Skip to main content

Superstars: Locals remember O.J. and Hulk’s Lou Ferrigno

April 19, 2024
By Garland Pollard

There was a week in February of 1975 that the late Orenthal James Simpson was king of Rotonda and Cape Haze. The event was O.J.’s victory the ABC Superstars competition, which aired Sunday, Feb. 23, 1975 across the ABC Television Network. 

Twenty-five million Americans tuned into the afternoon program, which featured top sports celebrities competing in events such as swimming, bowling, track and field, tennis and rowing. And it all happened in the not-yet-completely built development, Rotonda West. While there were only three networks back then, the audience was large, and drew more than night-time NFL games today. 

When O.J. Simpson died April 10 in Las Vegas, the discussion was of course about his life, his career and the murder trial that shocked a nation. But a forgotten part of the O.J. career was his time here in Cape Haze, when he competed at and won the 1975 Superstars competition in Rotonda at age 26, beating the young soccer star, and seminary student, Kyle Rote Jr., who had won the Superstars the year before. While Rote would come back and win the two consecutive years after, O.J. never returned to Rotonda.

The success O.J. found here propelled him into a new category of fame; it was just after Superstars that he became the spokesman for Hertz, with the slogan, “Superstar in rent-a-car.”

Locals who were at the events remember the whole scene well, O.J. and all. 

Englewood native Ernie Cave was a 20-year-old volunteer with the Englewood Volunteer Fire Department, and is listed on the 1975 program as part of the first aid team, led by Jan White. Cave said that the spectacle of the national television program dropping into a rural Florida town was pretty exciting. The 1975 athletes included John Havlicek, Franco Harris and Jack Ham. 

“We were ambassadors standing by,” Cave said. “Probably more for the crowd than the athletes.”

The athletes were not the only draws. For 1975, David Carradine, John Davidson, George Plimpton, Tim Conway, Beau Bridges and Bill Cosby were in attendance. 

There was not a lot to do inside, and the weather was cold.

“I remember it all to have been all outside, and in tents,” said Cave, who volunteered fresh out of EMT school.

There was no shopping, no nothing there for the guests. The food came from Legion Post 113, Coast Guard Auxiliary 89 and the Lion’s Club, as well as other local groups. The current track, to the left of the Rotonda VFW, is the remnant of the fields used by Superstars. To build the track and field events, organizers used old tires and concrete culverts. The stands were even borrowed. Many attendees stayed in Venice or Punta Gorda. Holding court was The Tonight Show’s Ed McMahon, who hosted events at his house on Golfview, in the new Oakland Hills sector. Developers also gave out lots to the athletes.

 From the 1975 program at the Boca Beacon office, Franco Harris bowling at Port Charlotte Bowlerama.

“As I recall, there were only two spokes of a wheel basically occupied,” Cave said.

The whole event did not seem that much of a competition. “It was a draw to see the personalities,” said Cave.

Brian Hudson, who grew up in Boca Grande with his father at Hudson’s Grocery, does not have memories of O.J. at the specific 1975 Superstars, but does have many memories of the event in general, and the celebrities there. He attended them with his brother Paul.

“My dad bought the grocery store in 1974 and we moved down shortly after,” Hudson said. “I attended both the ‘76 and ‘77 Mens’ Superstars. My favorite memories were seeing the Incredible Hulk, Lou Ferrigno and Lynn Swann and having easy access to all the professionals and celebrities as a kid.”

Hudson said that in 1976, there was a women’s version of the Superstars.

“As a middle school boy that really caught my interest,” said Hudson. “I remember making handmade signs to root on Hawaiian surfer Laura Ching, and diver Mikki King.

The Superstars were an initial hit in their first two years, but they exploded in their third year, with the addition of O.J. Apparently, ABC’s Don Ohlmeyer asked, “How would it be if O.J. Simpson and John Havlicek were added to the list next year?”

Well, that’s exactly what happened. O.J. was also an announcer at The Superstars, too, so he had a dual role.

Local Jay Spurgeon attended many of the Superstars events. He had a close-up view, as his father, with the local telephone company, had to set up the audio. It was still an era of microwaves and cables, though the show aired just a week after it was recorded. Spurgeon missed the 1975 event the year that O.J. won, but was there for other years, including visits from George Foreman and Johnny Bench. It was also a great real estate promotion.

“All received a lot,” Spurgeon said. 

The hub of the events was the Kendall Square restaurant, now Cape Haze Tavern, at the circle in Rotonda. “That was about the only thing there,” Spurgeon said. 

Andy Rock, retired from the Englewood Fire District, remarked on the setup. Dirt parking was just off Cape Haze Drive past where the Publix is now located.

“A friend of mine worked at the Shell gas station on Dearborn Street, and they had a Dodge Power Wagon four-wheel-drive wrecker,” said Rock. “Rotonda hired them to come out to the area and pull out anyone that got stuck trying to park. The area had very little development at the time and there was quite a bit of construction going on.”

Rock had to stand by for some of the other entertainment, dreamed up by the organizers. Someone came up with jet-propelled roller skates, and the Englewood Fire Department was needed in case of accidents.

“They asked us to standby in case of any issues,” said Rock. “The skates didn’t work very well, and it was pretty much a flop.”

While athletes were there as entertainment, they were competitive. All of them. Rock recalled that athletes all went up to Cyro’s Bowling Alley in Venice to practice before the competition. “They started bowling a few lanes over from where we were,” said Rock. “We ended up watching them more than bowling, but the cool thing about it was Johnny Bench was there, and on a couple of occasions when he bowled, he threw the ball so hard he shattered a few bowling pins.”

More: About the ABC Sports The SuperStars program.