The Matter of Marcus Allen
O.J. Simpson’s arrest instantly broke up the BFFs, but why?
Back in 1994, we still thought they were as close as brothers. With O.J. Simpson and Marcus Allen, you have to start there. Both were celebrated running backs at the University of Southern California who had achieved NFL superstardom. And through the power of their talent and charisma, the longtime friends had each soared to heights rarely reached by black men in the 1980s and early ’90s – in a society that still values whiteness above all else.
Allen following in Simpson’s footsteps much as someone’s kid brother might. “I could remember watching ’SC in ’67 and ’68 when Juice [O.J. Simpson] was there,” Allen told the Washington Post in 1981. “They were always my favorite team and he [Simpson] was kind of my role model.” So when Simpson was charged with the murders of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald Goldman, you just knew Allen would rush to Simpson’s defense. But what we just didn’t know at the time was that Allen and Simpson were brothers no more.
“I’ve never said this before, but Marcus was not cooperative. He was not cooperative … toward Mr. Simpson’s defense,” said attorney Carl Douglas, Johnnie Cochran’s top lieutenant on Simpson’s defense team.
The breakdown of Simpson-Allen relationship is one of the many fascinating mysteries in O.J.: Made in America. Ezra Edelman’s film on Simpson’s life before his acquittal on double-murder charges in 1995 through his current incarceration in Nevada on a robbery conviction in 2008 puts a sharp focus on the complex role race played in the rise and fall of an American icon. It also reintroduces the viewer to Allen’s close relationship with Simpson. Allen did not participate in the film and, through a representative, declined to be interviewed for this story.
“This is my Johnnie wall.”
The pictures along a wall in Carl Douglas’ large Beverly Hills, California, office transport the viewer to a different time – back to the “Trial of the Century.” As Douglas explains the story behind each photo, his admiration for his colleagues on what was nicknamed “The Dream Team” resonates with every word, but he speaks reverently about Cochran. Douglas’ somber expression and proud tone reveal his admiration for his deceased friend, who sat first chair and devised the strategy that resulted in Simpson’s acquittal.
As the team’s coordinating attorney, one of Douglas’ duties was vetting potential witnesses for the defense. Douglas pored over thousands of documents in the run-up to the more than eight-month trial. And it was Douglas who reviewed Allen’s interview with the Los Angeles Police Department and immediately realized that Allen would not be offering any help.
“It is important that I always respect the attorney confidences of my relationship with Mr. Simpson, because I know Mr. Simpson believes once a client always a client, so I want to be careful not to disclose things that I learned only through that relationship that are not otherwise public,” Douglas said. “But I can say I was a fan of Marcus Allen athletically and reputationwise before the trial. I thought he was a positive role model for black youth in Los Angeles. I admired how intelligent and how articulate he appeared to be. So I was disappointed after reading his police interview. I expected more from a good friend than I saw.
“Let me put it this way: If I’m trying to help Mr. Simpson win, there would be no reason for me to want to call Marcus.”
Talk to people in the USC community, and many will tell you that Simpson was left with only his closest friends and family after the infamous low-speed white Bronco chase that ultimately resulted in Simpson’s arrest for double homicide. And, they’ll tell you, Allen was not one of them. Yes, Allen had his own brand to protect and Simpson’s first trial generated more heat than any previously in the history of the American criminal justice system. But anyone who tries to explain Allen’s behavior by saying that a lot of people broke ties with Simpson may not understand how close Simpson and Allen were.
Allen relied on Simpson’s counsel. They shared an agent. Allen got married at Simpson’s home. Allen and Simpson ran the streets together. In ‘hood vernacular, Allen and Simpson were boys.
“He was a mini O.J. Marcus was like ‘Mini-Me,’ ” Douglas said, referring to the fictional character from the Austin Powers movies. “That was always my perception. That was my belief, and it was fostered in the USC community. It was the unspoken comparison. They were both articulate. They were both running backs. They were both the focus of the offense. They became native sons in Los Angeles.”
Steve Bisheff agrees with Douglas’ assessment – and no one knows more about USC football than Bisheff.
A longtime journalist in Southern California, Bisheff has covered the Trojans since the 1960s and is a member of the USC athletics hall of fame. An author of two books on USC’s football program, Bishop observed the Simpson-Allen relationship evolve through the years. Here’s all you need to know: Batman and Robin.
From his days as a prep sports standout in San Diego, “Marcus idolized O.J., and O.J. basically adopted him as his buddy,” Bisheff said. “They were fellow USC tailbacks … and sort of the guys about town for a long time. They were the bachelors out on the town together, having a great time. They both really liked each other. They were close friends. Everybody knew that.”
To understand the Simpson-Allen bond and how the men were able to expand on their celebrity long after they retired from the NFL, you first have to appreciate the importance of USC football in Los Angeles. One of the nation’s most prominent college football programs, the team is among the city’s most prized institutions. USC is commonly referred to as “Tailback U” because four of its six Heisman Trophy winners – including Simpson and Allen – were running backs. (Reggie Bush, also a running back, was stripped of the 2005 trophy.)
Despite playing only two seasons at USC after transferring from a community college, Simpson ranks fifth on the school’s all-time rushing list. Allen is second. USC retired Simpson’s No. 32 jersey. Allen’s No. 33 is no longer available to players, either. Simpson and Allen were champions: both were on USC national title teams. Next to their names, every box is checked for what’s needed to reach sports legend status in a town in which achieving fame is the ultimate goal. And although their playing styles were different, both played with uncommon flair.
“Marcus was a better all-around football player. Marcus could have been great at anything,” Bisheff said. “In high school, he was a quarterback and a safety. I saw him play, and especially as a safety, he could have been [great]. He was also a great pass catcher. O.J. wasn’t ever really a great pass catcher.
“But what O.J. was … he was a better pure running back. O.J. had far more speed than Marcus. O.J. was a legitimate world-class sprinter. They were both great inside the tackles, but O.J. was the better breakaway runner. O.J. was faster. They were both great runners and both really durable. When you talk about the history of modern USC football, they’re both among the top five football players ever at ‘SC.”
Allen was a younger version of Simpson. Thirteen years Simpson’s junior, Allen watched his mentor deftly navigate corporate America en route to achieving unprecedented social status. The documentary chronicles how Simpson parlayed his success on the field to become roundly embraced by the most powerful in society off the field. From boardrooms to private golf clubs, Simpson was one of their boys.
All professional athletes hope to have successful post-playing careers. For black players, Simpson provided the model. In his second act, Simpson was a bankable corporate pitchman. Who could forget Simpson running through the airport in that Hertz commercial? Simpson also was an actor and a television analyst.
It’s reasonable to assume that his “little brother” learned a little something from him. After Allen’s playing days ended, he, too, remained on the A-list. Allen parlayed his success as an NFL MVP, Super Bowl winner, Super Bowl MVP and NFL comeback player of the year – distinctions Simpson didn’t earn – to become a television analyst. He has been featured in national advertising campaigns for Nissan and Dr Pepper. And just like with Simpson, Allen is a regular at the biggest celebrity golf events. It was Simpson, though, who showed Allen the secret handshake.
“Marcus was the new O.J.,” Douglas said. “So for him to suggest the sort of distancing and his lack of personal involvement in the O.J. story was disappointing.”
But did being the new O.J. mean something completely different in the life of these two men? Because here’s what also comes through clearly in Edelman’s film: the long-running rumors that Nicole Brown Simpson and Allen had an affair, which, at some point, Simpson learned about.
The rumors were first raised publicly in the 1994 book Nicole Brown Simpson: The Private Diary of a Life Interrupted written by Faye Resnick, a friend of Nicole Brown Simpson. In the movie, Edelman includes footage of Allen in a deposition denying that he had a romantic relationship with Nicole Brown Simpson. On camera, however, people close to Simpson leave no doubt that they believe something occurred between Simpson’s ex-wife and his protégé. What’s most unsettling is that the viewer is left to wonder whether Nicole Brown Simpson’s possible involvement with Allen may have contributed to her death.
“Do we all believe that right toward the very end when they had split up after Mother’s Day that Nicole was not seeing Marcus again?” Mike Gilber, who represented both Simpson and Allen, asks in the film. “I absolutely believe that she was. And O.J. told Nicole, ‘You ever see Marcus again, I will kill you.’ ”
Much of what Edelman presents in O.J.: Made in America leads viewers to an uncomfortable place, and the Simpson-Allen thread seen also impossible to digest. But all we know for sure is that Allen disappeared from Simpson’s life and whatever really occurred between them is part of a mystery that likely will never be solved.