There have been hundreds of books written about O.J. Simpson. I wrote one of them. You probably never read it. It’s called "The Juice: Football’s Superstar O.J. Simpson," and it was published in 1977. In this book, I lavish praise on O.J. as a role model for American youth. I describe him as a “gracious, pleasant and thoughtful person.” And I quote his college coach as saying: “He’s not only the finest player I ever coached, he’s the finest human being.”
OK, I was wrong — colossally wrong — about O.J.
But so were a lot of other people back then.
On the 20th anniversary of the infamous Bronco chase (and all the rest of the O.J. obsession that came after it), it’s difficult for people who weren’t around in the 1970s to understand what a beloved figure O.J. Simpson used to be. Pro football’s greatest and most famous player. Movie star. Commercial spokesman for Hertz rental car ads and lots of other products. TV broadcaster. After the dark days of Watergate and the Nixon impeachment, America was looking for heroes. And the handsome, charismatic and charming O.J. Simpson was the biggest hero we had.
So when a publisher approached me about writing an uplifting sports biography about someone teen readers could emulate and admire, O.J Simpson was my clear-cut choice. I never actually got to talk to O.J. But I spent a lot of time dealing with people at the Buffalo Bills, the team he played for, and going through everything I could find about his life.
The result was an inspirational tale of how this amazing man had risen from a San Francisco ghetto to become the most famous athlete in the country. I talked about him being a humble, gracious and kind superstar. About him being a loving family man. And about his unique rapport and popularity with fans and teammates alike.
Believe it or not, the book is still available at some schools and libraries. I can only imagine some kid today picking it up and muttering: “Who the hell is this guy Belsky talking about?”
It all came full circle for me in 1994 when Nicole Brown Simpson, O.J.’s ex-wife, was murdered. I was a tabloid news editor at Star magazine then. I sent a reporter to the crime scene in the Brentwood section of Los Angeles, then to O.J.’s mansion. The reporter called to say that the police had found blood on his property that might be connected to the murder. The reporter said O.J. might be a suspect. That’s when we first realized at Star how big this story could be. Of course, it all exploded a few days later when an entire nation watched spellbound as O.J. led police on the famous white Bronco chase along the freeways of Southern California.
In the weeks and months that followed, America would learn about a far different O.J. than the one I’d written about in my book. His sordid lifestyle. His violent temper. His insane jealousy over Nicole’s lovers. His sad contingent of hangers-on like Kato Kaelin that he had surrounded himself with in his lonely mansion.
O.J.’s self-destructive descent, or course, continued long after the "Trial of the Century" that transfixed us all. The final tragic – and yet somehow fitting – footnote to the O.J. story came when he was sent to prison for a bizarre, botched armed robbery attempt in Las Vegas to recover some of his football memorabilia.
It almost seemed to me sometimes as if there were two O.J. Simpsons – two different people playing the role in his life. Good O.J. at first, and then bad O.J. Or maybe he was always bad O.J. And he just kept fooling us for a long time, until he couldn’t fool us anymore.
Not long ago, I was approached by a movie producer. He said he understood I’d written a book about O.J. Simpson, and he wanted me to appear as a talking head in a documentary he was doing about his sad life in prison now. I asked him if he’d actually read my book. He admitted he hadn’t. When I told him what it was about, he quickly lost interest. He didn’t want to hear about good O.J. Needless to say, I did not appear in the documentary.
But, looking through the pages of my long ago book now, I remember again the O.J. that America adored nearly 40 years ago. The O.J. that had all the endorsement deals. The O.J. who hung out with Hollywood stars and was probably the biggest sports celebrity ever. The O.J. who had it all, and then threw it all away.
I wonder if O.J. ever remembers that guy too while he sits in his jail cell.
There is one oddly prophetic line in my book. It’s a quote from another NFL player at the time about O.J. He meant it as a compliment, but now it seems to take on a whole different meaning to me. The player was trying to explain how the O.J. he knew was nothing like the big celebrity everyone made him out to be. “He’s genuine,” the player said. “I don’t think his publicity has caught up with him yet.”
In the end, it did just that.
Dick Belsky’s new suspense thriller - "The Kennedy Connection by R.G. Belsky" - will be published by Atria in August. Belsky is a former vice president for news at NBC Local Integrated Media; managing editor at NBCNews.com; city Editor at the New York Post; and managing editor at the New York Daily News. He is the author of seven other novels.