Chasing a Legend Named Dad : Army and Navy's Jason Simpson Is Making O.J. Proud

Times Staff Writer

The first time Jason Simpson saw his father O.J. play football, he was surprised how bad he was. And that's bad, as in not good.

"What's funny is that I only saw my father play once," said Jason, 16. "He was with the 49ers and he didn't get to play until the third quarter. He fumbled the ball. From then on, I thought he was a bad football player. Everyone was saying how great he was. I just thought they were saying it to make me feel good."

Last year, when Jason began to play organized football, he started watching films of his dad's glory years with the Buffalo Bills rather than his final days with the 49ers. The films had always been around the Simpson house in Brentwood, but when Jason became a starting halfback for the Army and Navy Academy in Carlsbad, his interest in anything connected with football increased.

"I couldn't believe that all that time I thought he was bad and he was really that good," Jason said. "I saw some plays that I couldn't believe. I don't really think of him as a football player. He doesn't look like he could run that fast."

The first time O.J. saw Jason play organized football for Army and Navy, he was surprised how good he was. Actually, he was surprised Jason had decided to play for the team.

"Sports was something Jason never really gravitated to and I never pushed him," O.J. said. "His interest was more into rock music and entertainment and he's a pretty good artist. I was pleasantly surprised when he called to say he went out for football."

And O.J. was so proud that Jason returned a kickoff 80 yards for a touchdown that he told millions of people about it during his next telecast as a network sports broadcaster.

It came on a Sunday Night Football Game of the Week. Jason and his friends were watching television when a friend yelled out: "Jason, did you hear what your dad said on TV?"

Said Jason: "I heard a lot after that. I didn't know news traveled so fast. It made me feel pretty good."

But it also was pretty strange having your father compliment you in front of TV viewers, but not to your face.

"He won't say it to you, but he does it in his way," Jason said. "If I do something to make him proud, he'll have his nod. I'll hear about what he thought about it when he's talking to someone else. I haven't really figured it out."

What about it, O.J.?

"I don't want him to get the big head," Simpson said. "I want him to know I'm proud of him, but also want him to know there is another game next week. I don't want to go overboard. It's like with me and Marcus (Allen). I'll talk to Marcus one way, and to others about Marcus another way."

Yet, when O.J. sits in the bleachers at the quaint football field across the street from the Army and Navy campus, he admits he has a sense of pride.

"I always had a lot of pride in Jason," O.J. said. "I always got compliments on how well he handles himself. Watching him on the field is a different kind of pride. You could see that when he got the ball, the other team had prepared all week to stop him. And that he picked his teammates up."

There was one time when O.J. said his emotions got the best of him. That was when he and Allen went to see Jason compete in the Mountain-Desert league track championships last spring.

"It was hard for me to hold back," O.J. said. "I wasn't hiding too much of my pride. Jason won the 100, the 200 and anchored the 400 (meters) . And then in the mile relay, he went from being 11 yards back to 11 yards in front. Jason really did a hell of a job."

How did Jason end up at an all-boys military school where the majority of the students live on campus and all the students wear uniforms?

As a parent, O.J. thought it was time to change his game plan two summers ago.

During the summer between Jason's freshman and sophomore years in high school, O.J. decided to introduce discipline into Jason's life. Studies would be added to the playbook. And if athletics--particularly football--also became a part of Jason's life, all the better.

"Despite what people might think," O.J. said, "West L.A. is not the easiest place to raise a kid. And Jason is well liked, which means he has more distractions. I felt it was time for him to learn the merit system. I wanted to get him in an environment where school was the focal point. Jason needs that structure."

And so it was that Jason Simpson came to become first a student and later an athlete.

"I was kind of hesitant because it was a military school," Jason said. "After all, I grew up in Los Angeles. When you think of a military schools, you think of guns."

And restrictions which might cramp one's style.

"School and athletics might have taken a back seat to the attention he (Jason) was getting from the female gender," said April Frank, the middle school athletic coordinator at Crossroads private school in Santa Monica, where Jason went for three years before switching to Army and Navy last fall. "I think Jason definitely needed more discipline. We always felt that if he could get it, he would go far in life. He just relied on natural ability and wasn't willing to work. We always felt if he would put in the effort, he would really excel."

Jason has done quite well, but only after enduring a rough start. Being sent to boarding school can be a harrowing and lonely experience, and it can be especially tough at the start.

"The first two weeks of school were like murder," Jason said. "I was so homesick. New cadets are drilled and don't get to go home for a month. You want to call home, but you don't want to call too much because you'll get more homesick."

When a son is sent off to boarding school, it's natural for him to second-guess himself as to the type of son he was. After all, why did his dad want to get rid of him?

"I couldn't say I was the best son to have," said Jason, who has lived with his father since sixth grade. O.J., who has since remarried, was divorced when Jason was in fourth grade and Jason lived with his mother for two years. "I was resisting a little. Just like any teen-ager. School does discipline you. There are all kinds of limitations and restrictions. That was the main thing he (O.J.) saw. The discipline. It does have a lot of discipline."

For $10,000 a year, cadets who live on campus get to rise at 5:30 a.m. to do their chores. The flag is raised at 6:25. Breakfast is at 6:30. Classes are held from 7:20 untill noon. Lunch. Tutoring is available in the early afternoon. Athletics are from 3 to 5, followed by dinner. From 7 to 9, the students are confined to their quarters for study time. Lights out at 10. And lest we forget the marching drills with rifles every Wednesday.

The campus also is filled with teen-agers wearing wetsuits and carrying surfboards.

"It's a military school in California on the beach," Jason said. "Some of these guys are surfer guys in uniform. I don't even really think of it was a military school."

O.J. has never pushed his son to play football.

But . . .

"The fact that it (Army and Navy Academy) had a football team was another one of the reasons he (O.J.) liked the school," said Jason, who had played some baseball and basketball, but had rejected playing organized football until last year. Before switching schools, Jason's only opportunity to play football was in Pop Warner leagues because Crossroads does not field a team.

"It (football) used to be just another sport," Jason said. "Before I started playing it, I thought about what it would be like if I did do it. If I played, I would have to be pretty good. Everyone would say, 'That's O.J. Simpson's son. He should have done that better.' "

Jason has done just fine.

"They worked me so much that I was pretty good last year," Jason said. "If I hadn't been, I would have gotten a lot of flak."

As a junior, Jason is the starting halfback, leading rusher and kick returner for Army and Navy, which competes in the Mountain-Desert 1-A conference against schools such as Calipatria, Holtville, Mountain Empire and Coronado.

Despite being hindered in one game with a hip pointer and being signaled out by opposing defenses, Jason has gained 167 yards on 33 carries for a 5.1 average in three games. He also returned a kickoff 70 yards for a touchdown in the season opener against Sherman.

And last season was the first time Jason played organized football. He picked a good place to do it because everyone who wants to play football at Army and Navy makes the team.

That's one reason why Jason started as a sophomore. In contrast, when O.J. was a sophomore at Galileo High in San Francisco, he wasn't even on the varsity football team.

"When Jason arrived," said Coach Steve Simmons, "you think, 'It's Simpson's kid.' Bells are bound to go off. You know he has the genes, but let's see what he can do when he steps on the field. The poor kid is living with a living legend."

Before starting at Army and Navy, Jason said he spent a lot of time, "thinking about how big all these guys would be. And what if I got hurt?"

The only advice about football that his father has ever given him is, "to have fun."

"Well, I've had fun," said Jason, who wears No. 31 because there was no 32, which was his father's number.

Jason loves zig-zagging through the opposition, cutting to the outside and out-running defenders to the end zone. No statistics were kept last year, but it didn't take long before Jason gained attention for his runs as well as for his last name.

"You see a lot of his father in him," said John Maffucci, Army and Navy Academy athletic director. "He plants his right foot just like his father did."

And what does O.J. think about Jason's athletic future?

"There is something about earning a scholarship that is good for you," O.J. said. "Not that Jason needs a scholarship . . . I may face a dilemma. Do I need to get him his senior year where he'll be tested more athletically? Do I take him out of this school where he's done much better academically? I say, no. But I may have this dilemma when he is about to enter his senior year. We'll see how it goes."

For now, Jason still is learning the game.

"He's coming into his own," Simmons said. "Jason has raw talent. Now, he's a sprinter with a football.

"Jason is very low key. Sometimes too much so. He'll tend to dog it if you're not on him. That's because basically he knows he can outrun anyone on the field. I don't know how good he'll be. He'll be as good as Jason wants to be."

Off the field, Jason also has impressed Simmons.

"Jason is a super kid," said Simmons, who was Jason's English teacher last year. "He really has got his head planted on his shoulders . . . Basically, I think his father was looking for some direction for Jason."

He appears to have received it.

"Now, I've learned to enjoy math and English," Jason said. "I learned to like to study. Teachers and friends have really helped me. I never used to like to study and could not see any fun in it. Up until last year, I did not want to grow up."

"Let me check with Jason to see if he wants to do an interview," Maffucci said. "Last year, at one of our games, he told a TV reporter he wasn't Jason Simpson and he pointed to another black kid."

That was last year. This year he's talking.

"Last year, I told a reporter at a game that I really didn't feel like being interviewed," Jason said. "I didn't think it was worth it. And why couldn't they come up and say he's a good player. Not, he's O.J.'s son."

Jason has more self-confidence today.

During a recent interview, Jason spoke:

On being shy: "I'm shy because all my dad's friends were 6-4, 290 pounds."

Listening to his dad broadcast games on TV: "I look at him like a teacher looking a pupil. He would say, how'd I do. I'd listen carefully and tell him he has to pronounce such and such in a different way. Or I'd tell him that he said someone went left when they went right. I feel like my sister, my step-mother and me are his best critics. We all kind of give him tips."

It was 5:30, a half-hour before O.J. would be back on the air filling in on the San Diego-Seattle Monday Night Game of the Week. Jason said he had a Scholastic Aptitude Test preparatory class from 6 p.m. to 10, but he would try to sneak away awhile to watch his father.

What do Jason and O.J. spend most of their time talking about? "We talk about girls. I'm serious. That's mostly it. He tells me a lot about when he was younger. About the first time he kissed someone. He didn't want to breathe through his mouth. But he had a cold and almost fainted . . . We also talk about flirting. He's always got little remarks. We're almost like two kids out there."

In a more serious vein, Jason and his dad talk a lot about Jason's education and his future.

On his future: "It has always been one thing. I always wanted to have a real great restaurant. Ever since I was little, I loved cooking. Everyone on my mom's side cooked and it rubbed off on me. And living in L.A., you get to taste some real good food."

Omelets and pasta are Jason's favorite meals to prepare. "Pasta is the most fun to make," he said. "I really love making fettuccine Alfredo."

Said O.J.: "He must have gotten it from my father, who was a great cook. Jason will get in the kitchen and start inventing stuff. All of a sudden, there is a great smell. Cooking is something he is very, very good at."

Does he want to play college football? "A little bit. I love the game a lot. Sometimes I go, no. But then I see my dad's friend, Marcus Allen. I would love to be in his position. I'm taking it one day at a time. And I'm having fun playing."

What will O.J. have to say about this article? "He's going to read it, and he'll start correcting places where I didn't use the right word or say something properly. He'll be all proud and will talk to his friends about it. Later on, he'll say something to me. Hopefully, I'll make him proud."

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