O'BRIEN: Remembering when O.J. ushered in reality TV era

Posted: Jun. 17, 2014 9:51 am Updated: Sep. 9, 2014 10:15 am

The most famous low-speed chase in the history of the world happened 20 years ago today.

Anyone old enough to remember the O.J. Simpson saga certainly recalls what they were doing when Simpson hopped in the back seat of a white Ford Bronco driven by Al Cowlings, his college football teammate.

June 17, 1994, was a heck of a day for a sports junkie. Fans had their pick of the U.S. Open golf tournament, the opening of soccer's World Cup in Chicago, a parade for the Stanley Cup champion New York Rangers and Game 5 of the BA Finals between the Houston Rockets and New York Knicks.

Many were watching basketball that night when Simpson, a football star and actor, took center stage.

Five days earlier, Simpson's ex-wife, Nicole, and a friend of hers, Ronald Goldman, were stabbed to death at her home in Los Angeles. Simpson was wanted by Los Angeles police in connection with the murders, and he was supposed to turn himself in earlier in the day. When Simpson never showed, an all-points bulletin was issued for his arrest.

What happened over the next few hours took Simpson's profile to a new level.

Simpson was one of those sports stars who transcended into the mainstream. He ran wild on the gridiron, first as a Heisman Trophy winning running back at Southern California and then as the first NFL running back to break the 2,000-yard barrier with the Buffalo Bills.

Then he ran into our living rooms. Remember him running through airport terminals in those old Hertz Rental Car commercials? He starred in movies and could be seen on various TV shows. My mother was not sports fan, but she knew who O.J. Simpson was before this mess happened.

Now, O.J. was on the run again. As Cowlings drove that truck down the interstate near Los Angeles with more than 20 police in tow, Simpson became a megastar. According to NBC News, 95 million Americans watched at least part of Simpson's chase. If it was a single TV program, the "O.J. Chase" would be the second-ranked TV show ever, only behind the final episode of "M*A*S*H."

In the offices of the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette, where I was working on the sports desk, our attention went from monitoring the basketball game to wondering if we were going to see a football icon kill himself on national TV. Simpson allegedly was suicidal as Cowlings made his slow drive.

One can only imagine how the Twitter and Facebook worlds would have reacted had that chase taken place today. Back then, people lined overpasses and even tried to follow along on the highway, most pledging their support for Simpson.

Simpson unwittingly ushered in a new generation of television -- reality TV. From the chase to his year-long trial, Simpson was everywhere. Who needed scripted soap operas when you had a made-for-TV soap opera like the Simpson saga?

Simpson eventually was acquitted in his criminal trial but was found guilty of in a wrongful death civil suit filed by the families of Goldman and his ex-wife. Simpson was free for about a dozen years before he got caught up in a robbery in Las Vegas in 2007. He was sentenced to 33 years in prison and won't be eligible for parole until late 2017.

It's unlikely we'll ever see another story like Simpson's.

Well, let's hope not.


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