OJ Simpson, the white Bronco and America. The car chase that changed everything

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Reality TV wasn’t much of an industry before June 17, 1994. That all changed the day Orenthal James “O.J.” Simpson attempted to avoid arrest by hiding in the back of his white Ford Bronco during a slow-speed chase as more than 95 million people watched from home, mostly in disbelief.  

News helicopters followed the SUV’s every move with a cadre of police in tow. O.J., the accused killer of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend, Ron Goldman, was hunkered down in the back seat with a gun to his head. Earlier, O.J. had left a handwritten letter declaring his innocence, and making “a last wish” to “leave my children in peace.” 

“I’ve had a great life, great friends,” his letter said as a friend read it out loud with cameras rolling. “Please think of the real O.J. and not this lost person.”

It was all too surreal to absorb in real time. 

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O.J. Simpson, the larger-than-life sports icon-turned-celebrity, was on the run, but unlike his Hall-of-Fame football career, this run was happening in slow motion. The Bronco, driven by his former teammate Al Cowlings, breezed along California highways below the speed limit. Cowlings indicated that O.J. had a gun to his head. After 90 minutes, the Bronco pulled into Simpson’s driveway in Brentwood, California, where he would eventually give himself up. 

Four days earlier, the bodies of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman had been found in front of her home in a killing so grisly that broadcast news outlets had refused to show photos from the scene at the time. O.J. had maintained his innocence by saying he was chipping golf balls at his home nearby when the murders occurred before getting on a plane to Chicago. 

Given his sterling reputation not only as a former Heisman Trophy winner at USC, but as a Hall-of-Fame running back with the Buffalo Bills, a sports commentator on TV with ABC and NBC, and as a Hollywood actor, many people really wanted to believe that O.J. could never have carried out such a heinous crime. But after searching his home and discovering that his alibi just didn’t add up, the LAPD went to arrest him on June 17th. 

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Seven months later in January of 1995, the Trial of the Century began. And it was all televised from start to finish for ten months on ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, Bravo, E! and CourtTV in what resulted in ratings bonanzas for all, all until a verdict was handed down on October 3 of that year. 

Soap operas on the major broadcast networks were preempted for months due to the televised trial. Needless to say, with millions tuning in daily, the televised court proceedings made all those involved the biggest stars in the world: Prosecutors Marcia Clark and Chris Darden; “The Dream Team” defense lawyers that included Johnnie Cochran, Robert Shapiro, Robert Kardashian, and F. Lee Bailey. Even the quirky Judge Lance Ito became a household name. 

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O.J. Simpson had earlier become a household name himself, in addition to those who watched football, back in 1975 after he retired from the game. Because before the term “sports marketing” was what we know it to be today, Hertz Rent-a-Car signed O.J. to be its spokesman. The signing was the first kind of contract for a major athlete of its kind, and the image of Simpson hurtling through airports became one of the most famous ads of the 20th century. It worked. To put it all in perspective, O.J. was do for Hertz what Michael Jordan did for Nike ten years later.  

Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman are seen side-by-side in separate file photos.

FILE – This file photo combo shows O.J. Simpson’s ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson, left, and her friend Ron Goldman, both of whom were murdered and found dead in Los Angeles on June 12, 1994. O.J. Simpson was arrested in connection to the murder and acquitted of the crime. (AP)

Simpson would go on to have supporting roles in hit movies, most notably the “Naked Gun” series with the late Leslie Nielsen. He was also signed by ABC to do sports commentary, most notably with “Monday Night Football.” O.J. was an A-plus lister at celebrity parties. The man lit up every room and always seemed happy.

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“He was one of those guys that had this magnetism that attracted everybody to him and, had a big smile, had a tremendous career and commercials with Hertz, amongst others, and running through airports,” sportscaster and Fox News Contributor Jim Gray told Dana Perino on “America’s Newsroom” Thursday following news of his passing. 

“And he was an icon in football. And he went on to have a broadcasting career with ABC and NBC. Appeared regularly with Howard Cosell. And he was a fixture and had a spotlight in America on television because of what he had done on the football field.”

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And that’s what made the murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman so shocking. Given his public persona at the time, it would be like Peyton Manning or Tom Brady brutally murdering two people today. 

That would be almost impossible to believe, right? Well, that’s how it felt in 1994. 

O.J. Simpson passed away due to prostate cancer nearly 30 years after capturing the nation’s and the world’s attention for all the wrong reasons. 

One could make the argument that Simpson had one of the greatest rises and falls in modern American history. 

But despite the reality TV feel of the entire episode that began in June of 1994 and ended in October 1995, and despite all the speculation on stations from CNN to Bravo to Court TV, along and circus atmosphere outside the courthouse, the main storyline should not be O.J., but his victims. 

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“A very strange, complicated, disturbing life and it’s—you hate to see anybody die, particularly somebody whom you had known quite well,” Gray also said on Thursday. “But I don’t have the words for that right here because it’s—how do you sum up someone’s life like this?” 

You don’t, Jim. 

O.J. Simpson should have died in prison. His life, as great as it could have been from start to finish, should never be celebrated. A disturbing life indeed. 

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