Monday, December 16, 2013

2003: A Juice Odyssey

Forty years ago today, my father was finishing up his sabbatical in Nashville, and my family was about to return to my hometown in Arkansas.

I remember that my brother and I had just finished school and been dismissed for the Christmas holiday, and we had been withdrawn from school by my mother. We would enroll in school for the spring term in my hometown in January.

Most of our furniture (except for our beds) was rented because we knew we would only be there four months, but we had many personal possessions to pack.

The plan was to leave Nashville around Monday or Tuesday, drive home and unload all our personal possessions, then (after returning the U–Haul trailer) hit the road for Dallas to spend Christmas with my grandmothers.

We were making progress in packing our things, but on this day, which was a Sunday in 1973, we stopped what we were doing to watch O.J. Simpson of the Buffalo Bills try to do what no one had ever been able to do before — run for 2,000 yards in a season.

Actually, the emphasis was on setting a single–season rushing record. Finishing the season with 2,000 yards was viewed, right up to kickoff, as a still possible but far from probable outcome.

No matter how it may seem from the perspective of 40 years later, Simpson needed nearly 200 yards in the final game of the season to make it to 2,000. He had done that before during the 1973 season but not in his earlier match with the New York Jets, one of the Bills' division rivals and their opponent that day. Two hundred yards didn't seem a realistic goal. His realistic objective that day was to pass the legendary Jim Brown, who ran for 1,863 yards in a single season 10 years earlier.

Simpson needed only 60 yards to match Brown, and common sense said he could get that with ease. Simpson ran for twice as many yards when the teams met back in the third week of the season. Only the defending Super Bowl champion Miami Dolphins and their no–name defense had held Simpson to fewer than 60 yards in a game.

Momentum was clearly on Simpson's side. He had run for more than 100 yards in each of the last four games (would have been five, but he fell a single yard short against the Cincinnati Bengals in mid–November).

As I say, he needed nearly 200 yards to break the 2,000–yard barrier, and most observers dismissed that as unrealistic. True, he had run for more than 200 yards the week before, but that was against another division rival, the New England Patriots, and Simpson had run for more than 200 yards against the Patriots in the season opener as well — but he hadn't managed to do it against anyone else.

In a steady snowfall, it was clear early that Simpson would set a new single–season rushing record. The next obvious question was whether he could reach the barrier of 2,000 yards against the Jets, who were 4–9.

Simpson was more dramatic on that one, going down to the wire before finally notching his 2,000th yard late in the fourth quarter of the last regular–season game.

The argument can be made that the Jets had nothing for which to play, but the same could be said of the Bills.

And, mind you, I make no excuses for anything Simpson may have done since his playing career ended. Forty years ago, he was the hottest thing in football, virtually the Johnny Football of his day. Whatever role he may or may not have played in the murders of his ex–wife and her friend and the crimes of which he was convicted in Nevada, they were still more than 20 years in the future.

Others have broken that 2,000–yard barrier since then. But Simpson is the only one to achieve it in 14 games. All the others ran for 2,000–plus yards in 16–game seasons.

O.J.'s is an accomplishment that may never be duplicated.

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