Until it was announced that Bruce Smith would join him on Sept. 15, Jim Kelly had been the only Buffalo Bills player to have his jersey number retired by the franchise. Some historic franchises such as the Chicago Bears have retired as many as 13 players’ numbers; others with rich traditions, such as the Dallas Cowboys and Oakland Raiders, have zero retired numbers.
But it’s impossible to write the history of the long moribund Bills franchise without the name Orenthal James Simpson somewhere on the first page. So even with five other Bills players in the Pro Football Hall of Fame who spent the majority of their careers in Buffalo it’s a bit stunning that Simpson’s number was never retired at any point after his retirement from football.
Before Smith and Kelly arrived, Simpson unquestionably was the greatest Bills player ever. He still might be to some. But those thoughts are somewhat hushed and often conflicted now.
Kelly and Smith can joke about it now. Even if it’s still a bit awkward of a punchline years later.
“Bruce goes, ‘You got your number retired and you’re not even the best Buffalo Bill ever,’” Kelly said, via the Buffalo News. “I said, ‘I know, O.J.’s in jail.’ I had to throw that at Bruce. … I thought Thurman [Thomas] should have gotten his number retired before Bruce.”
Kelly was kidding. The audience roared. But some might have cringed when reading the words.
You have to dig to find Simpson’s name on the Buffalo Bills’ official website. Yet he’s a member of the team’s Hall of Fame and Wall of Fame. But you can’t buy a Simpson No. 32 jersey either on the team’s site or on the NFL.com shop.
Still, those Simpson No. 32 jerseys show up at Bills games every week — and were considered hot collectibles at one point. But then again, O.J. wasn’t named to the franchise’s fan-voted 50th anniversary team in 2009; Thurman Thomas was the pick at running back.
It’s a complicated relationship for sure.
“It’s schizophrenic,” said Gene DiFrancesco, a Buffalo native and lifelong Bills fan. “One camp believes he did it and should be taken off the stadium’s Wall of Fame. Another camp is in denial. And the last camp privately loves him, maintained relations and would invite him to their luxury boxes after the trial.”
It, of course, was the double homicide of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman in 1994. And the trial that followed, O.J. Simpson being charged for their murders, has since been called the trial of the century. The fact that we’re talking about it more than 20 years later with such fascination, highlighted by FX’s “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” and ESPN’s “O.J.: Made in America” 30 For 30 series, which is showing this week, says a lot.
Simpson’s celebrity had a few clear stages. The first came at USC in winning the Heisman Trophy. The second was his Bills career, launched to its height during his epic 1973 season. Then it was his fame on the big screen — as a Hertz pitch man, an NFL analyst and also as a movie star. And, of course, the trial and everything since. It's the last part that's the trickiest to figure out — especially now in his predominant NFL city.
But back in his Buffalo heyday, there were few bigger, more significant athletes to that region than Simpson.
“He was a star,” said Chuck Frawley, the treasurer and past president of the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame. “He was a big thing for this community. He took a team that was near the bottom and added a lot of life to this area.”
A Buffalo resident the past 50 years, Frawley watched Simpson rise to stardom on an off the field and he was a no-brainer charter member for the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame in its first class back in 1991.
“It was a slam dunk,” Frawley said. “There were a couple of absolutes our first year, and he was one of them. O.J. Simpson, Warren Spahn, Bob Lanier, Gilbert Perreault — those were the Mt. Rushmore guys in Buffalo sports history.”
Three years later, Simpson’s ex-wife and companion were killed, changing the narrative for Bills fans. His spot in the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame is safe, but it’s not as if it wasn’t up for debate.
“We talked about removing him, yes,” Frawley admitted. “It wasn’t something we agonized over, but it did come up before it was dismissed. We said, ‘Hey, he’s in based on his athletic achievements and that’s what our organization is about.’ Does it tarnish it a little bit? Sure. But we’re not going to take him out.
“We may perhaps downplay him. We don’t necessarily put him high on the list when we’re talking about who our Hall of Famers are. He’s not at the top of the list on our promotional items, let’s put it that way.”
After all, it’s possible that Simpson killed two people, even after he was found not guilty in a court of law (though later found guilty in a civil trial). That’s what ultimately has made his relationship with the Bills so complex.
As the ESPN feature has shown so far, Simpson was eventually viewed as a savior to long-suffering Bills fans. And as this quote from an NFL executive to Sports Illustrated’s John Underwood at the end of the 1975 season showed, Simpson’s impact on Buffalo and the Bills franchise — even as he neared the twilight of his career there — couldn’t be overstated:
“Simpson is the first athlete since Babe Ruth to have a stadium built for him [the 80,020-seat Rich Stadium in Buffalo], and when they filled it they filled it for Simpson, not the mediocre team the Bills had then. They still fill it for Simpson.”
It can be a bit of a hardscrabble existence in western New York, and the 1990s were a strange time there. As the Kelly-led Bills reached unseen heights for the franchise (but never winning the big one), the area felt like a bit of a national dumping ground. Unemployment rates rose well beyond the national average in 1992, approaching 10 percent. Then came three national stories of ignominy with direct local ties that dragged the area even more into the dirt.
John Wayne Bobbitt, a resident of nearby Niagara Falls, had his penis cut off by his wife in 1993 in an international joke of a story. Simpson took the national and international spotlight the following year. And in 1995, Timothy McVeigh (from nearby Pendleton, N.Y.) became famous after he was arrested and eventually convicted and executed for his role in the Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people and injured several hundred more.
Even with Simpson’s acquittal that fall, this local infamy felt like something of a cruel joke. It wasn’t exactly cool to be from Buffalo.
“We’ve had it hard. That city had has it hard,” said Michael Krajacic, chapter president of the Bills Backers of Syracuse. "People suffer for so long, and it changes them. [It] changes how they see things."
Krajacic, 63, grew up watching “every game, every play” of Simpson’s career. For the first 30 years of the franchise history, one name was above all others, he said.
“We didn’t have the Super Bowls yet, either, so he was what we were clinging to,” Krajacic said.
But even with the team’s success and with Simpson’s trial in the early-to-mid 1990s, Krajacic said he and his closest of Bills fans only grew stronger in their support of their hero.
“We were staunchly behind him in the trial,” Krajacic said. “Twenty years ago, we were a lot younger and he was an ultimate hero. To this point, we can still make the case that he was innocent of the murders and that it was a setup. We have investigated all kinds of theories, where drugs were involved and this and that.
“I believe that there’s still the possibility that he’s not guilty.”
The possibility — loaded words indeed. Krajacic almost seems to personify the ambivalence that exists in many other Bills fans’ hearts, especially the ones of his generation. There are scores of Bills fans now who were not even alive when Simpson played; they only know him from the trial or from the recent TV series. But for those of a certain age, Simpson at one point represented a beacon of light in dark times.
When Simpson was arrested in 2007 and eventually convicted for his role in a Las Vegas robbery at the hotel room of a sports memorabilia dealer, Krajacic’s thoughts did change a bit, although not completely.
“At this point in time, it seems like he’s in jail for fighting for his reputation,” Krajacic said. “He just went a little bit overboard. He’s a hero, but he’s a fallen hero.”
Simpson does come up in discussion occasionally, Krajacic said, when he and his group meets weekly during the football season to watch games. Especially now, following the 20th anniversaries of the murder and the trial, and the big-production television series that have followed.
But even with the conflict in his and others’ minds, Krajacic stands behind the man who helped build Buffalo Bills football and he believes that most want to believe Simpson was innocent of the murders.
“I think there’s a desire to think that way for most of them. Some of them are more realistic than others,” he said laughing, “but I am not one of them.”
- - - - - - -