LAS VEGAS — The dishwasher was chirping, and he couldn’t figure out how to turn it off. The thermostat was a mystery. A freshly discovered leak dripped from a large stain in the garage ceiling, and he couldn’t locate the cause.
He hunched as he moved around the house, smoothly but with a shuffle more than a glide. Reading glasses perched on his salt-and-pepper head. He wore a black button-up sweater over a white golf shirt, black slacks, black Nike sneakers.
He looked like Mr. Rogers, not the running back who once scored 23 touchdowns in a season, not one of the most infamous men on the planet.
But that baritone voice, that incandescent smile. Yes, this was O.J. Simpson.
And he was ready to sit and talk.
In his first substantial interview in a decade and his first extensively about football since the 1990s, Simpson spoke to The Buffalo News on Monday.
Simpson had myriad other opportunities. Representatives say he has been approached by all the serious news programs, the gossip shows, Oprah Winfrey, the whole media gallery. They say he’s been offered big money to tell his story. He declined them all.
“I get so many offers to talk,” Simpson, 70, said at the Las Vegas house where he has been staying, “but everybody wants to talk about the crap.”
A February interview request from the town where he starred for the Buffalo Bills appealed to him.
There were ground rules: No video; no sensationalized promotion of the interview; questions should be limited to his playing career.
Simpson, however, did not limit his answers to football. He described life as Nevada inmate No. 1027820 inside Lovelock Correctional Center and discussed adjusting to life since being paroled five months ago.
Simpson expressed concerns about CTE, the degenerative brain disease caused by repeated blows to the head. He shared thoughts on Ralph Wilson publicly for the first time since the Bills founder’s death in 2014. He mused about where he would live once he’s allowed to leave Nevada.
He expressed his affection for Buffalo, the Bills and running back LeSean McCoy, especially. He laughed at the idea of Donald Trump buying the team and conveyed disappointment with the NFL’s national anthem demonstrations.
Simpson also referenced the two-hour Fox special that aired the night before. “O.J. Simpson: The Lost Confession?” was based on a 2006 videotaped interview meant as an infomercial for the ill-conceived and ghostwritten book “If I Did It,” a supposed theoretical account of the 1994 murders of Simpson’s estranged wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ron Goldman, crimes for which Simpson was tried and acquitted.
“When people want to make money or get ratings,” Simpson said, “they’re going to pimp me. I’m going to get pimped.”
Simpson’s friends, many of them former teammates, peppered him Monday morning about the Fox show.
His old pal, former Bills defensive end Sherman White, was among those who phoned with support.
“Listen, if I confessed 12 years ago,” Simpson told White through mutual laughter, “you would have heard about it 12 years ago!”
Simpson insisted he doesn’t watch anything about his notorious life, not “O.J.: Made in America,” the 2016 ESPN documentary that won an Academy Award, not the 2016 FX miniseries “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” not Sunday night’s Fox program.
“I watch nothing of me,” Simpson said, between sips of his McCafe coffee. “I didn’t watch the [Fox special Sunday night] because I knew they were all haters, and people will say things that are just not true, and there’s nobody there to challenge them, and that would piss me off.
“So why? It’s a beautiful day. I’m about to go play golf. Why should I have some crap in my mind? You’ve got to let it go.”
Simpson’s tee time was a little more than three hours away. Until then, he let the audio recorder run.
Still behind walls
Simpson has been living in a gated community within a gated community on the western edge of the Las Vegas Valley. The 5,000-square-foot, five-bedroom, 5.5-bath house — alongside Red Rock Country Club’s second hole — is owned by friend and Silicon Valley venture capitalist Jim Barnett and otherwise would sit vacant.
From the shade of the back patio, striking contours of Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area could be admired beyond the fairway in the foreground. The location is a little too close to the foothills and cliffs to glimpse snow-capped Mount Charleston.
The sun was bright, the air mild and clear. Birds chirped.
“I consider myself a retired person,” Simpson said. “I’m totally happy with my life. I’ve been active my whole life. I had no offseason. Football was the only time I was in one place. I was doing endorsements and running companies.
“I enjoy my retirement.”
He paused a beat, then added a clarification.
“I consider it forced retirement; don’t get me wrong,” Simpson said. “I loved doing ‘NFL Live,’ doing football games, doing the Olympics. If I never stopped I still would.
“But after the whole L.A. thing I got put in forced retirement, and I got used to forced retirement. It’s not bad.”
The “L.A. thing” — he also calls it “all that L.A. crap” — refers to the killings, the low-speed freeway chase in his white Ford Bronco, the acquittal and the 1997 civil judgment that ordered him to pay $33.5 million to the Brown and Goldman estates.
Simpson collects pensions from the NFL and Screen Actors Guild, funds insulated from the civil judgment.
Simpson lives within these security gates and on the golf course as much as he can. He has cultivated a couple of restaurants that protect his privacy from prying media.
He has ventured outside the walls with varying degrees of success. In November, he was kicked out of the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas reportedly for being drunk and disruptive, an account he disputes. Simpson reported the incident to his parole officer, and tests for drugs and alcohol were negative. Simpson is pursuing legal action against the casino for “malice and racial prejudice.”
Jan. 7 provided a more pleasant experience for him. The Bills miraculously had ended their playoff famine. So Simpson pulled on his No. 25 McCoy jersey and ventured to Moon Doggies Bar & Grill, a popular Bills Backers spot.
“It was the first Buffalo playoff game in 18 years, and I kind of wanted to be around Buffalo people to enjoy it,” said Simpson, who signed autographs for excited customers and posed for photos.
“Going to that Buffalo sports bar just brought a whole lot back for me. Talking Proud!”
A spectacular sight
O.J. Simpson in the open field looked as majestic as Red Rock Canyon.
He ran upright, seeming to tower above the field, untouchable. He glimmered as he slipped and shook defenders. He was breathtaking.
A 1990 Sports Illustrated cover story about contemporary tailbacks asked: “Why can’t they run like O.J.?”
Generations know him better as the subject of true-crime tales and maybe even as hapless detective Nordberg from “The Naked Gun” movies.
But anyone who watched him run for USC or the Bills in the 1960s and 1970s recalls a spectacular performer. On one of the most famous runs in college history, he went 64 yards for the winning touchdown over UCLA and the 1967 national championship.
“When that gun went off, and we as a team knew we were the national champions,” Simpson said, “they put me on their shoulders, and I said, ‘This is going to be the highlight of my career. Nothing I could ever do could ever beat this.’ “
The next year he earned the Heisman Trophy.
The Bills drafted him first overall in 1969, but they were so dismal Simpson was rendered irrelevant. He was reborn three seasons later, when Lou Saban returned to coach and assembled an offensive line called the Electric Company. They turned on The Juice.
Simpson in 1973 became the first to rush for 2,000 yards in an NFL season, the only one to do it over a 14-game schedule.
“From the moment that happened, I knew I was a part of football forever,” Simpson said. “I was the first guy to gain 2,000 yards and nobody could beat that, like being the first to hit 60 home runs or run the four-minute mile.”
Often overlooked, his 1975 campaign might have been more prolific. He ran for 1,817 yards, gained a career-high 2,243 yards from scrimmage and scored a team-record 23 touchdowns to lead the NFL in scoring.
“I always thought that ’75 was the better year, and it wasn’t really that close,” Simpson said.
Simpson is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and on the Bills’ Wall of Fame. He was a league MVP, made five All-Pro teams, won four rushing titles and finished his career second only to Jim Brown in rushing. His six 200-yard rushing games remain the record. The Bills never re-issued his No. 32 jersey.
He’s among football’s all-time offensive threats, yet the Bills played one postseason game over his eight seasons with them.
Simpson blames Wilson, the Bills’ owner, for not funding a winner. Simpson contended Wilson was fearful of making the playoffs for financial reasons, that the sweet spot was a full stadium without achieving greatness.
“Buffalo was a different franchise then,” Simpson said. “Ralph Wilson, I don’t think winning was the optimal thing with him. He was more of a businessman than he was a sportsman, which was evident by the GM [Bob Lustig] and others in the front office not being football people.”
If Simpson ever was accused of not being totally immersed in football, then he could say the same about his owner.
“Ralph Wilson said something during my first negotiation with him,” Simpson recalled. “My agent, Chuck Barnes, told him, ‘O.J. can be the guy to turn this franchise around and fill the stadium and make them a championship team. Ralph’s reply was, ‘What good would a championship do me? All that means is everybody wants a raise.’
“Me, being a 22-year-old kid, I had never heard anybody in athletics talk that way. That’s when it dawned on me this guy is all about the business and not about the game. You knew just from what you read every day in L.A. that Carroll Rosenbloom was a competitor. I knew, growing up in San Francisco, Al Davis was a competitor.”
Simpson added he enjoyed Wilson’s company and stated a belief Wilson became competitive with age and wealth. Simpson in retirement considered Wilson a friend and relished covering the Bills’ Super Bowl years as an NBC Sports analyst.
Wilson’s ownership tactics evolved over his six decades in pro football. His frugality has been widely acknowledged. His willingness to spend, particularly during the Super Bowl years, was equally evident at times.
But Simpson’s first impression further motivated him to find other ways to trade on his charm and Los Angeles celebrity. He ventured into acting, network broadcasting and entrepreneurship during offseasons.
He gained another level of fame as the pitchman for Hertz Rent a Car in a series of popular commercials that showed him juking and jumping his way through airports.
“Ralph said there was no chance they ever were going to trade me, so I figured I was through after three years,” Simpson said. “I started preparing myself for leaving football.”
His first Bills coach, John Rauch, made matters worse by deploying Simpson as a receiver more than a runner. Through his first three seasons under Rauch and Harvey Johnson, Simpson averaged an unimpressive 642 rushing yards.
Simpson began to accumulate records in 1972. The Bills found traction in their new Orchard Park stadium.
The awakening caused by Saban, the Electric Company and the maturation of quarterback Joe Ferguson didn’t last.
“I just never thought the front office had the commitment to the team, to help us get over that hump,” Simpson said.
“If not for injuries in ’75, I thought we were the best team in football. We beat Pittsburgh, the defending champs, early. I thought nobody could stop us. Injuries caught up with us.
“Then we lose instrumental guys because we won’t re-sign them, and I thought, ‘I can’t go through another two or three years like my first three years. I’ll have no chance. We’re back to rebuilding.’ “
Simpson began posturing for a trade before the 1976 season and threatened to retire, but Wilson gave him an irresistible contract extension.
In a 1977 Rolling Stone cover feature, Simpson’s growing fame away from the field underscored football was losing its grip on him. America already thought of him in more than football terms, the phrase “Buffalo Bills” unmentioned until the story’s 4,150th and 4,151st words.
“I used to dream about football, about making long runs and all,” Simpson told Rolling Stone. “I don’t dream about it anymore.”
Hobbled by knee trouble in 1977 and scoring zero touchdowns in only seven games, Simpson was traded to the San Francisco 49ers. He spent two raggedy final seasons with his hometown team and retired.
Dr. Bennet Omalu is the neurologist and forensic pathologist credited with discovering CTE in football players, a groundbreaking development that inspired the motion picture “Concussion.”
Omalu in January 2016 told People magazine, “I would bet my medical license” that Simpson suffers from the degenerative brain disease. CTE can cause memory loss, mood swings, depression and violent outbursts. A diagnosis is made only by autopsy.
“Given his profile,” Omalu said, “I think it’s not an irresponsible conclusion to suspect he has CTE.”
In trying to recall the NFL’s first player to rush for 1,000 yards, Simpson dithered between Beattie Feathers (the correct answer) or Jay Berwanger (the first Heisman Trophy winner).
“That’s my CTE kicking in,” Simpson said, staring in the distance.
Such dark humor is increasingly common with retired football players.
“I get concerned,” he said. “I do recognize that it probably affects you in short-term memory more than long-term.
“I know with me, I have days I can’t find words. I literally cannot find words or the name of somebody I know. That gets a little scary. Those days happen when I’m tired.
“I have a few friends that have symptoms …”
Simpson’s words suddenly became drawn out, spaces of seeming introspection after each period.
“… and older friends that have it full-bore.”
“It is horrible to see.”
“My buddy A.C. [former high school, USC and Bills teammate Al Cowlings], my closest, oldest friend, I see he’s short-tempered now.”
“A guy who has never been short-tempered.”
“I see he’s struggling just a little bit.”
Simpson counted two distinct concussions in his career.
The worst, he recalled, happened in Houston on a late Jack Kemp pass over the middle in Simpson’s fourth professional game.
“I got flipped up in the air,” Simpson said. “Garland Boyette or somebody went into me. I came down on my butt, maybe. I don’t remember, really. I was … Whoo!
“I think I played a little more in the game, but the worst thing I did was get on the plane. I thought I was going to explode. I don’t think I’ve ever, ever been in more pain than I was on that plane.
“I wanted to die. They ended up clearing a row for me, and I laid down. That was, by far, the worst I ever had.”
Simpson was a workhorse. While a slithery nightmare for tacklers, he absorbed thousands of hits, most on Rich Stadium’s cement-hard turf field. His career concluded with 2,658 touches, including receptions and kick returns.
Behind a two-bar facemask and with a single-button chinstrap holding his helmet on, Simpson led the NFL in rush attempts three times. In the 14-game era that ended in 1978, he owns the second and third busiest rushing seasons and four of the top 16. Jim Brown is the lone back with more carries in that era.
Simpson’s 332 carries in 1973 broke the record, as did his 39 carries in a game that year.
If 39 attempts was a lot, then consider his USC time clock. He averaged 35 carries his senior season. He ran 47 times in one game, 20 in a single quarter.
“You know, you get dinged,” Simpson said, using the all-encompassing term of being knocked anywhere from dizzy to cold. “Who knows what a ding is?
“I got dinged late in my career with the Niners. Hacksaw Reynolds caught me on the 1-yard line and filled the hole. I saw stars.”
Dings add up. What used to be shaken off with smelling salts are now deemed subconcussive impacts, blows that might not meet the traditional definition of a concussion but are believed to have serious cumulative effects.
Simpson was asked if he thought he had CTE.
“Well, I don’t know,” he replied. “I feel all right. But I have days when I can’t … I lose words, and I can’t come up with a simple word. I can’t remember a phone number, so forget that.”
Life inside Lovelock
Simpson doesn’t shrink from his time at Lovelock Correctional Center. His first mention of it came unsolicited, 38 seconds into Monday’s interview.
“I had four fantasy teams in Lovelock,” Simpson said. “I ran a league; they called it the Champions League.
“When I first got to Lovelock, there was one, maybe two fantasy leagues. When I left, if there were a thousand guys on the yard, 910 were in fantasy leagues.”
The medium-security prison, on a bleak slab of desert landscape 100 miles northeast of Reno, is where Simpson served nine years. He was sentenced to 33 years for kidnapping and armed robbery.
While attending a friend’s 2007 wedding in Las Vegas, Simpson assembled a group to storm a hotel room, confront two memorabilia dealers and take back items Simpson believed were his. Simpson claimed he didn’t know anyone in his group had a gun and that he acted on the advice of an attorney, who told him he had the right to confiscate stolen personal belongings.
Many legal analysts consider Simpson’s overloaded sentence payback for the 1995 double-murder verdict. Clark County District Court Judge Jackie Glass gaveled Simpson’s sentence on the 13th anniversary of his acquittal.
Audio of the incident was recorded by one of Simpson’s associates, who later testified he sold it to gossip outlet TMZ for $150,000. Four men in the group took plea deals and testified against Simpson; another also was convicted.
Running the prison softball league and fantasy football were two of Simpson’s limited entertainment options and helped ingratiate him to the inmates.
“Of course, I was the white whale there for everybody to beat,” Simpson said.
“We all talked crap. All the dudes playing fantasy would say, ‘Oh, man, I wouldn’t have drafted you!’ I said, ‘Man, you look at my ’75 season and tell me you wouldn’t have wanted me!’
“In our league you got bonuses for touchdowns over 30 yards and over 50 yards. I told them, ‘I might be the first drafted all-time!’ Now, take those numbers and add two more games [to equal a 16-game schedule] and compare that to anybody’s fantasy season.”
When Simpson went to Lovelock, Dick Jauron still was the Bills’ coach. Terrell Owens hadn’t joined the club yet. Fitzmagic was an inconceivable phenomenon. LeSean McCoy was playing for the University of Pittsburgh.
Simpson lamented the funerals he couldn’t attend, the respects he couldn’t pay. Wilson, Saban, Kemp, Muhammad Ali, Michael Jackson, Buffalo News writer Larry Felser, family and friends died during the nine years Simpson was incarcerated.
“I lost relatives when I was in prison,” Simpson said. “That hurt.”
Ali and Simpson were crossover superstars and pop-culture celebrities in the 1970s.
“I would’ve definitely been there,” Simpson said of Ali’s poignant funeral procession through Louisville. “He showed up at a couple surprise parties that Nicole threw for me.
“I actually cried in 1996, when he lit the Olympic flame in Atlanta. I was in tears. I’m getting tears now, thinking about it.
“I’m from the ’60s. I saw the hate white America had on Muhammad Ali. Those same people grew to love and respect him. That was moving.”
Simpson expressed devastation over Jackson’s 2009 overdose death.
The King of Pop in 1984 helped Simpson and actors Dustin Hoffman and Richard Chamberlain start Camp Good Times for children with cancer. Jackson also supported Simpson’s family after the 1995 acquittal.
“There came a point where my kids would come up with their best friends and stay long weekends at Neverland Ranch, with everything available to us,” Simpson said. “We were the only ones there.
“This place was incredible, like being at the zoo and amusement park at the same time, with a Ferris wheel and bumper cars and a big movie theater. He had first-run movies and nobody behind the counter. The popcorn and candy, the kids would go get whatever they want.
“I don’t know what his sexual thing was. I thought he was asexual. But he came to my aid.”
As much as Simpson got along with his fellow inmates, prison gangs were a constant threat. Jackson’s death, for example, was celebrated by white supremacists. Simpson didn’t dare respond.
“It hurt me,” Simpson said. “This is prison. You got Aryan Warriors, 311s, 88s. Heil Hitler, KKK, you got all that.
“It’s tough when you hear them denigrate this guy who has been so great to my family. Then when he dies, you can’t get into an argument because some guy is cracking on Michael.”
Asked if he needed to align with any group to protect his safety at Lovelock, Simpson snapped upright in his patio chair and laughed.
No, not The Juice.
“All the boys were my boys!” Simpson said. “The heads of all the groups, all the shot-callers played softball for me. They were all my guys, the Aryans, Surenos, Nortenos. …
“Let me tell you: Not one minute when I was in Lovelock was I ever concerned about anybody. Nobody would think about screwing with me.
“Virtually all the guys had my back. I was setting the tone. I was helping the guys. I helped put together programs, and when there were problems, I was the guy they came to to mediate.”
No vote for Trump
Although Simpson occasionally veered off topic during Monday’s three-hour interview, questions were supposed to be about football.
What did he think, then, about Donald Trump’s interest in purchasing the Bills after Wilson died?
Simpson grinned and emitted a deep exhale.
“If you were good, he would’ve been fun,” Simpson said. “Ain’t no doubt about it. The one thing I can say about The Donald is The Donald is fun.
“Well, for a dude — and I consider myself a dude — Donald is a man’s man. He would be a fun guy. But that’s hanging out. … If the Bills weren’t winning, it would have been tough.”
Trump’s offer came in a distant third to Terry and Kim Pegula’s NFL-record $1.4 billion winning bid. Trump has said that if he’d bought the Bills, he likely wouldn’t have run for president.
Simpson and Trump once were friends and golf buddies.
Simpson attended Trump’s December 1993 wedding to Marla Maples at the Plaza Hotel in Atlantic City. Two years later, Trump suggested on the “Howard Stern Show” that Simpson was framed for the Brown Simpson and Goldman murders.
Trump since has mocked Simpson on Twitter.
“Somebody asked me if I’d have voted for him,” Simpson said. “Probably not, but I only know two of my friends I’d vote to be president. Some of my best, best besties I would not vote to be president. That has no bearing on it, you know?”
Simpson generally agrees with the president about Colin Kaepernick and other players who’ve demonstrated during the national anthem before games.
Kaepernick in 2016 started a controversial movement while with Simpson’s hometown 49ers. The quarterback knelt during “The Star-Spangled Banner” to protest racial oppression.
Trump has slammed Kaepernick, other athlete protestors and the NFL. The president has called for those players to be fired and for fans to boycott the league for allowing displays of dissent.
“I think Colin made a mistake,” Simpson said. “I really appreciate what he was trying to say. I thought he made a bad choice in attacking the flag.
“I grew up at a time when deacons were in the KKK. I don’t disrespect the Bible because of those guys. The flag shouldn’t be disrespected because of what cops do. The flag represents what we want America to be.”
The Pegulas released one of the most strongly worded statements against Trump’s “divisive and disrespectful” comments.
The next day at New Era Field, the Bills walked from the sideline onto the field for the national anthem before playing the Denver Broncos. A dozen knelt. Most of the others locked arms in solidarity.
Kaepernick has been unemployed since the end of the 2016 season.
“When he did it the first time,” Simpson said, “I thought, ‘Well, you took a gamble, and I give you credit.’ But it was him continuing to do it where he made the biggest mistake.
“I’m a firm believer of doing what you think is right, but I would always stand for the flag.”
Borders and walls
Florida’s attorney general in September announced Simpson is not welcome in the state, where he resided when he was arrested and where the two children he had with Nicole Brown Simpson live.
USC has stated he will not be welcome to join any football or athletic department functions even though his No. 32 is retired there, and a replica of his Heisman Trophy remains on display at Heritage Hall.
As soon as Nevada will allow, he wants to return to Orchard Park for Bills games. He said he won’t ask to be a guest of the Bills. He’ll sit with his old Buffalo friends as he did before.
“I like the Buffalo Bills,” Simpson said. “So I will, the minute I can travel, request once or twice maybe next season to go to Buffalo, visit some friends, meet some of the boys.
“A year before I went to prison, I was really moved because I was in a suite that my friend had, and it was some alumni thing going on down on the field. During the game, virtually all of the guys came by to say hello up in the suite.”
Simpson’s usual routine was to stay on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, play golf and tour the wineries. Canada likely won’t grant him entry now. He’ll stick to the U.S.
“I thoroughly enjoy coming back,” Simpson said. “But it will not be through the Buffalo Bills.”
Simpson seems to have accepted his restrictions.
That’s why Las Vegas has been so appealing. He just might make it his permanent home.
“I consider this the No Hate Zone of America,” Simpson said. “Everybody here seems to love their life. The Summerlin area is so positive.
“I have no plans to leave any time soon, and my kids love coming here. My daughter came in for the second time from Florida and stayed five weeks. My son is coming for the third time from Florida.
“They love visiting me here, and you always get old friends with nooooo problem, coming to Las Vegas.”
As Simpson’s tee time approached, one last question:
How much does he wonder if people will remember his football greatness as part of his life’s legacy?
“For years, I didn’t get much football questions,” Simpson said. “It was basically the other stuff. In Lovelock, where you’re with a bunch of guys, and here in Las Vegas, the football questions have been revived. And that might have been them shows.
“In the ESPN show, my daughter said, ‘I liked the fact it was about football for the first few hours because I never really saw you play!’ Another friend of mine who isn’t a football fan said, ‘Man, you were fast!’
“Despite the other crap the show was about — I know it won an Academy Award — people were reminded I was a pretty good athlete.”
At the time of the 2010 U.S. Census, about 49 percent of the population was too young to evoke Simpson playing football live.
Of the other 51 percent, many of their memories surely are diluted by gavel-to-gavel trial coverage, documentaries, commercials, even his Nordberg character being pushed down the Dodger Stadium steps in a wheelchair.
“Anybody that saw me play will remember me as a football player,” Simpson said. “I like to think I played the game with a lot of passion and love.
“You live in memories. I can visualize LeSean do a beautiful shimmy up the middle and step out of a tackle in the snow and score.
“I like to think I left a lot of those runs out there. I don’t think that once you see it, you’ll ever forget it.”
Simpson slipped on his golf shoes, eager to try out a new tip for his swing. He needed to keep his right elbow tucked, one of his country-club buddies advised.
The dishwasher addressed, the thermostat correctly set and the handyman summoned to investigate that leaky ceiling, Simpson backed a golf cart out of the side garage and tooled away.