I have been in this business all my adult life. I have written thousands of stories and columns. This is the most dispiriting, most distasteful thing I have ever written.
I have known O.J. Simpson for 25 years. The man I know is not the tabloid personality I have been reading about with horror for the last seven days.
Nothing makes sense in this entire sordid, bizarre episode. There are no explanations, at least rational ones.
Put aside the 80-yard runs on the football field, the international image, the Heisman Trophy, the larger-than-life personality. Put aside the television career and the movies and everything else in his public life.
The essential O.J., the one I know, is a good and decent man.
The celebrity world is full of greed, disloyalty, double dealing and counterfeit heroes. The O.J. I know is none of those things.
He clings to old friends, not just from his college and pro football days, but the pals and adult influences of his childhood. He treated lesser-known people well, a clear sign of decency.
He performed small acts of kindness, known only to him and the recipient.
In the mid-1970s, O.J. was the biggest thing in sports, larger than Michael Jordan at his prime. The what’s-in-it-for-me era was in progress. Many famous athletes wouldn’t say an official hello to collect a trophy for less than $10,000.
Perfect strangers could talk Simpson into appearing at a Little League banquet for no fee. He was a man who found it difficult to say no to people.
Long after he left the Bills, the team’s veteran equipment manager, the late Tony Marchitte, retired. His friends gave a surprise party for him.
One of the surprises was the appearance of his old friend, the Juice, who had flown across the country to be there.
Budd Thalman, formerly vice president of public relations for the Bills, hasn’t had an official relationship with Simpson for 16 years. Yet, on their wedding anniversary each year, Budd and Patty receive a gift from O.J.
The O.J. Simpson I know is a person of uncommon sensitivity. I remember him talking about athletes’ visits to hospitals to visit seriously ill children, almost a ritual for famous jocks going back to the Babe Ruth era.
“I dread it,” he said. “The people who ask you to visit mean well, but to the kids I’m like the angel of death. I walk into that hospital room, and they know for sure that they are seriously ill.
“One time I visited a young guy about 19 who had a terminal illness. I walked into his room, and he just looked at me and said, ‘What are you doing here? What are you supposed to be doing for me?’
“I couldn’t answer him. It still haunts me.”
When he came to Buffalo, he and his wife Marguerite were young marrieds. I remember him talking about his birthday being in July and what his astrological sign meant. “I’m a Cancer,” he said. “My sign is the crab. The crab carries its home on its back. That’s me. Family and home mean the most to me.”
I’m sure women are reading this, saying to themselves, “What about the domestic violence calls to 911? What about Nicole’s bruises? What about the threats? The alleged stalking? What about the two lives he took?”
I have no answer. This is not the man I know.
The New Year’s 1989 incident, in which his wife had him arrested for spousal abuse and threatening to kill her, shocked me. The O.J. I knew was a man who showed respect for women, had them play prominent roles in his business life, treated them properly.
I talked about it last fall with Bob Chandler, one of his closest friends. Chandler’s reaction to that incident was similar to mine.
O.J. lived in Amherst with his family when he played here. If there was any domestic violence with his first wife, I never heard about it. I also live in Amherst, where rumor mongering at times is a cottage industry.
There were plenty of O.J. rumors but none about spousal abuse.
In 25 years, I saw him lose his temper only three times, twice on the football field. The other time was with me.
I was writing a children’s book about him, and I pressed him too hard about the possibility of serious injury, a taboo with athletes who like to think of themselves as invincible. He flared up but quickly apologized.
Toward the end of Howard Cosell’s broadcasting career, after he had soured on just about everything, Cosell wrote a book in which he burned a number of personal bridges, harshly criticizing people who had been his colleagues. O.J. was among them.
Others were alienated from Cosell forever. O.J. kept his friendship. “That’s Howard,” he explained. Simpson loves Cosell, who can be a most unlovable man.
These are not the signs that an unbelievable tragedy would occur in O.J.’s 47th year.
Dozens of people, most of whom know Simpson only by reputation, appeared on television in the last week, ostensibly explaining “what it all means.” Most of it is blather.
I think the only possible explanation may be an emotion as old as the Old Testament: obsession.
Late Friday night, I watched in disbelief as the man who held my daughters on his knee, was a guest in my house, stood in the garden with my wife Beverly and the neighbors, was the object of a nationally televised manhunt on the Los Angeles freeways.
Reportedly, he held a gun to his head as it was happening.
The man I had observed reasoning friends and teammates out of intemperate positions was now the object of intense crisis negotiations.
The man whose lifestyle was the envy of millions was being led away in handcuffs, his life, one way or another, at an end.
The life he lived for most of his 46 years, including the 25 in which I have known him, should count for something.