top of page

Reflections on O.J.

Like most people, I can remember exactly where I was when the O.J. Simpson verdict came down.

The murder trial of the famous football star, actor, broadcaster and pitchman, who died last Wednesday, transfixed the nation for almost a year.

We all remember the white Bronco. The black gloves. The sad, attention-hungry cast of characters: Kato Kaelin. Lance Ito. Marcia Clark. Johnny Cochran. F. Lee Bailey. Robert Kardashian.

And the sick feeling in the pit of our stomach when this man, obviously guilty of two gruesome murders, was set free.

My life intersected with O.J. on three occasions. And like everyone else, he fooled me into thinking that he was a great guy.

I was a 19-year old, wet-behind-the-ears sports editor of the Stanford Daily in 1968 when Simpson led his USC Trojans to a 27-24 win at Stanford Stadium. He rushed for something like 245 yards and threw a key pass completion that was probably the biggest play of the game.

Afterwards, I waited patiently in the USC locker room, hoping to have a chance to speak with the soon-to-be Heisman-Trophy-winner after he did interviews with all the Bay Area and LA media.

I approached him tentatively once the other writers and broadcasters had departed, realizing that I was the least important reporter he'd meet that day.

He blew me away with his graciousness and charm. We talked for over a half hour. He made me feel like we were old friends, that I was the most important person in the world. 

Naturally, I wrote a glowing piece in the Daily which, in retrospect, makes me cringe. 

Eleven years later, I was the Sports Information Director at Stanford and Bill Walsh, with whom I'd worked closely for a couple of years, had moved on to the 49ers, where he inherited an aging O.J. Simpson in the twilight of his career. 

Bill wanted me to join him as PR man and marketing director for the team. He and I had become good friends, so I was really tempted, and I knew he was going to be very successful.

But I had gotten an offer from incoming Athletic Director Andy Geiger to become Associate AD at Stanford, and at the time was more interested in testing the administration waters than continuing with the 24/7 grind of sports PR.

Walsh and I kept in close touch, and he called one day to tell me about an experience he'd just had with Simpson. Bill and O.J. had attended a San Francisco Giants game together a few days before, and it had made quite an impression on him.

I can still remember Bill's words and the sense of wonder in his voice. "Gar, it was unbelievable," he said. "I had no idea how popular O.J. is. People were literally climbing all over me to shake his hand, get an autograph, or take a picture with him. The guy is like some kind of a god."

Simpson retired after that season and a few years later, my old friend Bob Moore (the former Stanford and Oakland Raiders tight end) asked me to work on a documentary film with him. 

Bob had served as Vice-President of the NFL Players'  Association and had seen the difficulty many players had after retiring from the game--the injury-wracked bodies, the suicides, the divorces, the alcoholism--and wanted to do a film about "life after football." 

This was long before the revelations about CTE and the effects of repeated concussions suffered by football players. But even then, 40 years ago, the end of an NFL career was traumatizing for players whose lives felt empty without the hero worship, the roar of the crowd, the comradeship of the locker room, the adrenalin rush of competition.

In helping to write the treatment for the film, I thought an interesting opening scene might be to show O.J. trotting out onto the field for the last time, when he was retiring from the 49ers. Even though he was well past his prime and his skills had greatly diminished, the crowd gave him a standing ovation in recognition of his great career and his San Francisco roots.

Simpson was not the typical professional athlete. Once named "the man most looked up to" by the youth of our country, his success off the field was as unique as his ability had been on it, thanks to the Hertz commercials, Naked Gun movies and Monday Night Football gig.

As it turned out, that scene was included and Simpson was featured prominently in Bob's terrific documentary, "Disposable Heroes," that aired in 1985 on HBO and in limited theatrical release.

O.J. had been seen as the guy who bucked the odds and flourished after football. 

Nine years later, he was arrested for the double homicide of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald Goldman.


Gary Cavalli - Bowl and League co-founder, author, speaker 

Gary Cavalli, the former Sports Information Director and Associate Athletic Director at Stanford University, was co-founder and executive director of the college football bowl game played in the Bay Area, and previously was co-founder and President of the American Basketball League.

Get in touch//@cavalli49//

bottom of page