O.J. Simpson Dead at 76

O.J. Simpson Dead at 76

O.J. Simpson, whose immense fame on the football field was eclipsed by his infamy off it, died Wednesday according to his family. He was 76.

Simpson had been battling cancer and had been in hospice. Simpson's attorney also confirmed his death to TMZ.

"On April 10th, our father, Orenthal James Simpson, succumbed to his battle with cancer," read a statement posted by Simpson's family on X. "He was surrounded by his children and grandchildren."

No matter what Simpson did as a football player, he will always be more remembered for perhaps the most famous murder trial in American history, one that had people glued to their televisions on a daily basis and split the country along racial lines. The moment he was found not guilty of the 1994 murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman was one of the most-watched in television history, as was Simpson's slow-speed Ford Bronco chase through Southern California freeways after he was charged with the murders and failed to turn himself in.

Long before the trial that fascinated a large majority of Americans, Simpson's fame was undeniable. He was one of the most famous football players ever, and became a celebrity off the field.

O.J. Simpson became a football star at Orenthal James Simpson, born July 9, 1947 in San Francisco, California, changed how athletes - particularly African American athletes - were viewed in the mainstream, well before he became a notorious figure.

Simpson's rise started at the University of Southern California, where he was one of the greatest college running backs ever. He enrolled at USC after attending City College of San Francisco for two years, and finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting his first season. Simpson's cross-field, 64-yard, game-winning touchdown run against UCLA that season is still one of the most famous plays in college football history. In 1968, Simpson's senior year at USC, he won the Heisman Trophy.

Simpson was a nearly perfect running back. He had good size at 6-foot-1, 212 pounds. He had world-class speed; in 1967 he was part of a four-man USC relay team that set a world record in the 440-yard event. He also had fantastic football instincts, especially in the open field.

In the 1969 common draft, the Buffalo Bills, then part of the American Football League before the merger, selected Simpson with the first overall pick.

Simpson's NFL career started slow, and he looked like a potential bust through three seasons. Then in 1972, the Bills hired Lou Saban as head coach, and he helped turn Simpson into a star.

Simpson was an All-Pro in 1972. In 1973, Simpson had one of the most iconic seasons in NFL history, becoming the first player to rush for 2,000 yards in a season. He finished with 2,003 yards, which became one of the most recognizable numbers in sports. He was named NFL MVP. It's still one of the most famous single-season performances by a player in NFL history.

"That was like someone breaking Babe Ruth's home run record," Bills Hall of Fame guard Joe DeLamielleure said, regarding Simpson's 1973 season, in the ESPN documentary "O.J .: Made in America." "It was unheard of."

Simpson was named first-team All-Pro five straight years. His 1975 season, in which he had 2,243 yards from scrimmage and 23 touchdowns, isn't as celebrated as his 1973 season but was statistically better. For that five-year stretch, Simpson was one of the greatest running backs in football history. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1985. In his induction speech, he thanked his second wife Nicole.

With each passing year, Simpson's fame grew.

Simpson's fame extended beyond football

Few football players experience the type of fame Simpson gained in the 1970s. How many NFL players get on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine?

A Hertz rental car advertising campaign in the 1970s exposed Simpson to a new, wider audience. Simpson running through the airport to get to the Hertz counter became one of the most memorable and successful ad campaigns ever, and it made Simpson a celebrity.

"Before that, I'd say 30 percent of the people I met recognized me, and they'd be football fans. Now I'd say it's closer to 90 percent," Simpson told Rolling Stone in that 1977 cover story.

The Hertz campaign was notable for the racial aspect, too. It was a turning point, as Simpson showed a Black spokesperson could be a successful pitchman. The campaign changed advertising forever.

Even as Simpson's playing career wound down - it ended after two quiet years with the San Francisco 49ers in 1978 and 1979 - his celebrity status remained strong.

Simpson was a top pitchman, and he got plenty of acting roles. His acting career started when he was playing for the Bills, and his most memorable role was as Nordberg in "The Naked gun" comedy movie series. The retired Simpson might have been more famous in the 1980s than almost any NFL player from that era. He also was on television as a commentator, including a coveted role on "Monday Night Football."

Part of Simpson's widespread popularity was how he endeared himself to the white community, a theme that was explored at length in "OJ: Made in America." In the documentary, those who knew Simpson claimed he would often say, "I'm not Black, I'm O.J."

Ironically, the man who showed apathy toward his racial identity would be in the middle of a double murder trial that split America by racial lines. On June 12, 1994, Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman were killed outside Nicole's Brentwood residence.

Over the next year and four months, there were many moments and people that will live forever in memories and pop culture: the Bronco chase that set television records; the "dream team" of lawyers that turned Johnnie Cochran into a star; bloody gloves; "If it doesn't fit, you must acquit;" numerous instant celebrities like Kato Kaelin, Lance Ito, Marcia Clark and Christopher Darden; and the explosion of notable trials as reality television.

On Oct. 3, 1995, Simpson was found not guilty. Due in large part to the misconduct by the Los Angeles Police Department that was uncovered in the trial, the outcome was celebrated by many Black people. Conversely, many white people were outraged. The trial shined a harsh light on the racial divide in the United States.

In 1997, Simpson was found liable for the murders in a civil trial, and ordered to pay $25 million in punitive damages to the families of Nicole Brown Simpson and Goldman. That became just a footnote to one of the most famous criminal trials in American history.

Simpson goes to a Nevada prison

In 2008, Simpson was found guilty of robbery and kidnapping, stemming from a 2007 incident at a Las Vegas hotel over sports memorabilia Simpson believed was stolen from him. The verdict came 13 years to the day after the not guilty verdict in the double murder trial.

Simpson spent nine years in a Nevada prison before he was released.

Simpson would never escape the infamy of the double murder trial. More than 20 years later, people were still obsessed with it; FX released "The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story" in 2016, which was a popular hit, and ESPN released the critically acclaimed five-part "O.J .: Made in America" documentary later that year.

Simpson's death will lead to further exploration of a legacy that is unlike any other in American sports history.

 

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