The complications, controversy and delicate balance of covering O.J. Simpson’s legacy

The Pro Football Hall of Fame lowered its flag to half-staff Thursday to solemnify O.J. Simpson’s death.

Three hundred miles northeast in Orchard Park, N.Y., where Simpson’s finest football exploits transpired, no such gesture was made. No gesture was made at all. The Buffalo Bills didn’t release a statement about perhaps the greatest player in club history. They didn’t dignify his passing on their website or social media accounts.

Such is the dichotomy of O.J. Simpson, majestic tailback, incandescent celebrity, convicted kidnapper and armed robber and man found liable for double murder.

Simpson’s name still hangs inside Highmark Stadium on the Bills Wall of Fame, just as his bronze bust still rests within the hallowed Pro Football Hall of Fame gallery, just as USC’s version of his Heisman Trophy remains on display in Heritage Hall’s lobby.

Some people embrace Simpson; others will stiff-arm him into eternity.

Over the past seven years, I’ve interviewed Simpson several times. In 2018, while writing for the Buffalo News, I landed the first Simpson interview in over a decade. He recently had served nine years in a Nevada prison for felonies stemming from a hotel-room raid to steal back what he claimed was his own memorabilia.

The exclusive received considerable backlash, as expected. Critics felt I had given Simpson an unnecessary platform to bask in the glow of his celebrity once more. It didn’t seem to matter how the story covered all the ugliness that made Simpson a pariah. He was found not guilty of murdering ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman, but found criminally liable in civil court and ordered to pay the families $33.5 million.

The mere fact that I would sit down with him was controversial, and I understood the condemnation of my work. Few wanted to consider the value of learning as much as we can about one of the more infamous people on the globe, and that’s understandable.

But that interview in Las Vegas started a journalistic relationship that lasted until Simpson died Wednesday of prostate cancer. Was I his friend? Absolutely not. I didn’t call him “Juice.” We didn’t yuk it up. On the few occasions his associates invited me to attend a Simpson gathering, I kept my distance. I was there to observe how friends and strangers reacted to being in his presence.

“How many Americans, even today, wouldn’t like to live my life?” Simpson said in the sit-down interview for The Athletic’s NFL 100 story that considered his legacy. “I don’t work. I play golf four or five days a week. I go out to dinner a couple of nights with friends. People want to buy me drinks. I’m always taking pictures with people. Ladies hug me.

“People truly care for me. You don’t know who truly cares about you until you’ve gone through some serious stuff, and I’ve gone through serious stuff. The media won’t say it, but that is my life. I’m living a good life now.”

Almost to a person, the star-struck crowd glowed and fawned around him, although I suspect many who gushed while asking for pictures and autographs later showed them to friends as a macabre gag.

As with any person, organization or team I’ve covered over the decades, what mattered to me in my relationship with Simpson — and I acknowledge what I’m about to write will be considered controversial in itself — is that he thought I treated him fairly throughout all the pointed questions and delicate topics. Even when I used quotes like this, from fellow Pro Football Hall of Famer and USC teammate Ron Yary:

“The thought of taking a knife and plunging it into another person that you love and care about — or even that you’re angry with — takes a hell of a lot. Even in war, to kill a person with a knife is intimate. I don’t know if there’s a harder way to kill someone. You have to be out of your mind to commit a crime like that.”

Simpson called into my old radio show once. Audio clips made it onto the “Howard Stern Show.” I could feel the color drain from my face and pulled my car over to the side of Delaware Avenue the moment I realized what was happening. Convinced the longtime Simpson antagonist was about to eviscerate me for engaging, Stern eventually said, “I like this Tim Graham.”

That was the crux of my O.J. relationship: I never was going to please everyone by interviewing him, but if I handled it honestly and presented all the information, then I could sleep well at night.

Simpson’s life is more complicated than most. Separating the art from the artist, as with Bill Cosby, Woody Allen or

Michael Jackson

, is difficult. Such was the reason for the Bills’ silence Thursday.

Simpson’s NFL team doesn’t welcome the association anymore.

Bills founder Ralph Wilson was so fond of Simpson throughout the trials and controversies, welcoming him back to the stadium for home games whenever Simpson wished. No one else was allowed to wear No. 32. The name wasn’t coming down either.

Tolerance shifted when Wilson died in 2014, and Terry and Kim Pegula bought the team. Within five years, Simpson’s jersey was back in circulation. The Bills weren’t going to retire his number — as they did with quarterback Jim Kelly, tailback Thurman Thomas and defensive end Bruce Smith — so they let it be worn for the first time in 42 years.

An added insult to Simpson’s pride was that the Bills gave his No. 32 first to Senorise Perry, a journeyman running back and special teamer who didn’t make the roster out of training camp. Now it’s worn by practice-squad cornerback Kyron Brown.

Once Simpson’s parole allowed, he attended Bills games at his old ballpark each of the past two seasons. The front office didn’t give him a field pass or any special access, for that matter. Friends invited him into a suite. Security had to shoo away a streams of gawkers and selfie-seekers from the window.

Over the years, countless folks asked what I thought of Simpson from my time with him.

I would gird myself and say I’m unsure I’ve ever met a more charming guy. Reactions were categorical, either way.

But that was only the first part of my answer.

If you were convinced O.J. didn’t kill anybody, then you would walk away assured there was no possible way that charismatic fellow could have committed such a heinous crime.

And if you thought that O.J. was guilty, then you would’ve understood how somebody so beguiling could get away with murder.

(Photo: Ted Soqui / Sygma via Getty Images)

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