The last Buffalo Bills player to wear number 32 was O.J. Simpson. Simpson, a first overall pick, was the face of the franchise and maybe the best player to ever wear a Bills uniform. He played nine seasons in Buffalo from 1969 to 1977, but more recent events have overshadowed his on-field greatness and distorted fans’ and the public’s perception about the man, complicating his legacy in Western New York.
Simpson is on the Wall of Fame at New Era Field. He’s in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and his accomplishments on the field can’t be denied. He was the first player to rush for 2000 yards in an NFL season. He was a dynamic runner with the ball in his hands who went on to a career in movies, TV, and commercials. He checks almost every box of a celebrated former player, though I’m sure the organization would have liked to have seen more visits from him after he left and retired.
There’s also another major complication.
In June of 1994, Simpson’s ex-wife was murdered along with an acquaintance. He was put on trial in a polarizing, captivating trial that not only dragged on for weeks it attracted the attention of the nation with cameras allowed in the courtroom. Any verdict would have split the public in a racially-divided moment, and when he was found not guilty the story wasn’t over. Simpson eventually lost a civil trial, where the burden of proof shifts to the defense, which cost him the fortune he had amassed during and after his playing days.
Eventually he was tried and convicted, this time on armed robbery and kidnapping charges for stealing merchandise he says was his from the hotel room of a distributor. Then he spent time in prison.
None of that matters to his on-field performance. It’s why he’s still in the Hall of Fame. It’s why he’s on the Wall of Fame. But part of having your jersey retired is a special bond with a place or a team, and Simpson never fully embraced Western New York the way Jim Kelly or Thurman Thomas have. He never returned unless it was on assignment, unlike Bruce Smith who is back all the time even if he doesn’t live here.
It’s a complicated question with a complicated answer. It’s one the Bills have chosen to deal with in a pretty elegant fashion; they haven’t issued the uniform number since 1977 when they traded Simpson on his request. It’s not an official uniform retirement, but it’s likely no one will wear the number 32 for the Bills.
Is that enough, or should they officially retire 32?