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Before O.J. Simpson's Hollywood fame, international infamy, he was a San Francisco treat

O.J. Simpson's Bay Area beginnings remembered
O.J. Simpson's Bay Area beginnings remembered 07:47

The death of O.J. Simpson, announced by his family on social media Thursday, has brought up memories not only of the infamous double-murder he was accused of, but also of his San Francisco roots and hero status before his association with the crime turned him into a pariah.

Orenthal James Simpson was born in San Francisco in 1947 and raised in the housing projects of the city's Potrero Hill neighborhood. His parents, Jimmie and Eunice Durden Simpson, separated when Simpson was a young child. He developed rickets and wore homemade braces on his legs until he was five, giving him a bow-legged stance.

The condition did not stop him from developing early on into the athlete that would catapult him into national consciousness. His first flashed his athletic prowess at the Potrero Hill Recreation Center.

"Black kids were welcome at that gym and that's where most spent their time," one resident told CNN in 1995. "O.J.'s formative years, his first 15 years, were spent in the projects and at the gym playing sports."

At Galileo High School, Simpson was an All-City halfback and appeared to be on his way to a football scholarship. However, Simpson was a member of a street gang called the Persian Warriors and told Rolling Stone in 1977 that he was arrested three times during his teenage years, the last time in 1964. Following that arrest, Simpson met his idol, San Francisco Giants star Wilie Mays, who changed his life by having Simpson hang out with him for a day and urging him to change his ways.

"He'd say, 'You got so much ability.' And I really wanted to be a professional baseball or football player," Simpson told Rolling Stone. "The point that came through to me was: Hey man, Willie was from Alabama where he had nothing. And he told me, 'Just your ability can get you over. You got the ability. Don't screw it up, man.'"  

His sub-par high school grades made college recruiters pass on his football abilities, so Simpson enrolled at City College of San Francisco, where he would later be named to the Junior College All-American team. He parlayed that success into a spot at the University of Southern California where he starred in 1967 and 1968, winning a series of awards including the Heisman Trophy, Maxwell Award, two-time unanimous All-American, two-time All-Pac-8, and two-time UPI Player of the Year. USC also retired his number 32 jersey.

While he rose to stardom during the tumult of the late 1960s, Simpson would studiously avoid controversy. In an interview KPIX conducted with Simpson in 1967, he is asked about his reaction to political statements made by collegiate contemporaries Lew Alcindor (before he became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and San Jose State University track star Tommie Smith about a possible boycott of the 1968 Olympics.

KPIX Archive: O.J. Simpson comments on athletes making political statements in 1967 interview 01:45

"Well, um, I don't see how...well, I guess Lew could participate. I don't know, but [if it's] what they think is right, I guess they must follow their beliefs," said Simpson. "I don't want to be involved in it because I'm not in track. I'm running track, but when it comes to Olympic time, I'll be in football. So I have no comment on the matter." 

Soon after leaving USC for the National Football League in 1969, Simpson returned to his Galileo High alma mater when the school named its football stadium after him and retired his #28 football jersey.  

Simpson was the first selection in the 1969 AFL-NFL Draft and went to the Buffalo Bills where he would build his Hall of Fame career for nine seasons, winning virtually every award there was to win and breaking the NFL's single-season rushing record. By 1977, injuries were taking their toll on Simpson's body, but he would play for two more seasons for his beloved hometown 49ers. 

O.J. Simpson with Photographers
A horde of photographers surrounds O.J. Simpson as he bids farewell to San Francisco football fans at Candlestick Park, before playing his last game at the stadium, December 9, 1979. Bettmann/Getty Images

Simpson returned to San Francisco in exchange for a series of draft picks in what later would be viewed as one of the worst trades in NFL history. The man who once scalped 49ers tickets outside of Kezar Stadium was a shell of his former self as a Niner. In 1979, the 49ers held an "O.J. Simpson Day" at Candlestick Park for his last home game before his retirement. His final game in Atlanta saw him carry the ball just two times for 12 yards.

O.J. Simpsons Last Pro-Football Game
San Francisco 49ers running back O.J. Simpson walks off the playing field for the last time and acknowledges the crowd's reaction at Atlanta Fulton County Stadium, December 16, 1979. Bettmann/Getty Images

By then, Simpson was already acting in movies and television and had started his own film production company. He was also becoming just as famous for his ubiquitous Hertz rental car commercials. Among his many film roles was that of a chief security officer of a San Francisco high-rise in the 1974 disaster film The Towering Inferno

The Towering Inferno
The Towering Inferno, poster, US poster art, top from left: Steve McQueen, Paul Newman; bottom from left: William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Fred Astaire, Susan Blakely, Richard Chamberlain, Jennifer Jones, O.J. Simpson, Robert Vaughn, Robert Wagner, 1974. LMPC

Simpson's legacy as an athlete and actor was changed forever following the 1994 murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown and her friend Ronald Goldman in Los Angeles. Instead of his exploits on the football field and on the screen, the San Francisco native will always be remembered for his infamous slow-speed chase, the trial-of-the-century acquittal, and subsequent finding of responsibility for their deaths. 

Simpson eventually did land in prison after being convicted of breaking into a hotel room at gunpoint with associates and stealing sports memorabilia from a dealer. He was sentenced to 33 years in prison but was paroled after just short of nine years.

In 1995, a resident of Simpson's Potrero Hill neighborhood told CNN, "When you've been touched so positively by a man of his stature and see all the warmth that resided in him over the years, it's hard to think of him as anything else."

A mural celebrating Potrero Hill at the intersection of 17th and Connecticut streets at one point featured Simpson wearing his 49ers uniform. At various points after his acquittal, vandals splashed red paint onto the figure and painted horns on Simpson's head. Eventually, he was painted over, figuratively removing him from the neighborhood's history.

A familiar figure on the social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter, Simpson's last social media post was from Las Vegas on February 11, appearing in a video wearing a 49ers jersey to predict a San Francisco victory over the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LVIII. In the video, he thanks people who he says had been asking him about his health, saying although he was "dealing with some issues" his health was good and that he would be back on the golf course in a couple of weeks.

Simpson's death was noted by an attorney with the Goldman family, who said they will continue to seek to collect the $33.5 million civil judgment against him.

"He died without penance. We don't know what he has, where it is, or who is in control," attorney David Cook told the Associated Press. "We will pick up where we are and keep going with it." 

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