Yeah, about that O.J. Simpson meme…

An erroneous OJ Simpson meme.

You may have seen the meme above circulating on social media. It blames the Buffalo Bills for setting in motion a chain of events that eventually birthed the celebrity/infamy of the Kardashian clan. (You may have seen variations of this meme from time to time; they also rely on incorrect information about the game in question that supposedly was ground zero for the entire timeline.)

Here’s the real deal: The Buffalo Bills did draft USC Heisman Trophy-winning running back O.J. Simpson with the first pick of the 1969 NFL-AFL Draft (meaning blaming the 1970 Bills is error number one) after a dreadful 1-12-1 season in 1968. And late in that 1968 season, the Bills did lose a close game that could potentially have been the difference between picking first and picking third. But the circumstances of that game, and of that “race to the bottom” during the latter stages of the 1968 season, are often misstated.

The fact is, while Buffalo would have ended up with the third pick in the 1969 draft had they won one more game, that one win could have come in any of their 12 losses, including the game the week after the “bad pass” game.

And as late as Thanksgiving Day 1968, O.J. was well on his way to becoming a…Philadelphia Eagle, where he might have been playing for….Vince Lombardi? Yep. That one. Had things turned out differently, that might have been the case. As we know, Lombardi ended up in Washington and Simpson ended up in Buffalo. But how it happened is different than you may have been led to believe. Come back to the last few weeks of the 1968 pro football season and see where things went wrong (or right, depending on your point of view) for the Bills. Then we’ll dispel some other falsehoods contained in this particular meme.

As the sun rose on Thanksgiving Day, November 24, 1968, the Los Angeles Times reported (in a story picked up by the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times and reproduced below) that the Philadelphia Eagles intended to make Simpson the first pick of the combined NFL-AFL Draft two months hence.

Newspaper story on OJ Simpson

The story, by the LA TimesBob Oates1Who was, until his death in 2009 at age 93, the last surviving member of the original Pro Football Hall of Fame selection panel., reported that high-placed pro football sources said the Eagles would definitely draft Simpson and not trade him to Los Angeles or any other team. The story also said there was about a 50-50 chance2As Tony Kornheiser likes to say, “Everything in life is 50-50. It will either happen or it won’t.” This one did not. that Lombardi – then Green Bay’s general manager and a restless season removed from leading the Packers to their second straight Super Bowl title – would become the Eagles’ coach in 1969 as well3Lombardi eventually became Washington’s head coach before passing away just before the 1970 season..

The Eagles were in the pole position for the top pick in the third combined draft4As a condition of the merger agreed to in 1966, the two leagues staged a combined draft starting in 1967, three years before fully merging teams and schedules. because they had lost their first 11 games of the season. Going into the Turkey Day schedule, the standings of the five teams still in the race for OJ5A clever name like “Suck for Luck” wasn’t something anyone would have thought of in 1968. “Lose for the Juice?” “Surrender for Orenthal?” My head hurts. looked like this6Making the math a little wonky is the fact that, before 1972, ties were ignored and not calculated in a team’s won-lost percentage. For example, Buffalo could have still finished 3-10-1, which would have been “better” than Cincinnati’s potential 3-11.:

TeamWLTPct.GBGR
Philadelphia Eagles0110.0000.03
Buffalo Bills1101.0911.02
Atlanta Falcons290.1822.03
Pittsburgh Steelers281.2002.53
Cincinnati Bengals390.2502.52

Philadelphia had the inside track because they could still have finished 0-14, while Buffalo could not have been worse than 1-12-1, Atlanta could not have been worse than 2-12, Pittsburgh could not have been worse than 2-11-1 and Cincinnati could not have been worse than 3-11. At this point, no one in the group was eliminated. Cincinnati could still have finished 3-11, which would have been worse than Buffalo’s potential 3-10-1 and the other three teams could all have finished with at least three wins7At worst, the Bengals could have been tied with Philadelphia at 3-11 and Atlanta and Pittsburgh could still have finished with just two wins, potentially..

Here’s how the weekend played out:

  • Thursday, November 28: In a game that kicked off at noon ET, Philadelphia won 12-0 at Detroit to improve to 1-11. They were still in the lead for the first pick because Buffalo could still have been 3-10-1 at that point, Pittsburgh could still be 5-8-1 and Atlanta and Cincinnati could still be 5-9.

    The Bills and Raiders played the late game on NBC (a 4 p.m. ET kickoff) at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. While Oakland was 9-28And would go on to lose to the Jets in the AFL title game., the game was close and pivoted on a handful of late plays.

    Here’s what actually happened late in that game in Oakland:

    • Buffalo trailed 13-10 in the fourth, but had a first and goal at the Oakland five with 4:30 left. Halfback Max Anderson9The Bills’ leading rusher that year with 525 yards. ran around left end for a yard to the four on first down, then off left tackle for a yard to the three on second down.
    • On third-and-goal with 3:14 left, quarterback Ed Rutkowski kept around right end and fumbled when tackled by Raider safety George Atkinson. Oakland recovered at their own one with 3:00 left, ran three plays that used up less than a minute and punted with 2:03 to play.
    • The Bills took over at their own 44 with 1:51 left. After a penalty, Rutkowski hit Bobby Crockett for a 23-yard gain to the Oakland 38 with 1:30 to go.
    • Bob Cappadona10Playing in his next-to-last pro football game, as it turned out. He later started a successful insurance agency in his hometown of Watertown, Massachusetts that he has run since 1973. ran up the middle for three to the 35.
    • On second-and-seven from the Oakland 35, Rutkowski’s pass to Haven Moses was broken up by Atkinson at the seven.
    • On third down, Atkinson again broke up a pass by Rutkowski at the 20. (The intended receiver is not noted in the official play-by-play.)
    • Bruce Alford‘s 42-yard field goal attempt that would have tied the game fell short.
    • Oakland took over at their own 20 with :43 left and Daryle Lamonica kept for two yards, then took a loss of three to run out the clock.

    The 13-10 loss dropped the Bills to 1-11-1. While it didn’t clinch the first pick for Buffalo, it did eliminate Cincinnati from the race for O.J. Had Buffalo won, they would have been 2-10-1 and still would not have been eliminated because Philadelphia could still have finished 3-11, Pittsburgh could still have finished 5-8-1 and Atlanta and Pittsburgh could still have finished 5-911None of the teams involved played each other down the stretch.. Had Alford made the field goal and the game ended in a tie (there being no overtime in the regular season prior to 1974), the Bills would have been 1-10-2 and could have been no worse than 1-11-2 or better than 2-11-2, and Philadelphia could still get the first pick with a 1-13 or 0-14 season.

  • Sunday, December 1: Pittsburgh lost at home to St. Louis 20-10 to drop to 2-9-1. Atlanta lost at home to Baltimore 44-0 to fall to 2-10-0. Cincinnati lost at home to New York 27-14 to drop to 3-10.

So the first pick standings going into the games of December 7-812Week 13 in the NFL, Week 14 in the AFL, which had kicked off its season a week prior to the older league. looked like this:

TeamWLTPct.GBGR
Philadelphia Eagles1110.0830.02
Buffalo Bills1111.0830.01
Atlanta Falcons2100.1671.02
Pittsburgh Steelers291.1821.52
Cincinnati Bengals3100.231E1

The Steelers could still finish 2-11-1 and would be no worse than tied with Buffalo, while Philadelphia could still finish 1-13 or 3-11. Atlanta could still finish 2-12 and Buffalo and Pittsburgh could still finish 2-11-1, so Cincinnati’s elimination was the only thing decided at this point.

The first pick in the draft would, however, be decided the next weekend.

  • Saturday, December 7: Buffalo lost at home to Houston 35-6 to finish 1-12-1 and eliminate Pittsburgh and Atlanta from contention for the first pick because they both already had two wins. At worst, the Bills could have finished second behind Philadelphia, who could still have finished 1-13.
  • Sunday, December 8: Philadelphia won at New Orleans 29-17 to improve to 2-11 and eliminate themselves from contention for the first pick because they could not catch Buffalo. This result officially gave Buffalo the rights to lead off the draft.

The “O.J. Derby” standings after the weekend’s games looked like this:

TeamWLTPct.GBGR
Buffalo Bills1121.077C0
Atlanta Falcons2110.154E1
Philadelphia Eagles2110.154E1
Pittsburgh Steelers2101.167E1
Cincinnati Bengals3110.214E0

The positions of the teams did not change after the final games of December 15, when Philadelphia lost at home to Minnesota, 24-17, to finish 2-12, Atlanta lost at home to San Francisco, 14-12, to wind up 2-12 and Pittsburgh lost at home to New Orleans, 24-14, to finish 2-11-1. So the final first-pick standings (and initial draft positions) looked like this:

TeamWLTPct.GB
Buffalo Bills1121.0770.0
Atlanta Falcons2120.1430.5
Philadelphia Eagles2120.1430.5
Pittsburgh Steelers2111.1541.0
Cincinnati Bengals3110.2141.5

So, while yes, had Buffalo won the game against the Raiders on Thanksgiving Day, they would have finished 2-11-1 and picked third behind Atlanta and Philadelphia, the same would have been be true had the Bills won any one of the 12 games they lost, including the season-ending blowout loss to Houston. The Raider loss was close and excruciating, but wasn’t the deciding game, and one “bad pass” did not decide that game.

When the 26 teams convened in New York 16 days after the Jets’ stunning upset of the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III, the first five picks of the draft went like this:

PckTeamSelectionPosCollege
1BuffaloO.J. SimpsonRBSouthern California
2AtlantaGeorge KunzOTNotre Dame
3PhiladelphiaLeroy KeyesRBPurdue
4PittsburghJoe GreeneDTNorth Texas
5CincinnatiGreg CookQBCincinnati

Simpson, as we all know, went on to play nine years in Buffalo, where he rushed for 10,183 of his 11,236 career yards, earned selection to five Pro Bowls and won the 1973 NFL Most Valuable Player award, before finishing his pro career with his hometown San Francisco 49ers from 1978-1979. His post-football career has been well-documented and is a bit more intricate than the meme’s author suggests. To quote from it:

“OJ stays in Buffalo for awhile, meets his wife, then allegedly kills her.”

Simpson had married his first wife, Marguerite, in 1967 when both were students at USC. While he was still a Buffalo Bill at the time he met 19-year-old Nicole Brown in the spring of 197713A year before his March 25, 1978 trade to the 49ers., the meeting took place at a nightclub in Beverly Hills, not in upstate New York as the meme suggests. He was charged with her June 12, 1994 murder, but…

“Then he hires Robert Kardashian to be his lawyer.”

While Robert Kardashian did serve on Simpson’s defense team, he did so as a volunteer, as Johnnie Cochran and Robert Shapiro were the main attorneys14Kardashian had actually let his license to practice law lapse before re-activating it in time for the trial.. This allowed Kardashian to assert attorney-client privilege and not be compelled to testify about what he knew about the days in the aftermath of the murders of Brown and Ronald Goldman15Like the contents of the garment bag he was seen carrying from Simpson’s estate the day after the murders..

“They win the case, making the Kardashians somewhat famous.”

I realize many meme practitioners were quite young in 1994, so they can be forgiven for reducing the Trial of the Century to a few words, but “the Kardashians” did not become “somewhat famous” after the 1995 not guilty verdict. Kardashian pere is probably best-known today for reading Simpson’s quasi-suicide note on the day of the white Bronco chase16You could make the argument that Simpson’s friend and former Bills teammate Al Cowlings became more famous than Kardashian. Heck, you could make the argument that the white Bronco became more famous..

“Then Kim drops the sex tape and becomes famous.”

Kim Kardashian first gained attention in 2003 as a friend/personal assistant/stylist/subject of derision for fellow pseudo-celeb Paris Hilton on the reality show The Simple Life. The 2007 “leak” of a 2003 sex tape17If you think I’m linking to that, you’re nuts. Surely you can find it yourself. she made with singer and then-boyfriend Ray J is credited with propelling her to widespread notoriety (the E! series, Keeping Up With The Kardashians, debuted that fall, eight months after the tape’s release), but that was almost totally unrelated to the Simpson murder case. Any fame Kim had because of her name by that point came more from people saying, “Was her dad18Who had died four years prior. that guy who was in the O.J. thing?”

There is, understandably, a lot of misery in Buffalo, as the Bills have had 15 losing seasons in the last 17 years and have not reached the playoffs in this century. But the idea that one of their games from 1968 – whatever its details – is to blame for the ubiquity of the Kardashians is ridiculous. The real culprits are a sex tape, the E! network and a cultural shift that has bestowed fame on people merely for being famous. The Bills may be damned, but you can’t pin this one on them.

Kenn Tomasch

Kenn Tomasch

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