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O.J. Simpson tried to exit NFL, but says Ralph Wilson pulled him back

LAS VEGAS – After seven seasons, O.J. Simpson was done with pro football.

The NFL's greatest running back had toiled enough with the Buffalo Bills, played long enough to earn a pension and was ready to retire if not traded. He was convinced owner Ralph Wilson was more smitten with filling Rich Stadium than fielding a contender that would raise the payroll.

Simpson endured ugliness under coaches John Rauch and Harvey Johnson, then increasingly enjoyed playing for Lou Saban, who installed an offense 180 degrees different from his predecessors and handed Simpson the ball incessantly.

"I'd gone through my first three years in the league with total crap in Buffalo," Simpson said Monday in an exclusive interview with The Buffalo News. "Then all the sudden we put together a group of guys."

Monday was Simpson's first extensive football interview since the 1990s and his first of any kind since Wilson's death four years ago.

"You can talk about these things now," Simpson said. "You couldn't then."

Simpson also pulled back the curtain on how he and Los Angeles Rams owner Carroll Rosenbloom conspired to nearly pull off a trade that would have given the Bills a handful of name players.

Offensive line coach Jim Ringo and the Electric Company paved the path to 2,003 yards in 1973. Record after record fell. Then finally a postseason appearance in 1974, followed by a hot start to the 1975 campaign, during which Simpson scored 23 touchdowns, before injuries down the homestretch kept the Bills from returning to the playoffs.

No longer pushovers, the Bills had evolved into legitimate challengers. In a 14-game season, they won nine games in 1973, nine games in 1974 and eight games in 1975.

The O.J. Simpson interview: On prison, 'retirement' and football

"If not for injuries in '75, I thought we were the best team in football," Simpson said. "We beat Pittsburgh, the defending champs, early. I thought nobody could stop us."

Simpson still shakes his head at how Wilson and the Bills' front office let the roster erode by declining to re-sign key free agents such as receiver Ahmad Rashad and defensive lineman Earl Edwards.

That was it for Simpson, who had plenty of diversions away from football.

His acting career wasn't award-winning, but he was busy. He was nationally known as the Hertz pitchman and invested in Southern California restaurant chains. He had a broadcasting contract with NBC Sports and would work the Summer Olympics.

"I live in L.A., and I run into [Rams GM] Don Klosterman," Simpson recalled. "He tells me, 'Why don't you come by Mr. Rosenbloom's house.' I go over, and tell them I'm going to do the Olympics in Montreal and then retire, that I can't go back to Buffalo and do that anymore.

"They asked, 'Would you stay if you could play for the Rams?' Well, of course!"

This, of course, is tampering and against NFL rules. Simpson was Buffalo's player and couldn't engage in conversations such as this with a rival franchise.

"The Rams told me, 'But, O.J., you have to say you're not going to play,' " Simpson said. "Then they start talking to me about money. There was a house not far from Rosenbloom's house I had been looking to buy. This was before I moved to Rockingham. I lived up on Mulholland Drive.

"But I'm, like, 'Geez, there's a chance I could be here with the Rams. Frickin' A!' They had a good team. My children were in L.A. because of school. I thought it was perfect."

The New York Times in August 1976 reported the Rams' initial offer to Wilson was two first-round draft choices and two second-round draft choices and a player, but Wilson demanded that player be 1,000-yard running back Lawrence McCutcheon or future Hall of Fame defensive end Jack Youngblood.

The Rams then proposed a package that included McCutcheon, receiver Jack Snow, the Bills' choice of middle linebacker from either Jack Reynolds or Jim Youngblood, their choice of defensive lineman from either Mike Fanning or Cody Jones and safety Steve Preece.

"Then Pete Rozelle found out what was going on," Simpson said of the NFL commissioner. "I got a call about tampering. I said, 'No, nobody's talking to me.'

"So I decided I would retire and do 'Monday Night Football.' "

Simpson played two more years with the Bills.

On the cusp of the 1976 regular-season opener, Wilson showed up unannounced at Simpson's home in Los Angeles.

"I explained to him, 'Look, we just screwed everything up and got rid of everybody. I'm turning 29. I don't have many years left, and I can't go through what I went through my first three years,' " Simpson said. "Lou Saban was close to quitting.

"I thought, 'Jesus, who needs this? I could be a Ram and stay at my own house and see my family.' "

The New York Times also reported Saban believed he had made a deal with Oakland Raiders coach John Madden, having submitted a list of eight Raiders, three of whom he would accept for Simpson, but Wilson vetoed the trade.

"I remember thinking this wasn't to hold out for more money," Simpson said. "Ralph laid out financially what he was thinking, and it ain't the money they're talking about now, but for that time it would have been economic stupidity for me not to take the deal. I was making double what the next guy was making.

"I was impressed by what he said and thought, 'Well, what the hell?' I flew to Buffalo, and the next night I played in 'Monday Night Football' against the Dolphins."

As Simpson expected, Buffalo was awful that year.

The team already was thin before Bills quarterback Joe Ferguson got hurt. Saban quit during the season. Simpson won another rushing title, but the Bills went 2-12 and followed up with a 3-11 season.

"By the time Ringo took over as head coach in 1976," Simpson said, "the team was falling apart. [Backup quarterback] Gary Marangi couldn't hit the ground with a pass."

Wilson finally agreed to a Simpson trade in March 1978, sending the hobbled back to his hometown San Francisco 49ers for two forgettable seasons.

The Bills received second- and third-round draft choices (defensive end Scott Hutchinson, receiver Danny Fulton) in 1978, first- and fourth-rounders (linebacker Tom Cousineau, defensive end Ken Johnson) in 1979 and a second-rounder (running back Joe Cribbs) in 1980.

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