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O.J. Simpson on transcending eras and the only player who scared him

LAS VEGAS – When talking about the greatest football player, particularly from before the NFL-AFL merger, Jim Brown's name is paramount.

O.J. Simpson has another name rarely mentioned.

"The only guy that ever intimidated me in a game was Dick Butkus," Simpson said Monday in a wide-ranging, exclusive interview with The Buffalo News.

Simpson lined up against the Chicago Bears linebacker only in the preseason, but provided the rookie an unnerving welcome-to-the-NFL moment in 1969.

"He damn near killed Max Anderson," Simpson said, "and when I went in the game he yelled, 'I'm going to kick your [expletive], Simpson!'

"I watched this cat through my college days just knocking people out."

In that exhibition, played at Cleveland Municipal Stadium, Simpson ran three time for 8 yards and caught two passes for 23 yards. Simpson and Butkus later appeared together in a Hertz Rent a Car commercial with Arnold Palmer and Bubba Smith.

"For many years, I always thought, considering all positions, Dick Butkus was the finest football player ever," Simpson said.

"Since then, you got Jerry Rice and various people who've played like nobody else. But for a long time I thought Dick Butkus was by himself. I don't think anybody played their position better than Butkus played linebacker."

Simpson retired 986 yards behind Brown on the all-time rushing list.

Simpson blamed his first three years being wasted by coach John Rauch and Harvey Johnson as the reason he couldn't catch Brown, not those dim final two seasons with the San Francisco 49ers before retiring.

"I don't think anybody at the offensive position, until you get to Jerry Rice, dominated their position like Jim did," Simpson said. "Eight rushing titles? The closest is me and a few guys at four."

That said, Simpson added his speed – he was part of USC's world-record-breaking 4x110-yard relay team – would have made him a more timeless NFL threat than the rugged Brown. Simpson included Barry Sanders, Eric Dickerson and Gale Sayers in that upper class.

This is how Simpson explained the recurring pitch he has made to Brown:

"Jim, you played with Hall of Fame coaches and Hall of Fame linemen. First of all, if you played now, Dickerson and I would still be two of the fastest running backs in the league.

"But, Jim, when you played you had maybe one or two guys that could run you down. When I played, everybody in the secondary would've ran your ass down."

Brown, a fullback, was selected for the Pro Bowl each of his nine pro seasons before retiring in 1966 over a contract dispute with Cleveland owner Art Modell.

Brown played under Hall of Fame coach Paul Brown and with Hall of Fame teammates Bobby Mitchell, Leroy Kelly, Paul Warfield, Mike McCormack, Gene Hickerson and Lou Groza.

Simpson played with one: guard Joe DeLamielleure.

The game also changed in the 1970s.

"The word 'pursuit' didn't really become a word in football strategy until the Jets won the Super Bowl," Simpson said. "All them little defensive linemen and pursuing lanes ...

"When Jim Brown ran a sweep, he could beat a tackler off him and just start running again. Now, when somebody hits you once, you get three more on you."

Although still working on his resume, Bills running back LeSean McCoy translates into Simpson's preferred style.

Simpson sees McCoy as timeless, too.

"If you put me in the same backfield, behind the same linemen, running the same plays," Simpson said, "the only two guys that would have concerned me were Barry Sanders and Gale Sayers. Dickerson, with his overdrive ...

"But I look at LeSean, and he's the closest thing to Barry I see as far as the okie-doke and that lateral movement. That guy does some beautiful things, where if you're sitting in the stands – and this is the mark of the great players – he can get people on their feet just like that."

Simpson snapped his fingers.

"He makes a move, and everybody's up," he said. "Oh! He is dynamic."

Alas, no running back is unstoppable.

Simpson also shared thoughts on his chief nemesis.

"The guy who kicked my ass, who pissed me off because he was beating me to handoffs was Nick Buoniconti," Simpson said of the Boston Patriots and Miami Dolphins defensive lineman.

"He was the toughest guy I ever had to play against. Not that he was physical, but he was just on me all the time. He just seemed to know what we were running on offense."

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