I think it’s been lost in all of his post-NFL notoriety and his greater accomplishments as a running back before joining the team, but O.J. did wind up his career in his hometown of San Francisco. Orenthal James had grown up in a rough neighborhood, gone to Galileo High School in the city, then attended City College of San Francisco before going to USC. He came back in 1978 through a trade with the Bills, in which the Niners gave up five draft choices. This was a very long time before the ride in the Bronco, Johnnie Cochran, and everything else.
I’ve been doing a project chronicling the 49ers under Bill Walsh, came by some things about 1979, O.J.’s final NFL season, and thought I’d share them. In Building a Champion, his book about coaching the 49ers, Walsh said that O.J. had “suffered a knee injury and developed arthritis before being traded to the 49ers. . . . his knee was so bad there were times he couldn’t even trot. He often couldn’t practice, and he couldn’t cut on it in a game.”
Simpson missed just about all of the 49ers’ 1979 training camp with his arthritic right knee and because of the death by drowning of his 23-month-old daughter that August. O.J. stumbled through 1979, his last season, appearing in 13 games, rushing 120 times for 460 yards, or 3.8 yards per carry, with three touchdowns. His longest run was a 22-yarder. He also caught seven passes for 46 yards and no touchdowns.
In O.J.’s last game, the 49ers were closing out a 2-14 1979 season by losing 31-21 at Atlanta. (I’ve posted a black-and-white picture of Simpson in that last game to my 49ers blog here.) Simpson came into the game late in the first quarter and ran the ball for two yards, then fumbled, but the ball was recovered by Randy Cross. The Falcons had taken a 31-21 lead and the game was out of reach when O.J. came back late in the fourth quarter. It was a 3rd-and-10. O.J. bolted over the left side and went 10 yards for the first down. Those two carries for 12 yards were the end of his on-field career.
After the game, O.J. said: “I was worried that the fumble would be my last carry. That would have been one I wouldn’t have been able to forget.”