Cursed by O.J.'s legacy: Bills fans still conflicted 20 years later


In the case of The Fans of Buffalo vs. O.J. Simpson, it’s still a hung jury 20 years later.

To many, Simpson is still revered as the best player the Bills have ever had. Others don’t want to ever see or hear his name again. In many cases, they’re the same people.

There are even those who swear his 1994 murder case and the infamous Trial of the Century have put a curse on their favorite team.

Whether O.J.’s spectacular fall from grace actually impacted the franchise itself remains open to conjecture. The website devotes an entire page to the theory.

The evidence: The Bills reached the last of their four straight Super Bowls in 1994, and have not only never returned, but have gone down the toilet, missing the playoffs the last 14 years. The Music City Miracle loss to Tennessee in 1999 (known in western New York as The Forward Lateral)? Thank the curse, even though the Bills did go to the playoffs four more times after the summer of 1994.

“I’ve never heard of an O.J. curse,” Del Reid, co-founder of the new media-based fan group Bills Mafia, said, laughing. “The Doug Flutie curse, now that I believe.”

Curses aside, fans across the spectrum have learned to agree to disagree about the outcome of the trial — and as a result, how Simpson should be remembered in the NFL’s second-smallest market, ahead of only Green Bay.

He is still on the Bills’ Wall of Fame at Ralph Wilson Stadium — but he’s not on the franchise’s 50th anniversary team. His jersey is still spotted in the stadium on game days, but so are fans who harass those wearing it.

He’s part of the history the city cherishes, but also part of one it wishes it could forget.

“When something like that happens to someone who’s like a part of everybody’s family — you know how it can be in families,” Reid said. “You still love them, but how do you deal with that?”

Simpson was the first honoree for the Wall of Fame, in 1980, a year after he retired from a career that landed him in Canton and launched another career in endorsing, acting and broadcasting. By 1994, only seven other names had been added. The 29th name, play-by-play man Van Miller, will be added this season — and Simpson’s will still be there.

It’s not an uncommon dilemma. In 2009, the Buffalo History Museum opened an exhibit honoring the Bills’ 50th anniversary season, and struggled with the decision whether to include Simpson with plenty of memorabilia supplied by local collector Greg Tranter.

“There was a debate — do we leave him in, or do we leave him out?” said Walter Mayer, the museum’s director of collections. “We decided that with history, you’ve got to deal with the good and the bad.

“I think people would have missed it if it wasn’t there,’’ Mayer added, noting that the text accompanying the display made reference to his post-career situation. “I mean, with those early Bills — how could you not talk about him?”

The Bills of the post-NFL merger days in the late 1960s and early ‘'70s were O.J. or bust. He landed there, in fact, as the No. 1 pick in 1969 — the third AFL-NFL common draft — because the Bills had gone 1-12-1.

“That first year, he was average,’’ said Erskine Lattimore, who moved to Rochester in 1967 and has been a Bills fan since. “But after that, he became the best they ever had in the backfield.”

He laughed, remembering the horrible records, including another one-win season in 1971. “During that time, they had a lot of hope. They had the Electric Company. It was him and that line. They escorted him like royalty; he was royalty."

Simpson’s photo hung on the wall of Reid’s parents’ house throughout his childhood, Reid remembered. “The way they felt about him — he could do no wrong," he said.

That is, until he did. Or, possibly, didn’t. “I think he got a raw deal," Lattimore said, adding that he knew he was not alone in that opinion.

Yet, even those who agreed or were purposely noncommittal about the eventual not-guilty verdict, remained uncomfortable about where Simpson fit into the team and city legacy.

Thus, he stayed on the Wall of Fame, and in the museum exhibit, and in the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame, where in 1991 he was the first inductee.

However, at the bottom of the biography of every member is this disclaimer: “The biographies contained on this website were written at the time of the honoree's induction into the Hall of Fame. No attempt has been made to update these narratives to reflect more recent events, activities, or statistics.” It could not be confirmed whether the phrase was added specifically because of Simpson.

And in 2009, when fans voted for their 50th-anniversary team, they picked one running back — Thurman Thomas — and three wide receivers. No O.J.

Meanwhile, when the throwback-jersey phenomenon heated up a decade ago, Simpson’s No. 32 became hot sellers and some still have the courage to wear them to games. (They aren’t on sale in the NFL or team stores.)

“They get heckled by other Bills fans,” Reid said. “Not, like, jokingly — sworn at and belittled. I’ve seen it."

The next threshold for the Simpson name in Buffalo may be irrelevancy. The generation that grew up on Jim Kelly and Bruce Smith — which knew of O.J.'s playing exploits from their parents — now has children of their own. The millennials have never known Simpson as anything besides the centerpiece of the Trial of the Century.

Those who visited the museum exhibit weren’t drawn nearly as much to the inherent dichotomy of the Simpson display as to the viewing area showing a classic Bills game. “The most popular part of it? The comeback game," Mayer said, referring to the 32-point rally against the Oilers in the 1992 playoffs.

“Twenty years, that’s a long time. He’s been the butt of jokes for so long now. It’s kind of sad. When I was in elementary school, (the Bills) were really terrible,’’ Reid said, adding:

“But we had O.J.’”

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