By LARRY WOODY
With O.J. Simpson back in the news attempting to get his prison sentence overturned, I'm reminded of one day in Murfreesboro when he went out of his way to befriend me.
First, let's make it clear that his nice-guy persona that day in no way mitigates the misdeeds he would later would be involved in - skating on double-murder charges and eventually getting snared on an armed robbery rap.
It makes me shiver to think that the guy I once thought so much of could have such a dark other side.
Here's what happened:
In 1973, Murfreesboro native Robert James, who played for the NFL's Buffalo Bills, was honored with a special "Robert James Day" by his hometown. O.J., a teammate and close friend, agreed to participate.
At the time Simpson was the most famous athlete in the country. The former Heisman Trophy winner was the NFL's biggest star, and his charm and charisma made him a hit off the field. He would become a movie star, TV pitchman and Monday Night Football analyst.
That he would take time out of his schedule to travel to Murfreesboro to help honor a teammate was impressive. As a columnist for the The Tennessean I wanted to interview The Juice.
I called the event organizer and he said Simpson would hold a brief press conference at a Murfreesboro hotel at noon the day of the event. That would be my only opportunity to talk to him.
The next day at noon I walked into the motel lobby and it was deserted. I called the event organizer and he said the press conference had been switched to another motel across town, since O.J. was staying there. Nobody had bothered to tell me.
I raced across town and got to the motel just as all the TV guys where loading up their cables and cameras. The press conference was over. Simpson and his wife and gone up to their room.
Frantic - a columnist without a column - I located the event organizer and explained my predicament. The biggest sports figure in the country was here and I'd missed him. My editor wouldn't be happy.
The event organizer (who clearly wasn't very well organized) said he couldn't help me. All he could suggest was that I attend the banquet that night and perhaps catch O.J. for a few minutes afterwards. I said that wouldn't work - there was a little matter of a deadline.
The organizer finally agreed to ring Simpson's room, explain my predicament, and maybe he'd talk to me a minute on the phone. O.J. did better than that - he invited me up to his room.
I went in, Simpson told me to take a seat, and asked if I wanted a drink. He said I could interview him while he dressed for the afternoon's event. So there I sat, sipping juice with the Juice and chatting about his big NFL season as he and his wife dressed for dinner.
When we finished, he asked if I needed a ride to the dinner; he said I was welcome to ride over with him. I thanked him, but explained that I had to get back to the newspaper and start writing.
We shook hands and I left thinking that O.J. Simpson was the nicest sports celebrity I'd ever met. That was the theme of next morning's column: a super-nice super-star.
Later, when Simpson became implicated in the grisly murder of his second wife and her friend, I cringed over such a Jekyll-Hyde personality.
And today I cringe to watch an aged Simpson shuffling in and out of court in shackles and prison fatigues - the same Simpson who once glided over the gridiron with such grace, and who once went out of his way to befriend a desperate young sports writer.
Creepy. That's the only word for it.