Graham: O.J. Simpson freeway chase a ride into infamy

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

It was a Friday night in June 1994 when the world stopped to watch a white Ford Bronco barrel down a Los Angeles freeway.

What I remember about that night is what everyone else remembers: standing in my living room in stunned silence and gawking at the TV as O.J. Simpson, accused of murdering his ex-wife, fled from police down L.A.’s 405 freeway while scores of onlookers cheered from overpasses and the side of the road.

The other details of that day escape me. I was either at Cedar Point with friends or watching “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective,” which came out on VHS earlier that week. Either way, this was bigger.

There are a handful of world events that you will always remember precisely where you were when they happened — Michael Jackson’s death. Princess Diana’s death. The morning of 9/11, of course. And the details of the O.J. Simpson freeway chase and the O.J. Simpson verdict hold permanent real estate inside the vaults of our memories.

The O.J. Simpson case is back in front of us, thanks to Ryan Murphy’s “The People V. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” which kicks off Tuesday on FX. It’s the showy, star-packed pop spectacle the Hollywood-ready “Trial of the Century” was always made to be, and Murphy’s retelling makes for an engrossing watch, even though you already know the outcome. I’ve seen the first six episodes and I’m hooked.

Watching the show — the freeway chase is the entire second episode — brings back memories of that time.

I was 16 when A.C. Cowlings fired up that Bronco with O.J. in the back seat and hit the highway. To me, O.J. was the smiling ex-football star who was a staple of the “Naked Gun” movies and who dashed through airports in Hertz rental car commercials. For my parents, he was the Heisman Trophy winner and NFL superstar who graduated to a successful post-football career. To kids today, O.J. Simpson is hardly even a person, just a bizarre symbol of fallen celebrity whose trial is a sort-of prequel to “Keeping Up with the Kardashians.”

But the O.J. trial is more than just an antecedent to our current KWO, or Kardashian World Order. Its wall-to-wall coverage dominated the news cycle for a year and a half, and helped birth the era of reality TV. As a true crime drama that enveloped a nation, it was “Making a Murderer” back when Steven Avery was still serving time for one crime he didn’t commit. And the simmering racial underpinnings and mistrust of police that were bedrocks of the O.J. Simpson case are all too familiar today. .

The O.J. Trial unfolded during the course of my junior year in high school. Back then, the school’s walls were like a fortress. Since classrooms weren’t yet equipped with televisions and we didn’t have smart phones in our pockets, the only way we’d hear what was happening in the outside world was through a voice over the school’s public address system. .

But on the day of the verdict, televisions were wheeled into our classrooms, on those big carts with a strap over the top in case someone got the bright idea to make off with the science department’s TV. Physics class was halted when the verdict was read, and even in my classroom, reaction was split along racial lines. It was a microcosm of what occurred across the country.

And it all started with the freeway chase. It was as surreal a moment as has ever been beamed into our homes and is unlike anything that will likely ever happen again.

It wasn’t just O.J. and A.C. in that Bronco, it was all of us. And after that ride, there was no turning back.