O. J., the hero, doesn't fit the crime


He was Michael Jordan and Jim Brown rolled into one.

He was everybody's All American and America's first black athletic star to cash in mightily both on Madison Avenue and in Hollywood.

And then there was yesterday's scene of O. J. Simpson, Hall of Fame football player, sportscaster, actor, corporate pitchman on the run from pursuing police.

Charged yesterday with two counts of murder -- for slashing the throat of Nicole Brown Simpson, his second wife and mother of his two youngest children, and for killing her friend Ronald Lyle Goldman -- he could be subject to the death penalty if convicted.

His swift, perplexing fall has all the elements of classic tragedy. The story -- revealing a dark side of a hero obsessed with his beautiful former wife to the point of beating her -- almost defies belief. It leaves Americans unsettled and struggling to reconcile their mythic image with the sordid affairs of a fallen hero.

It is a struggle that swirls on the periphery of this case, alternately fascinating and repulsing the public.

Mr. Simpson appeared to embody traditional American values of hard work and fair play. He earned millions. Now he is one of the most high-profile murder suspects in the nation's history.

Like his football exploits seen by millions on television, his misfortune was tracked almost minute by minute by thousands of media hounds in Los Angeles.

Yesterday in lunch rooms, around water fountains and on radio talk shows, America seemed stunned by the saga of the football legend turned fugitive murder suspect.

"O. J. Simpson is the American dream come-true," said N. G. Berrill, a forensic psychologist. "We are shocked and appalled. But we are also curious."

That curiosity, some say, can quickly lead to a morbid fascination over the misfortunes and foibles of idols.

"Some would say that we take pleasure from seeing people fall," said Richard Macksey, professor of comparative literature at Johns Hopkins. "Some get a certain kick out of seeing people suffer."

Childhood infirmity

Mr. Simpson's life as an athletic star was the stuff of legend, a kid who raised himself up from the streets of San Francisco on legs made spindly by a childhood attack of rickets.

He personified a vanishing era at the University of Southern California -- the athlete as big man on campus.

When Mr. Simpson won the Heisman Trophy as college football's best player in 1968, his clean-cut persona and sports exploits were in sharp contrast to the fissures the Vietnam war caused on American college campus.

There was something pure, even magical about his abilities on the field. And his athletic skill was matched by an uncommon personal grace.

Fans did not simply admire Orenthal James Simpson. He was beloved.

In Buffalo, he only added to the legend, becoming the first pro football player to rush for more than 2,000 yards in a season.

His stardom reflected on Buffalo, stolid, working-class town in search of an idol.

"I say he is the first and maybe only larger than life figure to emerge from Buffalo," said Vic Carucci, a Buffalo News reporter who has covered Mr. Simpson for 21 years.

"They didn't get any bigger, not only as an athlete, but as a personality and as a person," he said. "It wasn't just fame and the recognizable face and the good looks. It's a class and a

charisma. He carried himself well. He knew how to treat people."

"Now," he added, "Buffalo is devastated."

Yesterday, the News weighed in with an editorial, saying "O. J. is our guy."

Mr. Simpson was held in awe, even by his teammates. They recall his willingness to accommodate any autograph-seeker almost as often as they recall his ability to elude most tacklers.

"The public crush on him was pretty awesome," said Tony Greene, a Bills' co-captain with Mr. Simpson for five seasons. "At ZZTC times you said, 'Thank God, I'm not him. But he handles it so well.' "

His teammates say that his ability to deftly handle admirers is what made him the most marketable and likable athlete of his era. His rise to greatness coincided with an explosion of interest in pro football and with the dominance of visual over print media.

He was an athlete made for the television age.

Astonishingly handsome as well as remarkably talented, he carved out a second career as pitchman for Hertz Corp., NBC sportscaster and Hollywood star.

He became the first black athlete to gain widespread commercial acceptance.

"He was almost homogenized," said Dr. Berrill, the New York forensic psychologist. "People just liked him. There was never a question of black or white."

Over and over, his ex-teammates talked of his ability to "light up a room," to handle stardom "perfectly."

"O. J. took pride in his public appearance," said former cornerback Booker Edgerson, Mr. Simpson's first roommate with the Bills. "He took pride into being able to greet people the way he was greeted when he was growing up."

'He lifted himself up'

Mr. Edgerson said he understands why the public is fascinated with this case, why so many can still identify with Mr. Simpson.

"O. J. Simpson is one of us," he said. "He lifted himself up by the bootstraps. He became very successful. Maybe we weren't able to identify with him from the superstar status. But he is just one of us."

"That's why we care," he said. "Everybody wants to be a friend of a person like that. He reminds you of yourself. Hey, here's a guy who has millions of dollars and he acts just like us.

"And that's why people say, 'I don't believe it, I refuse to believe it, it can't be.' "

"Those are the reasons why I care, and why other people care," he added.

But there is a flip side to fame and to watching an idol fall.

Marshall Blonsky, a professor at the New School for Social Research and author of the book "American Mythologies," said that a rapid shift in public opinion against a national idol is a peculiarly American phenomenon.

It is a nation that feeds off tabloid-style controversy, from Michael Jackson to Tonya Harding, the Menendez brothers to the Bobbitts.

"I say O. J. Simpson is the perfect meat for us," Dr. Blonsky said. "We adore this. It's a sport. What we are watching is American sport, or, if you prefer, entertainment. Of course, it's sick. But it's fun."

"O. J.," he added, "has turned from gold to lead."

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