A few weeks ago, I was in a conversation about who is the greatest running back in NFL history. Names like Gayle Sayers, Walter Payton, and Earl Campbell came to mind as I tried to force away the inevitable name I didn’t want to mention.
And was glad because the conversation then turned to sports heroes.
40 years ago this NFL season, on the last game of the season, a running back named OJ Simpson did the unthinkable. He rushed for over 2000 yards in one season–200 yards in the 14th and final game. I remember watching the entire game at age 9 entranced…watching football history being made. I have never considered any running back to be OJ Simpson’s equal since.
I’ll say it. OJ Simpson was my sports hero then.
He was in 1973–and perhaps still is today–the greatest ever to play the running back position.
But football is just a game. Games are important…I suppose we are all playing a game of some sort or another. Some construct of competition to make us and our world a little better…or maybe just to provide a reprieve, or form of entertainment, to others.
But in life, OJ, I believe, did something even more unthinkable. And sealed his fate and place in history. Not as one of the greatest athletes of our time but one of our most infamous criminals.
When I was 31 I watched the Bronco chase with even greater intensity than the famous 1973 Bills-Jets game. Few individuals who walk among us have risen higher or fallen farther than OJ Simpson. I don’t hate him. I don’t pity him. I don’t miss the old OJ. I’m not disappointed. I’m not even numb to Simpson and his life and legacy. I am oddly indifferent. Probably more as a defense mechanism because someone I admired so much for excellence in one area of his life disappointed so grievously in a much more important area of his life. And I’ll never be able to understand why. And now no longer even care that I won’t.
OJ has has traveled the bizarre trajectory of being the most celebrated athlete to the most hated alleged criminal to the most unspeakable public personality– to perhaps the most famous irrelevant person of our era (a poetically fitting punishment). And no one even knows how to talk about that.
And maybe there’s nothing else to say. But I thought I’d try. It’s glorious in many ways to go from mere mortal to famous society icon. OJ, for a brief time, was like a mythical god among us. It’s hard being famous, too, of course. But not as hard as going from famous icon back to mere mortal. That is a treacherous path, it seems.
Maybe the ultimate story of OJ Simpson isn’t that he failed to reach his potential greatness as an athlete. But rather that he failed so horribly at finding his way back to himself when it was his turn to leave the stage and return to being just an ordinary human being. In his case that treacherous journey appears to literally have killed a lovely young lady and destroyed her family. And figuratively killed OJ Simpson, both as an icon and human being.