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Thursday, July 3, 2014
O.J. Simpson's football legacy lives on

By Greg Katz

LOS ANGELES -- In recent weeks, so much attention has been paid to the anniversary of the infamous O.J. Simpson car chase and the ensuing “Trial of the Century” that one might forget No. 32 was once one of the greatest USC Trojans.

Despite Simpson’s post-football legal problems, there is a part of me that can’t forget the excitement and charisma he once brought to Los Angeles as USC’s star tailback from 1967-68.

Maybe it’s not right to glorify Simpson’s USC accomplishments, but if you lived during that time period, it’s not hard to recall the excitement the City College of San Francisco transfer brought to John McKay’s Tailback U.

Simpson’s arrival in 1967 brought intrigue. Early on there was some thought given to playing Simpson, who played some defensive back in junior college, at wide receiver as well as running back

That thought quickly disappeared in the first day of contact when “The Juice” knocked the socks off both defenders and McKay’s coaching staff with his toughness and athleticism.

O.J. Simpson
O.J. Simpson captivated Trojans fans with his flashy running style.
From that point on, there was the growing feeling that once Simpson understood the nuances of McKay’s I-formation rushing attack, the possibilities for a kid who grew up in the San Francisco’s Potrero Hill housing projects were endless.

Simpson’s durability and his ability to get stronger in the fourth quarter during his junior season drew attention, but the true breakthrough came during a nationally televised game at Notre Dame.

In one glorious Northern Indiana afternoon, Simpson showed the nation the combination of his toughness, power, quickness, indescribable moves, and world-class sprinter’s speed. Jaws dropped everywhere.

In the 24-7 upset victory against 12-point favorite Notre Dame -- the first Trojans victory in South Bend since 1939 -- Simpson carried 38 times for 160 yards, and afterward McKay was asked about the amount of carries by his superstar tailback.

"He is not in a union," said McKay with a smile. "He can carry the ball as many times as we want him to."

The Fighting Irish had seen enough of Simpson.

“Simpson’s nickname shouldn't be Orange Juice, it should be Oh Jesus, as in 'Oh Jesus, there he goes again,’” highly respected Notre Dame former sports information director Roger Valdiserri said.

However, Simpson’s crowning moment would come in the 1967 game against crosstown rival UCLA, with everything at stake from a Rose Bowl berth to a potential national championship. Many feel this was the greatest game of the USC-UCLA rivalry.

I remember sitting in the Coliseum stands with my father as a 17-year-old while ABC sportscaster Bill Flemming was introducing the players through the stadium public address system. After Simpson was announced and started jogging back to the Trojans' sideline, my dad, a staunch UCLA supporter, turned to me and said, “Simpson scares me just the way he jogs back to the bench.”

The Trojans had been outplayed for most of the game by UCLA until Simpson ran himself into immortality when USC quarterback Toby Page called an audible -- 23-blast -- early in the fourth quarter with the Trojans down 20-14.

Simpson took the handoff from Page, exploded off the left side, broke outside, and reversed his field on an historic 64-yard touchdown run. The Trojans would hold on to defeat the Bruins 21-20 and would later claim the national championship by defeating Indiana, 14-3 in the 1968 Rose Bowl to finish 10-1. Simpson led the nation in rushing in 1967 with 1,543 yards, scoring 13 touchdowns.

Behind a rebuilt offensive line as a senior, Simpson led the nation in rushing again with 383 carries for 1,880 yards and 23 touchdowns. The Trojans finished 1968 with a 9-1-1 record and Simpson left an indelible mark in his final USC game.

In a 27-16 loss to powerful Ohio State in the 1969 Rose Bowl Game, Simpson again showed why he was one of the greatest runners in college football history by rushing for 171 yards against the Buckeyes -- including a breathtaking 80-yard touchdown run early in the contest.

Simpson, a two-time All-American, was awarded a deserved Heisman Trophy in 1968, an award many felt he should have won the year before instead of the eventual winner, UCLA quarterback Gary Beban.

USC finished 19-2-1 in Simpson’s two seasons.

Today in Heritage Hall, a showcase of USC’s athletic accomplishments, Simpson’s Heisman is on display, but his No. 32 jersey is not. Instead, the 1960’s era of Trojans football is represented by No. 20, the jersey of Mike Garrett, USC’s first Heisman Trophy winner.

And that says it all.