O.J. Simpson is an American Tragedy

O.J. Simpson is in the news again and he is in court again.  He is seeking a new trial in a case where he was sentenced to up to 33 years in prison for a Las Vegas armed robbery and kidnapping.

Perhaps the most amazing thing for me, of all the news surrounding O.J. this week, is this one fact:  O.J. Simpson is 65 years old.  He is an elderly man now, rotting in a Nevada state prison.  Oh my lord how the mighty have fallen.

As a kid and dedicated sports fan, O.J. Simpson was my hero.  He was the quintessential athlete, football player, running back, California cool, and college superstar.  While I played schoolyard football with my friends and dreamed of being a big league baseball player, I read everything I could find and watched every USC game that came on that involved O.J.  It can probably be said that O.J. Simpson created a genre of running back that had not previously existed.  He was powerful, fast, and had the ability to break a defender's ankles with his moves.  This was no longer Jim Brown powering his way through a defensive line, nor was it Gale Sayers sprinting and dancing through defenders.  O.J. ran over, around and past every defense he saw.

 O.J. the hero (USC archive)

According to the story in today's Chicago Tribune, O.J. was called to testify in the third day of a hearing into his claims that the lawyer who served as his defense attorney mishandled the Nevada robbery case.  He was brought to court in shackles from a Nevada prison where he is serving his sentence for the incident in 2007 where he and five other men stormed into a room at the Palace Station Hotel and Casino and took thousands of dollars in memorabilia from a pair of sports collectors at gunpoint. Most of the memorabilia was O.J. Simpson memorabilia.

 O.J. the 65 year-old convict (Chicago Tribune)

I'm sure I was not the only person who hero-worshiped O.J.  He was an iconic success story.  After his career at USC, which included winning the 1968 Heisman Trophy, O.J. went on to a successful professional career playing from 1969 to 1977, winning three player of the year awards, becoming the first running back to gain 2,000 yards in a season (a 14-game season) and being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1985.  Then, O.J. became an announcer, an actor, and a commercial spokesperson - perhaps best know as the guy running through airports for Hertz.

It no longer seems necessary to comment on the criminal trial that captured this country in 1995 (yes, 18 years ago) in which O.J. was acquitted of murdering his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ron Goldman. Does it?  He either did it or he didn't.  Does it really matter anymore?  O.J. is old now.  He is fat now.  He is broke now.  He is not a hero anymore.

We picked sides in 1995 - whites and blacks.  Did you know a black person who thought O.J. should be convicted?  Not necessarily if he was guilty, but whether he should be convicted.  Did you know a white person in 1995 who thought O.J. Simpson was innocent?  Not whether he should be convicted, but whether he did it or not.  The times were different then, fresh off L.A. riots and police beatings and here was my boyhood hero, standing in a courtroom while I watched the verdict read on a television at work telling myself that he did it and he was going to go to prison.  The whole thing was surreal.  And now, it doesn't even seem to matter.  O.J. looks like a buffoon as he tries to convince a court to give him another chance.

Today, here I am again, watching my boyhood hero standing in court.  No longer wearing an Armani suit while he tries on ill-fitting gloves.  But this time wearing ill-fitting prison issued clothes and with his wrists and ankles chained. The life of O.J. Simpson is an American Tragedy to the highest degree. From the absolute extreme levels of sports achievement and public adulation to what he looks like now.

As I marvel at the path that this great athlete took from success to pitiful, I wonder what O.J. thinks about as he lies on his bunk in a state prison cell. Does he recreate the sounds of 100,000 cheering fans in the Los Angeles Coliseum?  Does he recall his Hall of Fame acceptance speech in Canton, Ohio?  Does he block it all out and simply wait for his next meal on a metal tray?  The more I wonder and think about the tragic shell of the man he once was, the sadder I get.

As soon as he made his mark on the American consciousness, "O.J." was all you needed to hear as a description.  If nothing else today, "O.J." is still all you need to hear.

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