O.J. Simpson

updated 12/26/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/26/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

In one of the letters that he left behind when he tried that last, long run in the Ford Bronco, O.J. Simpson—god of football, famous nice guy, accused killer—made a final plea. "Please think of the real O. J.," he begged, "and not this lost person." And what you thought at once was: What if they were one and the same? Could whoever had butchered Nicole, Simpson's ex-wife, and Ron Goldman, a man at The wrong place at the wrong time, also be a hero with a Heisman Trophy and a killer grin? Even when so much seemed to point to Simpson's guilt, our memories of him cast the shadow of a doubt. But then another shadow would fall across that one. Could the O.J. we knew, a smile with wings, also be an O.J. we didn't know, a fist with a knife?

For all the other matters that his case touched upon and electrified, from spousal abuse and racism to the intricacies of jury selection, it was that single profound paradox that made it a national obsession. Anyone who said that the media attention was excessive misunderstood the powerful human need to open locked boxes. And as we learned to our sorrow this year, perhaps no box has ever been so tightly locked as the one in O.J.'s head, where the multiple truths about himself were held. There was the boy who grew up in the tough San Francisco neighborhood of Potrero Hill, the one who had been arrested for stealing from a liquor store at 15. There was the supremely gifted college and pro ballplayer who sped through the world so fast he sheared off his rough edges. There was the smile on the run for Hertz and the smile with headphones for TV sportscasts and the smile that somersaulted through the Naked Gun movies. But there was also the man who could be heard roaring in the background of the taped call to 911 made by a frantic Nicole—at least her ninth call for help against Simpson in a decade—and her scream when police arrived: "He's going to kill me."

He lives in a locked box now, a 9-by 6-foot cell of a kind where he may spend the rest of his life. In the Los Angeles courtroom where prosecutor Marcia Clark and defense attorney Robert Shapiro thrust and dodge, the peerless runner is mostly a gloomy bystander to his own fate. So are we—wishing, but not fully expecting, that the real O.J. might be the one we used to know. For years to come, the image of that white Bronco coursing down the highway, like a box full of secrets, will replay in the collective memory. You won't want to open the box because you already know what's in it. It has your illusions inside.

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