In 1973, O.J. Simpson did what no other NFL running back had done

On Dec. 16, 1973, against the Jets in snowy Shea Stadium, O.J. Simpson became the first running back to rush for more than 2,000 yards in a season, a feat he accomplished in 14 games. (AP Photo/File) (AP)

O.J. Simpson’s life after football eclipsed one of the all-time great NFL careers, an 11-year stint that featured a golden 1973 season in which he became the first running back to rush for more than 2,000 yards, an unimaginable total at the time.

Simpson died on Thursday at age 76.

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Long before he was accused of killing his ex-wife, Nicole, and Ron Goldman in 1994, he won the Heisman Trophy at the University of Southern California, and was selected first overall in the 1969 NFL draft by the Buffalo Bills at a time when running backs such as Gale Sayers and Jim Brown were heralded. Simpson’s blazing talent and movie-star smile made him a logical successor to that pair of legends, and one of the first athletes to be hyped for stardom both on and off the sports stage.

Wearing No. 32, he didn’t always live up to expectations, partly because of the battering that running backs absorb and partly because his Hollywood career was taking off. Despite his individual accolades, the Bills qualified for the playoffs only once, in 1974, while he was on the roster.

But his 1973 season remains legendary.

Behind an offensive lined he dubbed “the Electric Company” because it “turned on the Juice,” O.J. opened the season against New England by displaying his darting speed in a 250-yard performance (on 29 carries) that was a single-game rushing record at the time. He cracked 2,000 yards in the final contest of a 14-game regular season, rushing for 200 on 34 carries in the snow against the New York Jets at Shea Stadium. His total of 2,003 yards surpassed the record of 1,863 set by Brown in 1963, a record that stood until 1984, when the Rams’ Eric Dickerson rushed for 2,105 yards in 16 games. Simpson’s 1973 season now ranks eighth all-time.

Simpson felt like he was “floating,” he said of the day he set the record. “I was in the locker room all by myself right before the game ended. I started walking around thinking how I couldn’t wish to do anything more or be anyone else. I was part of the history of the game,” he said. “If I did nothing else in my life, I’d made my mark.”

Simpson never duplicated his 1973 season, although he ran for more than 1,000 yards each of the next three - leading the NFL twice. His 7,699 rushing yards over that remarkable span from 1972-76 led running backs by a considerable distance, with no other player within 2,500 yards.

His numbers declined dramatically in 1977 and he left Buffalo for San Francisco, where he gained just over 1,000 yards combined in the 1978 and 1979 seasons. He retired after the 1979 season and finished his career with 11,236 rushing yards, 2,142 receiving yards and 990 kick return yards in 135 games. He scored 76 touchdowns - 61 on rushes, 14 on receptions and one on a kick return.

In 1985, his first year of eligibility, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame and was named to the NFL’s all-decade team of the 1970s, the NFL’s 75th anniversary team, and the NFL 100 all-time team. His bust remains on display in Canton, Ohio.

“O.J. Simpson was the first player to reach a rushing mark many thought could not be attained in a 14-game season when he topped 2,000 yards,” Jim Porter, president of the Pro Football Hall of Fame said in a statement Thursday. “His on-field contributions will be preserved in the Hall’s archives in Canton, Ohio.”

Simpson was found not guilty in 1995 of murdering his ex-wife and her friend in a criminal trial but was later found liable in a civil trial.

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