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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

O.J. Simpson, athlete whose trial riveted the nation, dies at 76

O.J. Simpson in 1976, one of his final years of NFL stardom. (Robert Walker/The New York Times)

By Robert D. McFadden

O.J. Simpson, who ran to fame on the football field, made fortunes as an all-American in movies, television and advertising, and was acquitted of killing his former wife and her friend in a 1995 trial in Los Angeles that mesmerized the nation, died Wednesday at his home in Las Vegas. He was 76.

The cause was cancer, his family announced on social media.

The jury in the murder trial cleared him, but the case, which had held up a cracked mirror to Black and white America, changed the trajectory of his life. In 1997, a civil suit by the victims’ families found him liable for the deaths of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald L. Goldman, and ordered him to pay $33.5 million in damages. He paid little of the debt, moved to Florida and struggled to remake his life, raise his children and stay out of trouble.

In 2006, he sold a book manuscript, titled “If I Did It,” and a prospective TV interview, giving a “hypothetical” account of murders he had always denied committing. A public outcry ended both projects, but Goldman’s family secured the book rights, added material imputing guilt to Simpson and had it published.

In 2007, he was arrested after he and other men invaded a Las Vegas hotel room of some sports memorabilia dealers and took a trove of collectibles. He claimed that the items had been stolen from him, but a jury in 2008 found him guilty of 12 charges, including armed robbery and kidnapping, after a trial that drew only a smattering of reporters and spectators. He was sentenced to nine to 33 years in a Nevada state prison. He served the minimum term and was released in 2017.

Over the years, the story of O.J. Simpson generated a tide of tell-all books, movies, studies and debate over questions of justice, race relations and celebrity in a nation that adores its heroes, especially those cast in rags-to-riches stereotypes, but that has never been comfortable with its deeper contradictions.

There were many in the Simpson saga. Yellowing old newspaper clippings yield the earliest portraits of a postwar child of poverty afflicted with rickets and forced to wear steel braces on his spindly legs, of a hardscrabble life in a bleak housing project and of hanging with teenage gangs in the tough back streets of San Francisco, where he learned to run.

“Running, man, that’s what I do,” he said in 1975, when he was one of America’s best-known and highest-paid football players, the Buffalo Bills’ electrifying, swivel-hipped ball carrier, known universally as the Juice. “All my life I’ve been a runner.”

And so he had — running to daylight on the gridiron of the University of Southern California and in the roaring stadiums of the National Football League for 11 years; running for Hollywood movie moguls, for Madison Avenue image-makers and for television networks; running to pinnacles of success in sports and entertainment.

Along the way, he broke college and professional records, won the Heisman Trophy and was enshrined in pro football’s Hall of Fame. He appeared in dozens of movies and memorable commercials for Hertz and other clients; was a sports analyst for ABC and NBC; acquired homes, cars and a radiant family; and became an American idol — a handsome warrior with the gentle eyes and soft voice of a nice guy. And he played golf.

It was the good life, on the surface. But there was a deeper, more troubled reality — about an infant daughter drowning in the family pool and a divorce from his high school sweetheart, about his stormy marriage to a stunning young server and her frequent calls to the police when he beat her, about the jealous rages of a frustrated man.

The abuse left Nicole Simpson bruised and terrified on scores of occasions, but police rarely took substantive action. After one call to police on New Year’s Day, 1989, officers found her badly beaten and half-naked, hiding in the bushes outside their home. “He’s going to kill me!” she sobbed. O.J. Simpson was arrested and convicted of spousal abuse, but was let off with a fine and probation.

The couple divorced in 1992, but confrontations continued. On Oct. 25, 1993, Nicole Simpson called the police again. “He’s back,” she told a 911 operator, and officers once more intervened.

Then it happened. On June 12, 1994, Nicole Simpson, 35, and Goldman, 25, were attacked outside her condominium in the Brentwood section of Los Angeles, not far from O.J. Simpson’s estate. She was nearly decapitated, and Goldman was slashed to death.

The knife was never found, but police discovered a bloody glove at the scene and abundant hair, blood and fiber clues. Aware of O.J. Simpson’s earlier abuse and her calls for help, investigators believed from the start that Simpson, 46, was the killer. They found blood on his car and, in his home, a bloody glove that matched the one picked up near the bodies. There was never any other suspect.

Five days later, after Simpson had attended Nicole’s funeral with their two children, he was charged with the murders but fled in his white Ford Bronco. With his old friend and teammate Al Cowlings at the wheel and the fugitive in the back holding a gun to his head and threatening suicide, the Bronco led a fleet of patrol cars and news helicopters on a slow, 60-mile televised chase over the Southern California freeways. Simpson finally returned home and was taken into custody.

Orenthal James Simpson was born in San Francisco on July 9, 1947, one of four children of James and Eunice (Durden) Simpson. As an infant afflicted with the calcium deficiency rickets, he wore leg braces for several years but outgrew his disability. His father, a janitor and cook, left the family when the child was 4, and his mother, a hospital nurse’s aide, raised the children in a housing project in the tough Potrero Hill district.

As a teenager, Simpson, who hated the name Orenthal and called himself O.J., ran with street gangs. But at 15 he was introduced by a friend to Willie Mays, the renowned San Francisco Giants outfielder. The encounter was inspirational and turned his life around, Simpson recalled. He joined the Galileo High School football team and won All-City honors in his senior year.

In 1967, Simpson married his high school sweetheart, Marguerite Whitley. The couple had three children, Arnelle, Jason and Aaren. Shortly after their divorce in 1979, Aaren, 23 months old, fell into a swimming pool at home and died a week later.

Simpson married Nicole Brown in 1985; the couple had a daughter, Sydney, and a son, Justin. He is survived by Arnelle, Jason, Sydney and Justin Simpson and three grandchildren, his lawyer, Malcolm P. LaVergne, said.

After being released from prison in Nevada in 2017, Simpson moved into the Las Vegas country club home of a wealthy friend, James Barnett, for what he assumed would be a temporary stay. But he found himself enjoying the local golf scene and making friends, sometimes with people who introduced themselves to him at restaurants, LaVergne said. Simpson decided to remain in Las Vegas full time. At his death, he lived right on the course of the Rhodes Ranch Golf Club.

Simpson, in a way, wrote his own farewell on the day of his arrest. As he rode in the Bronco with a gun to his head, a friend, Robert Kardashian, released a handwritten letter to the public that he had left at home, expressing love for Nicole Simpson and denying that he killed her. “Don’t feel sorry for me,” he wrote. “I’ve had a great life, great friends. Please think of the real O.J. and not this lost person.”

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