AFC East: Arnold Palmer

The day O.J. took America on a surreal ride

June, 17, 2010
6/17/10
2:50
PM ET
Sixteen years ago today, one of the most surreal and flabbergasting moments unfolded in front of the world.

O.J. Simpson -- Hall of Fame running back, luggage-hurdling Hertz pitchman, Officer Nordberg, beloved sports icon -- was a fugitive, accused of murdering his wife and her friend.

Simpson was crouched in the back seat of a white Ford Bronco. His USC and Buffalo Bills teammate, Al Cowlings, was at the steering wheel, leading a low-speed police chase and potential suicide run along Southern California freeways.

"This can't be happening," former Buffalo News sports editor Howard Smith recalled the reaction of a stunned newsroom glued to the television. "O.J. killed his wife? O.J.?!

"Today, it would be like hearing Peyton Manning killed his wife. How can this happen? It's the Juice! All those funny cop movies and the nicest guy on television and, of all people, our guy?"

"June 17th, 1994" is the latest installment of ESPN's "30 for 30" documentary film series. Oscar-nominated director Brett Morgen revisits a colossal time in sports history.

President Bill Clinton presided over World Cup opening ceremonies in Chicago. Arnold Palmer cried at the end of his final round at the U.S. Open. The Houston Rockets and New York Knicks played Game 5 of the NBA Finals in Madison Square Garden -- when NBC wasn't interrupting with O.J. updates. The New York Rangers held their ticker-tape Stanley Cup parade through the Canyon of Heroes. A Major League Baseball strike loomed.

The most indelible images, however, are the overhead footage of a white Bronco being pursued by a fleet of squad cars, with gawkers cheering along the median and on bridges spanning the freeway. The chase ended at Simpson's driveway.

Back in Buffalo, an entire city was stunned.

"O.J. Simpson is the first guy whose autograph I got when I was 7," said Chris "Bulldog" Parker, co-host of the afternoon drive show on Buffalo sports-radio station WGR. Parker watched the Bronco chase while managing a pizzeria.

"That's the beginning of me growing up as a sports fan and not loving it like I used to," Parker continued. "The reality is we don't know these people at all. You can trace a pretty lengthy trail of bread crumbs from there to where we are now about an automatic assumption of guilt over any athlete -- Tiger Woods or whoever -- and what he has been accused of. The Bronco chase was a tipping point."

Simpson was the most revered athlete the city had seen. Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas and Bruce Smith still were active and not yet etched into legendary terms.

"O.J. was the most famous athlete ever from Buffalo," Howard Smith said. "He was still a prominent national figure because he was on television a lot and on NBC with Bob Costas. He was still our spokesman. He was a Buffalo guy and would talk about the Bills. He was an icon.

"Bruce and Kelly and Thurman were viewed as keys to the Super Bowl-slash-pains in the ass. There was a lot of aggravation. It was a bittersweet ride for a while."

That day in Los Angeles, the ride was surreal.

"What everybody thought they were doing was watching this guy take a ride to go kill himself," Parker said. "That's what it felt like. And this was our most famous athlete. Him getting arrested at the end of this ride was a good outcome."

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