The University of Southern California has a rich history in track and field that includes Louis Zamperini, the NCAA champion in the mile run in 1938 and 1939. America knows Lou better as the hero of “Unbroken,” Laura Hillebrand’s non-fiction account of Zamperini’s survival at sea and his horrendous treatment as a prisoner of Japan in World War II.
Southern Cal’s track history also includes two first places for Orenthal James Simpson in the NCAA’s 440-yard relay. O.J. ran the third leg with Earl McCullouch, Fred Kuller and anchor Lennox Miller in both 1967 and 1968.
The 1967 victory in Provo, Utah, was the most memorable: The four Trojans sprinted the quarter-mile in 38.6 seconds, breaking the world record by a full second.
“O.J. had transferred in from junior college for the second semester and joined the track team,’’ Chuck Schulz said. “He worked out with the football team some, too, but he was a full-time member of our track team. He fit right in with his friendly personality.
“He was outstanding running the curve and giving the baton to Lennox Miller. And Lennox — he ran for Jamaica in the ’68 Olympics and was the silver medalist at 100 meters.’’
Schulz was a distance runner in Evanston, Ill., and was recruited to join Southern Cal’s track and field powerhouse. He was with the Trojans from 1965 to 1968, and was co-captain as a senior with McCullouch, a great hurdler and future NFL receiver.
Schulz became Dr. S. Charles Schulz, a psychiatrist. He spent 16 years as a professor in the psychiatry department at the University of Minnesota, and was a leader in schizophrenia research.
Schulz was running for the Trojans in Provo when O.J. — the new guy from City College of San Francisco — and his mates took down the world record in blistering fashion. USC also was the national champion in both 1967 and 1968.
What must be understood is that track and field still was receiving considerable attention on the American sports scene in the late 1960s. We hadn’t seen Olga Korbut or Nadia Comaneci yet, and much of the notoriety of the Summer Olympics was as the world’s greatest track meet.
The mecca for track and field was California. Southern Cal and UCLA were gathering places for Olympians.
The annual dual meet started in 1934 and UCLA did not get a victory until 1966, in Schulz’s sophomore year.
“The dual would draw 15- or 20,000 people to the Coliseum, and was televised in L.A.,’’ Schulz said. “It was a huge deal.’’
Mal Florence became one of that area’s sportswriting legends for his coverage of track and field. I ran across a piece that Florence wrote on the 20th anniversary of the world-record relay on June 17, 1987.
Florence’s lead read: “O.J. Simpson is renowned for his Heisman Trophy-winning season at USC, his record-breaking career in pro football and for hurdling suitcases in television commercials, but Simpson recalls he never had more fun than as a member of USC’s track team in 1967.’’
O.J. set this scene in Provo for Florence in the retrospective piece:
“I had never seen snow,’’ Simpson said. “I remember some of us going into the mountains to see snow. And I remember Earl complaining about other races he had to run and how cold it was.’’
Miller, the anchor, said: “Most of the job was done before I got the baton. Earl made up the stagger, Fred ran a heck of a leg and O.J. wiped out everyone who was left. No one was even close to me when I got the baton.’’
It’s nearly 50 years later, and Chuck Schulz still recalls that world-record relay as perhaps the most exciting sports event he has seen. He also remembers O.J. fondly as a teammate and as a proud USC guy, and still can’t fathom the horror that became Simpson’s life.
“O.J. would go to a movie, and then in the locker room the next day, he would act out a scene from one of the characters,’’ Schulz said. “I don’t think he was looking ahead to an acting career; he was just having a good time, entertaining everyone.’’
Simpson has returned to the country’s consciousness over the past 10 days due to ESPN’s blockbuster, five-part documentary, “O.J.: Made in America.’’
Schulz said he watched the first two-hour episode, which included Simpson’s time at USC, but didn’t want to relive the rest of it.
“In addition to psychiatry, I also studied neurology,’’ Schulz said. “And when I see film of him getting hit and his helmet flying off, I wonder about concussions. After all of it occurred, the murders, the trial, everything, I wrote O.J. a letter with some questions about those hits, but he didn’t respond.
“The last time I had a real talk with him was ’77 or so, when we both were at a USC-UCLA dual meet. With all his fame, he still seemed like the same good guy I knew as a teammate.’’
Fame and infamy are two different things, and much of America has relived a full 10 hours of the later on O.J. this month.