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Orenthal James Simpson's uniquely American tragedy can be plotted by his journey through three decades of newspaper headlines.

He appeared first on the sports pages, an invincible running back with no chinks in the armor of personality common to today's athletes. He moved gracefully to the features pages: an affable commercial spokesman and actor, a knowledgeable sports commentator.But the journey has veered off the road of celebrity into a drama as wrenching as Othello. This week the headlines were filled with an unbelievable turn to gore and death. To a world who knew and admired him, the notion of an O.J. who could cover himself in the blood of the woman he loved was ana-thema.

"To me, this is the equivalent of the pope showing an act of violence," said Ron Yary, a teammate of Simpson's at the University of Southern California. "If O.J. could do something like this, I second-guess human behavior."

Since the early hours of Monday, when his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson was found, throat slashed, a battered body of a young acquaintence nearby, friend after friend stood to testify about an O.J. who was warm and outgoing to friends and strangers, a man devoid of anger.

But the subsequent media spotlight revealed a darker side, a man obsessed with his companion and wife of 17 years, a man whose unrelenting jealousy burst into ugly fits of noise and violence.

How could things go so wrong for a man whose life had been a signpost for success with grace?

A close friend of the family believes the violence turned lethal after Nicole told O.J. any hopes of reconciliation were over.

"She totally broke it off with him three weeks ago," said the friend who spoke on condition of anonymity. "He was telling her girlfriends and her that if he ever caught her with anyone he would kill her."

With hindsight, the experts now offer explanations for what would have been unthinkable a week ago.

O.J. and Nicole, they said, were caught in a web of uncontrolled jealousy and passion that trapped abuser with abused. He was a man whose violence flared with his love; she was a woman who couldn't leave despite the threats and beatings.

The "nice guy" description echoes across the years of O.J.'s life, made even more compelling by his beginnings: a poor child, born with rickets, raised in a single-parent home in a tough San Francisco neighborhood.

Simpson has given credit to his mother, Eunice, a nurse and a churchgoer known in the neighborhood for her strong, guiding hand.

Others cite the determination of the young boy who devoted himself to football to escape the crime and gangs pushing into the edges of his life.

"He made up his mind that he just was going to pull himself above that," said former high school coach Jack McCaffrey. "He was streetwise in the sense that he knew if he elected to go down and act like the rest of the idiots . . . he wasn't going to get anywhere."

By his final high school years, Simpson knew where he wanted to go.

At the University of Southern California, Simpson won the Heis-man Trophy in 1968.

He went on to the Buffalo Bills, setting a National Football League record 2,003 yards rushing in 1973. And he crossed the tough barrier of race to cash in on his skills.

His role as spokesman for Hertz - the famous commercial of him dashing through airport aisles - has become a historical artifact. He was a widely respected football commentator and also managed to parlay his fame into an acting career, almost exclusively playing good guys.

"For 25 years, in all kinds of situations as you can imagine, in celebrating situations, in sorrowful situations, in airplanes, in bars, I have never, ever, not seen him treat people with respect, with dignity and really be exactly what everybody perceives him to be," said Bob Chandler, a teammate of Simp-son's at Southern Cal and the Buffalo Bills.

But another Simpson apparently existed outside the public's perception.

An 11-year marriage to Marguerite Whitley, marked by various separations, came to an end in 1979. An attorney for the first Mrs. Simpson will only say that abuse was not raised as an issue in the formal divorce proceedings.

By 1977 Simpson had a new love. He met a waitress, Nicole Brown, a vivacious blonde and former homecoming princess who had just turned 18. Within a year, they were living together. O.J. became very possessive.

The marriage became more than confining. Police began to make pilgrimages to the gated estate in the posh Brentwood section of Los Angeles, answering complaints of domestic battles.

The worst came three hours into 1989. According to a police report, officers responding to a 911 call saw a hysterical and badly bruised Nicole Simpson run from a hiding spot in the bushes, wearing only a bra and sweatpants smeared with mud.

"He's going to kill me," she yelled over and over as she clung to one of the officers.

At one point, the officer asked if Simpson had a gun. "He's got lots of guns," she replied.

Simpson appeared outside, wearing only a bathrobe. "I don't want that woman sleeping in my bed anymore," he yelled at the squad car where Nicole was sitting. "I got two women, and I don't want that woman in my bed anymore."

When Simpson was told he faced arrest, he turned his fury on the officers.

"The police have been out here eight times before and now you're going to arrest me for this?" he demanded. "This is a family matter. Why do you want to make a big deal of it? We can handle it."

Simpson stormed into the mansion. A short time later he left in a blue Bentley. He later pleaded no contest to a charge of wife beating.

He agreed to pay $400 in fines and do 120 hours of volunteer work. Instead he did 175 hours, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for a camp for children with cancer. He underwent coun-sel-ing.

Friends continued to describe the two as a loving couple, struggling to raise their children, to stay together even after their divorce.

"I was with O.J. and Nicole together a couple of times last fall, and extensively at the Super Bowl at Atlanta," sportscaster Jim Lampley said. "What I saw was quite inspiring, a couple of parents with a lot of experience under their belts, really wanted to put that family back together."

Talk of reconciliation continued, even the day before her death. Simpson and Nicole attended a dance recital for their 9-year-old daughter, Sydney. But the family friend said appearances were not what they seemed.

A day later Nicole was dead. A friend, Ronald Goldman, was dead. And by the end of the week, O.J., the smiling Good Guy, was under arrest.