew wasn't a beach road at all but a sound stage with a roll of picturesque film rolling by a stationery car.

Didn't matter. We loved O.J. Simpson; we loved Arnie. Hello, Hertz, I want a car for Friday at the airport, OK?

I suppose by the time you read this we'll all know what really happened out there in Brentwood last week. The "experts" are already coming out, declaring he was a wife beater who'd threatened to kill Nicole. The friends are there, saying he was trying to patch things up, to put things together. Tabloid television and the supermarket weeklies have new meat.

And I suppose any moment now someone literary among us will inquire, if this was Othello and she Desdemona, who was his Iago? And on that strained analogy, book contracts will be sought and signed. As a beautiful young man, now 46 and shackled, has run out of sunlight and afternoons and white lines on the grass.

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