There’s no pro athlete with a story quite like O.J. Simpson’s. A troubled kid from outside San Francisco, he became a college legend and NFL superstar. Sports stardom granted Simpson a ticket to Hollywood. While his murder trial defines his career now, there was a time where he was a feel-good story. Had it not been for a meeting with another sports legend, Willie Mays, Simpson’s rise and fall may not have happened.
O.J. Simpson grows up
Nothing easy came to Simpson. He was born in 1947 to a low-income family in the Bay Area, California. When he was still just a child, OJ’s father stepped out on the family and left his mother with four children. To make things worse, Simpson had rickets that made him both bowlegged and pigeon-toed. The family couldn’t afford the required surgery.
When Simpson got to school, his visible affliction made him a magnet for schoolyard bullying. This gave Simpson an edge. To fit in, he began to get into trouble around the neighborhood. After getting caught stealing with his best friend, Al Cowlings, Simpson was in deep trouble. He was 14 years old and looked like he was headed toward a dangerous path.
A local youth leader contacted San Francisco Giants legend Willie Mays, however, and Simpson was scared straight.
Meeting your heroes
At this time in the early ’60s, reports Sports Illustrated, Mays was a god in the Bay Area. He was a black baseball superstar in a world still divided by race, and when he approached Simpson, the future NFL star was starstruck.
“I never took my eyes off Willie Mays,” Simpson told Sports Illustrated in 1987. “I had heard about his basket catch and the way his cap always fell off when he ran, and I watched for those things. He did them all. He even hit a home run for me.”
Mays talked to the young Simpson about how a life of crime ended poorly, but if he devoted his life to something like sports, he had a ticket out of his current life.
Simpson initially transferred this energy to a baseball career, but as he got older, he realized that football was his calling. He was able to overcome his ailment and make it to the NFL. In a perfect world, this would have been the happy ending of a kid headed down the wrong path. For Simpson, it was just a detour along the way to his tragic tale.
For a time, Simpson may have been the most famous athlete in America, reports Time. He had a charisma that made his acting career a no-brainer. On top of this, he was a staple on television shows across the country. In the years following his football career, Simpson rebranded as an entertainer, and that label stuck until the murder of his wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ron Goldman, in 1994.
Lots has been made about Simpson since. He got off on the murder charge, but his image was never the same. The Simpson trial changed the way that media covered high-profile cases. While Simpson escaped that charge, he found himself in prison after failing to get back old memorabilia in an armed dispute. Now back out, Simpson is mostly seen as a villain.
For a brief time as a child, Willie Mays changed Simpson’s life for the better. On one side, that talk may have caused Simpson to become the Football Hall of Famer he became. On the other, it may have just delayed the eventual heartbreak that Simpson’s story gave us.