Erik Brady: As a boy he loved O.J. Simpson – and he still loves the Bills | State and Regional News

Jerry LeBuis has loved the Buffalo Bills since he was a boy growing up near Utica in the 1970s. His father was a fan of the Cleveland Browns. His friends were mostly fans of the New York Giants or Jets. So why did LeBuis pick the Bills as his own?

“O.J. Simpson,” he says. “O.J. was my hero.”

Time has a funny way of changing how we look at our childhood heroes. Pete Rose was another of his favorites then. He is banned from baseball for betting on it.

LeBuis was 7 years old in 1976. That’s the year that Simpson ran for 273 yards in Detroit on Thanksgiving Day to set what was then the NFL single-game rushing record. And it is the year that Rose’s Cincinnati Reds won the World Series with an undefeated postseason; they remain the only team to do that since the expansion of the baseball playoffs in 1969.

As it happens, that’s the year LeBuis was born, as well as the year of Simpson’s rookie season in Buffalo. Simpson would go on to the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the movies. And then, of course, he would be accused of (and later found civilly liable for) double murder.

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All this gets to the notion of what the word “hero” really means. Robert Thompson has some ideas on that. He is director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture, at Syracuse University.

“Hero can mean a lot of things,” he says. “The most obvious interpretation would be someone who runs into a burning building and saves the orphans. But then we have our childhood heroes, who are less often people who did things that we think of as heroic in terms of Homeric rescue or military exploits. Childhood heroes tend to be people who are just really good at things we like.”

Simpson was really good at football. He ran for 2,003 yards in 1973. It amounted to 143.1 yards per game, which remains the NFL record by an astonishing 10 yards per game.

“We give heroic status to musicians and athletes who are really good at what they do, but being really good at something doesn’t get at whether they are good people,” Thompson says. “So on one level, admiring O.J. Simpson for what he did for the Buffalo Bills while he was playing for that team, that’s independent of O.J. Simpson, the human being. But it can be hard to separate things that way with childhood heroes. Which brings us to that big question we’ve been dealing with a lot since Woody Allen and Bill Cosby: What do you do with people who are really good at doing something, but are really bad people?”

LeBuis won’t be pondering big philosophical questions like that come Sunday. He will be at Highmark Stadium for the Bills game against the Houston Texans. Over the years, he figures he has seen the Bills play more than 30 times. This week is different, though. He is not going with his sons or his buddies, as he usually does. He is going with his wife, Jessica.

“I have never been to a Bills game,” she says. “And I can’t wait.”

She says this while sitting in Rivalries, a Bills bar in Portland, Maine. Jerry and Jessica come to Maine every year on vacation to spend time in the great outdoors. But last Sunday they carved out three hours for the great indoors to see the Bills whump the Washington Football Team, 43-21. At one point, giant TV screens showed Bills fans in giant hats in the style of Fred Flintstone and his Loyal Order of the Water Buffaloes.

“I think maybe we’ll be sitting with those guys,” Jessica says with a laugh.

Jerry and Jessica have seats for Sunday in Section 310. They will see Simpson’s name on the Bills Wall of Fame, should they care to look. It is always there, hiding in plain sight among the greats of Bills history.

What were the odds, in 1976, that O.J. Simpson would end up a pariah? Only Pete Rose would have taken that bet.

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