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College Football | ORANGE BOWL / USC vs. IOWA

Simpson Warmly Received at USC Practice

December 29, 2002|Gary Klein | Times Staff Writer

DAVIE, Fla. — The voice was familiar, the gait halting, and the scene surreal.

O.J. Simpson ended a near decade-long estrangement from USC's football program Saturday when the 55-year-old former Heisman Trophy winner limped toward the sideline during the Trojans' first full-contact practice for the Orange Bowl.

Simpson, who moved to Miami three years ago and is in need of knee replacement surgery, attended the practice at the invitation of senior running back Justin Fargas.

"I don't think I could ever feel disconnected from 'SC, I really don't," said Simpson, who shook hands, signed autographs and posed for pictures with onlookers.

After practice, USC players and coaches warmly received Simpson with handshakes and hugs before inviting him to their makeshift locker room.

"It was good to have him out here," USC Coach Pete Carroll said. "At 'SC, our guys hold a Heisman Trophy winner in the highest regard. For them to get a chance to see him and visit with him was very special for them."

Simpson, who won the Heisman in 1968, said he had not attended a USC practice since Ted Tollner coached the then-struggling Trojans in the mid-'80s. Asked when he last had contact of any kind with a USC football team, Simpson replied, "It's been a while ... probably since my ordeal."

Simpson was referring to one of the most sensational legal sagas in U.S. history.

In 1995, Simpson was acquitted of murder charges in connection with the June 12, 1994, stabbing deaths of his former wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald L. Goldman at her home in Brentwood.

But Simpson was subsequently found liable for $33.5 million in civil damages in an action brought by the victims' families in Santa Monica Superior Court. Last April, Simpson filed suit in Los Angeles federal court to overturn the judgment.

USC's players, in their early teens or younger at the time of the initial legal proceedings, remain cognizant of Simpson's notoriety.

"It's at the back of anybody's mind," junior offensive lineman Lenny Vandermade said. "You're not going to totally block it out, but you try to look at him in a positive manner and not put a negative spin on it. I just kind of remember him as a football player and what he did for 'SC."

Simpson, one of the most prolific running backs in college and pro football history, was the second of USC's five Heisman Trophy winners. Mike Garrett (1965), Charles White (1979), Marcus Allen (1981) and Palmer, this year's winner, are the others.

Fargas, who has known Simpson for years, made a request before the season to wear Simpson's retired No. 32 jersey, but was dissuaded by Carroll for fear of a public backlash. Fargas invited Simpson to Saturday's practice at the behest of several teammates.

"He's such a big part of the tradition at 'SC and a lot of guys have never seen him," Fargas said.

Trojan players and coaches appeared stunned when Simpson, accompanied by several friends, hobbled through the entrance to the field wearing black sweat pants, black sneakers, a yellow golf shirt and a black windbreaker draped over his shoulders.

"The myth becomes reality," senior cornerback Darrell Rideaux said.

Simpson smiled, joked and fulfilled autograph and photo requests that seemed to grow exponentially as word of his surprise presence traveled.

Simpson, who lives with his daughter Sydney, 16, and son Justin, 14, said he watches USC games on satellite and is pleased by the Trojans' return to national prominence. He is undecided about attending Thursday's game.

"We got pushed around too much the last 15 years or so," he said. "This year was the first time I saw us play the kind of ball that I felt was why I came to 'SC. That fourth quarter, we were getting after people."

Simpson said he once played a major role in Trojan recruiting by calling high school players, visiting USC when recruits were on campus and entertaining them in his home.

Asked if he would like to play a role in USC's football program, he replied, "Not really. They seem to be doing all right."

When practice ended, Simpson congratulated Palmer and posed for a few more photos.

"It's great to finally have another Heisman winner at 'SC," he said to the fifth-year senior. "But a quarterback?"

Simpson hitched a ride on a golf cart for a trip to the Trojans' locker room, where he signed more autographs for players and staff.

When the last player was gone, Simpson slowly shuffled toward the parking lot. The warm reception the Trojans offered was not atypical, he said.

"Occasionally, someone will yell something," he said. "For a while, on the golf course, someone would say something, but I can't remember the last time that happened. I'm not naive ... some people don't like me, but what you saw out there today is normal. The public has been very good to me. A lot better than the media."

Simpson made his way to a black Lincoln Navigator, where Fargas sat in the front passenger seat with Simpson's friends in back.

As he climbed into the driver's seat and pulled on his seat belt, Simpson said, "We are ... 'SC."

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