I was wrong about O.J. Simpson.
When people used to ask me who, of all the thousands of sports figures I’ve interviewed, were the most personally impressive, two names always rocketed to the top of the list. And they were inexorably linked 20 years ago, on that strange day of June 17, 1994.
O.J. was one. And Arnold Palmer was the other.
At about the same moment Simpson rolled across Los Angeles freeways in his white Ford Bronco, with former teammate and chauffeur Al Cowlings at the wheel, and with what seemed like half the peace officers in Southern California trailing behind, en route, at first, to nowhere in particular and, then, straight toward infamy, Palmer was walking up the 18th fairway at his last U.S. Open.
Arnie was surrounded and applauded by the gallery at Oakmont, which knew it was watching an historic figure in golf finish off his final competitive round at the national championship. He had missed the cut, and nobody gave that any chance to spoil the occasion. Palmer was the golfer who had transformed the game, moved it from a kind of namby-pamby country-club event to a hold-onto-your-shorts Magic Mountain ride. He drew people in with his fearless play and often paid them back with a thrilling win. On that day, everyone stood and honored the 64-year-old golfing great. Classy, as always, the man appreciatively acknowledged the adoring throngs. Even the media, in the press tent, gave him a standing ovation.
Palmer waved to the fans.
Simpson pointed a gun at his head.
I watched both events on television, struck by the contrast. Weird to think 20 years have passed now.
When I talked with Palmer, he was everything you’d hope him to be and nothing like too many athletes of this generation, so full of themselves for accomplishing far less. He was a gentleman, answering questions he’d likely heard a hundred times before and a few odd ones meant simply to jar loose bits and pieces of the man that ordinarily never were revealed. Palmer was cooperative, fun and engaging. The conversation was informative and pleasant. And I walked away thinking highly of the legend.
When I interviewed Simpson, it was a whole lot of the same, only even more … affable. I spent hours with the NFL Hall of Famer, just a few years before he took his infamous ride, and we talked about nearly every aspect of his life — except for the abuse of his wife, Nicole, which had already started, but which he never mentioned.
Simpson opened up as though we were old friends reviewing good times and trying to fill in some missed years. He spoke about fine points of his upbringing, his athletic career, his lessons learned through sports, his personal philosophies, his religious beliefs, his journey through ego-centered wealth and fame and breaking out of all that toward selflessness.
A direct Simpson quote from that conversation:
"Goals are very important. They’ve helped me and they work for everybody. I enjoy sharing a few things in my life that have helped me. If they help others, that’s good. I get a kick out of helping people. I flat out enjoy it. … I try to impart a message to people, how I look at things. I tell them stories about my life. I enjoy talking to kids, kids who have problems. I always recall people who made points with me, who took time to be with me. There’s a certain admiration that the public has for athletes. They watch and listen to us. Maybe [we] are in touch with what it takes to win, to succeed."
It was fascinating, listening to one of the best running backs I had ever seen talk so freely and sincerely about far more meaningful things. I finally unlocked and excused myself from the conversation, because I had a story to write. But O.J. Simpson was one of the greatest guys I’d ever met.
Then, June 12, 1994 happened, when Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman were brutally murdered. Next thing, Simpson was in his Bronco holding that gun to his head as the cops rolled behind him. All as Arnold Palmer was awash in the glory he had earned and sustained through an unforgettable career.
Palmer remains an icon, the king of a sport.
Simpson, sitting now in a Nevada jail, is the king of nothing, remembered as a lost man who wasn’t what we thought he was. He wasn’t one of the greatest guys we’d ever met.
GORDON MONSON hosts "The Big Show" with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM/1280 and 960 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.
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