The ESPN documentary series, O.J.: Made in America has recently captivated many Americans and does a good job of detailing his roots in San Francisco, but didn’t mention much about O.J.’s career as a San Francisco 49er. While his time as a 49er may not have added much to the story of the documentary, it did occur at a very unique time in 49ers franchise history, and served as a turning point for both Simpson and the 49ers.
Orenthal James Simpson was born in San Francisco and grew up in the Potrero Hill public housing projects and would go on to star at Galileo H.S. and City College of San Francisco before transferring to USC and having a Hall of Fame career with the Buffalo Bills. On March 24, 1978, Simpson was traded from Buffalo Bills to San Francisco 49ers for a 2nd round draft pick in 1978 (DE Scott Hutchinson), 3rd round pick in 1978 (WR Danny Fulton), 1st round pick in 1979 (LB Tom Cousineau), 4th round pick in 1979 (DE Ken Johnson) and 2nd round pick in 1980 (RB Joe Cribbs).
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Prior the 1978 season, the 49ers had two of the best running backs in the league in Delvin Williams and Wilber Jackson, both 26 years old, making the trade a surprise to some who had expected LA or Oakland to make a play for him, and O.J. had previously tried to orchestrate a trade to the LA Rams prior to re-negotiating his contract before the 1976 season, perhaps due to his already burgeoning ambition to become an actor. But the Rams thought that trading for Simpson would be a mistake, and gave the example of the 49ers trading for Jim Plunkett as a similar misstep, choosing instead to hold on to their draft picks. Simpson’s salary discouraged other teams from trading for him.
At the time of this trade, Eddie DeBartolo was a new owner and he had hired Joe Thomas as GM who had fired rookie head coach Ken Meyer following the 1977 season and hired Pete McCulley who had been the former Redskins and Baltimore Colts receivers coach. The 49ers took over the final year of Simpson’s three-year contract at a salary of $733,000. He was going to be 31 on July 9th of that year and had knee surgery in 1977, and this trade would later be considered a terrible one for the 49ers and one of many errors committed by Joe Thomas.
Dave Brady of the Washington Post wrote about what Simpson said at a press conference on March 25, 1978:
“Obviously, I’m ecstatic. I was a 49er fan when I was a kid and I’ve never stopped being a 49er fan.”
“I had some good years in Buffalo, but hopefully I can get here what I couldn’t get there, and that is a championship.”
When he entered the press conference, Simpson was described to have clapped his hands and said, “Home at last, thank God almighty, I’m home at last.”
1978 was a very dynamic time in terms of the 49ers franchise and the NFL. Eddie DeBartolo had become the owner in 1977 and was still trying to develop and build his sports management approach as well as the franchise, and 1978 marked the first time the NFL season would move to the extended season, going from 14 to 16 games and increasing playoff teams from 8 to 10.
As is often the case during a time of significant transition, 1978 ended up being one of the worst seasons in 49ers history, with the 49ers only two wins coming against an 0-5 Bengals team in week 5 and a 5-10 Buccaneers team in week 15. In 1978, O.J. started and appeared in 10 games, rushing 161 times for 593 yards, averaging 3.7 YPC. He had one rushing TD and his longest run was 34 yards. He caught 21 passes for 172 yards and 2 receiving TDs.
GM Thomas fired head coach McCulley mid-season and replaced him with Fred O’Connor, and Thomas displayed increasingly erratic and paranoid behavior throughout the 1978 season, including trying to cancel the November 27th game due to fear that he would be assassinated like George Moscone. DeBartolo decided that day that 1978 would be Thomas’ last season, and he would hire Bill Walsh before the 1979 season, which would also happen to be O.J.’s last in the NFL.
In Bill Walsh’s book, Building a Champion, Walsh said that O.J. had “suffered a knee injury and developed arthritis before being traded to the 49ers….his knee was so bad there were times he couldn’t even trot. He often couldn’t practice, and he couldn’t cut on it in a game.” According to Arne Christensen of Bleacher Report, O.J. missed almost all of 1979 training camp with his arthritic right knee and following the drowning death of his 23-month old daughter. In 1979, Simpson appeared in 13 games, rushed 120 times for 460 yards, averaging 3.8 YPC with 3 touchdowns. His longest run was 22 yards and he caught 7 passes for 46 yards and no TDs. The 49ers would repeat another terrible season, getting their two wins against a 6-10 Falcons team in week 8 and against a 10-6 Buccaneers team in week 15.
In his last game of his second 2-14 campaign with the 49ers, O.J. came into the game late in the first quarter and ran the ball for two yards and fumbled but it was recovered by his teammate Randy Cross. He then entered the game again late in the 4th quarter with Atlanta winning 31-21. He ran for 10 yards on a 3rd and 10 for a first down, and would never have another carry in the NFL. Overall, O.J. Simpson’s time with the 49ers was the worst two season stretch in 49ers history, and aside from increasing publicity, he contributed very little to the team nor the NFL as the sun set on his career. But out of the ashes of Simpson’s terrible 49ers teams rose a dynasty, as it set the stage for Bill Walsh’s draft picks and ascendance, culminating in the 49ers winning the Super Bowl in 1981.
Looking back at O.J. career as a 49er, it seems to be an unremarkable time in the franchise’s history and in Simpson’s career. But since O.J. had been trying to get back to L.A. since 1976, one has to wonder if part of Simpson’s ineffectiveness was due to his heart not being in football but rather on the bright lights of Hollywood as he was involved with the mini-series Roots and movie Capricorn One in 1977. In 1979, he started his own film production company, Orenthal Productions, which dealt mostly in made-for-TV fare such as the family-oriented Goldie and the Boxer films of 1979 and 1981. His knees may have been shot, but it looks like his longest run of 1978 may have been in this Hertz commercial: