McHenry High School's student-written and -edited newspaper

The McHenry Messenger

McHenry High School's student-written and -edited newspaper

The McHenry Messenger

McHenry High School's student-written and -edited newspaper

The McHenry Messenger

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The life and legacy of O.J. Simpson

From football hero to controversial figure, there is depth into O.J. Simpson’s impact on sports and society
Myung J. Chun / AFP via Getty Images / TNS
On Oct. 3, 1995, O.J. Simpson is found not guilty in the deaths of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman. Defense attorneys F. Lee Bailey, left, and Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. stand with him.

Historical and Transformative Figure in Football:

Orenthal James Simpson, more commonly known as O.J. Simpson was born in San Francisco, California, on July 9, 1947. He had grown up living in the housing projects of Potrero Hill and growing up through the Civil Rights movement. The popular NFL star was known for being acquitted of the murders of ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and friend Ron Goldman.

Simpson was a college football superstar as a two-time halfback for the USC Trojans, setting an NCAA record and earning the Heisman Trophy as a senior.

After college, he was drafted on the NFL’s Buffalo Bills pro team from 1972 to 1976. He earned himself the nickname “The Juice” as he topped thousands of yards, set and broke records and created a high standard for professional football.

In 1983 and 1985, Simpson was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame as well as the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Simpson’s rise to fame coincided with a significant cultural change in America. He became a symbol of success and achievement, inspiring a generation of young athletes, no matter who they are.

Simpson’s football career also coincided with the growing popularity of television and sports broadcasting. His media presence and charisma helped shape how sports stars were portrayed and marketed.

His popularity transcended sports, making him a cultural icon whose influence extended beyond the football field. Simpson’s popularity was widespread across racial and socioeconomic lines. He became a unifying figure in a society often divided by race, politics and generational conflicts.

Polarizing Figure of Pop Culture:

Despite his football achievements and popularity, Simpson’s legacy is also marked by controversy.

Simpson’s ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ron Goldman were found brutally murdered on the morning of June 13, 1994. Authorities believe the murder took place the previous night and accused O.J. Simpson as the primary suspect in the crime. Simpson was convicted and charged with the suspected murders but did not immediately surrender to the LAPD and was declared a fugitive.

This later led to the infamous, low-speed police chase on the freeways of southern California on June 17.

Al “A.C.” Cowlings, Simpson’s longtime friend and University of Southern California football teammate, was behind the wheel in the white Ford Bronco while Simpson sat in the backseat, holding a gun to his head. Simpson eventually surrendered to the police voluntarily that same evening.

The live, dramatic event broadcasted to a captivated audience, involved a high-profile celebrity and acted as a prelude for a landmark trial that would become the focal point of discussion of race, privilege and the American legal system.

Trial That Transfixed a Nation:

The trial took place against a backdrop of racial tension in Los Angeles and the United States at large. The LAPD’s history of racial profiling, excessive use of force and discriminatory practices were well-documented and widely criticized.

Simpson’s criminal trial, dubbed the “Trial of the Century,” commenced on January 24, 1995. His legal team consisted of some of the most expensive lawyers including Johnnie Cochran, Robert Kardashian, Robert Shapiro, Barry Scheck, Alan Dershowitz and F. Lee Bailey.

The prosecutor’s most popular statements were in regards to a glove that matched the one found on Simpson’s property with DNA testing matching Simpson with the blood left at the scene.

“There was a lot of evidence to be used in the case,” said MCHS teacher, Jennifer Lech. “However, forensics was still developing and was something that people weren’t fully familiar with.”

Simpson’s lawyers successfully raised doubts about the handling of the evidence, proving to be contaminated.

Simpson even tried on gloves similar to the one found at the scene of the crime. Cochran famously dismissed the matching gloves with the most famous statement, “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”

On October 3, 1995, the jury found Simpson not guilty of either murder. The verdict was one of the most televised events in history with 150 million people watching.

“Civil trials have a lower standard of proof than criminal trials,” says Lech, “and so the evidence that was provided showed that O.J. was more than likely responsible for both deaths. Even though he was acquitted and not responsible, whether or not we will ever know for sure will most likely remain a mystery.”

The Simpson trial has had a lasting impact on American culture and its legal system. It continues to be studied in law schools, discussed in the media and referenced in popular culture.

“It was a big thing in pop-culture growing up,” said MCHS teacher, John Aubert. “‘Family Guy,’  ‘American Dad,’ and a bunch of different shows would always talk about it, make fun of it. It’s kind of just a play on the tensity of the situation like how polarizing it was”

The Unresolved Tragedy: 

Simpson’s health was the subject of much speculation and rumor during his final years.

In February 2024, it was reported that Simpson was undergoing treatment for prostate cancer, and was in hospice care, however, Simpson denied said claims that same month.

On April 10, 2024, his family announced Simpson’s death in a social media statement stating he “succumbed to his battle with cancer.”

At the time of his death, he was surrounded by his children and grandchildren, his body to be cremated.

It was a shock to many regarding his untimely death.

“Honestly, I was shocked that he died. I did not know he had cancer,” said Aubert. “You see all these memes about him like on Twitter and Instagram and he seemed healthy for the most part but I guess I was just oblivious to it.”

Many did not believe such a popular figure had died so suddenly.

“I was shocked about his death,” said Lech. “A student told me that he died and I honestly didn’t believe them until I looked it up and saw it for myself.”

Simpson had a towering presence in football, along with his role as a cultural figure. The controversies surrounding his life, and his impact on media and societal discussions about race and justice garnered attention due to his significant impact on various aspects of American culture, not just football.

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