Uh Oh, O.J.

December 8th, 2008 by Harrumpher Leave a reply »

O.J. Simpson lied to me directly. Come to think of it, that’s not much of a distinction. It would be hard to count how many could say the same.

Mine was about 30 years ago, heading into his last season as a running back with the Buffalo Bills. He lied about about his football career.TreeSweet label

As a newspaper reporter and editor, I knew lots of convicted criminals. Some were sources, on or off record, or in some cases part of a package, such as interviewing maximum security inmates. In my new life as a magazine editor, I got to meet higher-class liars and crooks. Some of them would never be convicted of anything.

Regular readers here will remember another, Ed Mattar. I did a fat old book with him that McGraw-Hill published. He was a high-level fraudster who leaped to his death rather than go to prison.

Simpson I only interviewed one time. It was about his non-football shilling of products.

There was an elegant symmetry though. The product was orange juice. Even then I wondered whether the personal story he told was real, embellished or another lie.O.J. ad still

You can see a clip from the period on YouTube of him pushing TreeSweet juice.

I ran several magazines, the biggest being Convenience Store Merchandiser. There are a lot of convenience stores and a lot of companies wanting them to sell their orange juice, cigarettes, condoms, skin magazines and potato chips. (Oh, yeah, ask me about monthly turns on rolling papers or the right schedule for starting popcorn in the store.)

Part of the coverage was to talk to vendors as well as store folk. It worked doubly well if there was an angle the stores could pitch to increase traffic. Thus, the great back, Orenthal James Simpson, was fit to quote.

When I heard he’d stop by the National Association of Convenience Stores annual conference and exhibit, I asked for an interview. Honestly, we all knew that other than O.J.  getting paid to pitch O.J., we didn’t have much intersection.

I have to say he was charming. He clearly knew he was good looking, famous and oh so smooth. He had the smiling and affinity things nailed. Yet, even if he were being honest, he was hard to believe.

The obvious lie came after the real business of juice and such. Then I just had to ask whether he would blow off the Bills after the 1977 season. He looked at me very sincerely and totally incredibly proclaimed he intended to spend the rest of his career in Buffalo.

Nearly everyone knew he hated it there and was looking hard to get to someplace warm, ideally California. As it turns out, he got hurt and the Bills were happy to trade him to the 49ers when he asked next. He spent his last two years playing in San Francisco.

For the juice stuff, I’m not sure. His nickname, some say, just comes from his initials. He told me that his mother, Eunice, worked in a hospital (true). He said she brought home leftover cans of O.J. that would have gotten tossed otherwise. He loved it, asked for it constantly, and got his name from that affection.

He was pushing TreeSweet juice. That was independent, later became part of Kraft Foods, and seems to have disappeared when Adam & Eve (the fruit juice folk, not the sexual devices ones) bought the brand. They apparently folded it into their other lines.

O.J. said that TreeSweet was the O.J. he grew up craving. Thus, he went on, he was delighted to become their spokesman.

As Jerri Blank would say in Strangers with Candy, “Then we’ll never know.”It’s really not important whether Simpson told the truth, whole truth and nothing but about O.J. I suspect it wasn’t necessarily TreeSweet he drank and that the nickname came from his initials, later reinforced with his enjoyment of the beverage.

I also suspect that his social skills and conversational lubrication made him prone to telling good stories. People like a polished tale, more than most of us demand rigid honesty.

Simpson heading off to prison did recall those few minutes. That in turn recalls the peril of reporters. If it had been important my readers and me whether he was staying with the Bills or what O.J. O.J. had in the fridge as a child, I would have pursued those bits. They weren’t. I didn’t and now I’ll never know.

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