In the spring of 1993, Penn State’s O.J. McDuffie was considered one of the top receivers in the 1993 NFL Draft.
His career in Happy Valley began slowly with McDuffie catching only 16 passes in his first three years.
Then, in his final two college seasons, McDuffie caught 109 passes and returned nearly 1,100 yards as a kick and punt returner.
“Juice” was one of the most electrifying players in the nation and the Miami Dolphins added him to their already talented roster as a first-round selection.
Even better, McDuffie went from playing for Penn State’s Joe Paterno to Miami’s Don Shula.
As a pro, McDuffie accomplished something rare for a pro receiver.
O.J. McDuffie is 52 today.
A 1st round draft pick out of Penn St. McDuffie played from 93’-00’ all for Miami.
Behind Mark Clayton & Mark Duper, O.J. caught the 3rd most passes thrown by HOF’er Dan Marino.
— The Sports E-cyclopedia (@The_Ecyclopedia) December 2, 2021
In his first six seasons in the NFL, his receptions and receiving yards totals increased each year including in 1998 when McDuffie led the league with 90 catches.
He would go on to retire two years later due to a toe injury.
This is the story of O.J. McDuffie.
Talented from the Beginning
Otis James McDuffie was born on December 2, 1969, in Marion, Ohio.
— Born this Day NFL (@sconiesportsguy) December 2, 2022
“O.J.” was named by his grandmother, Mary Emma, who was a huge fan of USC running back O.J. Simpson.
When Mary Emma’s daughter, Gloria, gave birth to O.J., Mary Emma pushed to have her grandson named after Simpson.
Instead of Orenthal (Simpson’s first name), Gloria named her son Otis.
Not long into his life, it was apparent that Otis would be taking after his namesake.
McDuffie played youth football for Marion Midget Football and did it so well that pictures and clothing from his time with the program were put on display in an exhibit with the Marion County Historical Society.
Before entering middle school, McDuffie and his mother relocated after his mother got a job at a bank in Cleveland.
O.J. attended Warrensville Heights Junior High and then Gloria enrolled him in the Hawken School, a prep school in Gates Mills, Ohio.
“I wanted to give him the opportunity to make contacts that could really help him later in life,” said Gloria.
To say that McDuffie hit the ground running when he arrived at Hawken would be an understatement.
He was used as a defensive back and running back for the Hawks and made his first big impression as a sophomore.
During the 1986 season, McDuffie intercepted a pass and proceeded to return it 108 yards.
The mark is still an unofficial Ohio state prep record.
Whenever McDuffie (or “Juice” as he was called, just like Simpson) touched the ball, there was a chance he would do something big.
By the time he wrapped up his high school football career, McDuffie had set school records in rushing (3,543 yards), all-purpose yards (7,302), and touchdowns (79).
— Ohio News (@news_ofohio) August 12, 2014
In his senior year alone, McDuffie scored 136 points on the gridiron, added 3,156 all-purpose yards, and was named an All-American and an Ohio Player of the Year.
When he wasn’t racking up yards in football, McDuffie played basketball and baseball and competed in track and field for the Hawks.
He was an all-state selection in those sports as well and his number 32 was retired by the school.
McDuffie was such an immensely talented prep star that The News Herald voted him as its third-best area player of the 20th Century in 2007.
In 2015, he was added to Hawken’s Athletic Hall of Fame.
As much as McDuffie enjoyed playing football, he really loved baseball and looked for an opportunity to play both sports in college.
Penn State coach Joe Paterno visited McDuffie and agreed to let him play both sports on the condition that McDuffie waited until his sophomore year to play on the diamond.
Paterno wanted his incoming freshman to learn the Nittany Lions playbook before spending time with the PSU baseball team.
McDuffie agreed and began attending Penn State in 1988.
That year, the Nittany Lions struggled through a 5-6 season.
It was the first time the program had won only five games since Paterno’s first year as head coach in 1966.
McDuffie didn’t see a lot of playing time as a freshman and only caught four passes for 42 yards.
— Crow Hop Brand (@CrowHopBrand) September 21, 2018
As a sophomore in 1989, McDuffie played in 11 games and caught 11 passes for 164 yards and a touchdown.
He also added 278 punt return yards and another score for the 8-3-1 Nittany Lions.
McDuffie also stole enough bases during the 1990 season that he was still in the top ten of Nittany Lions single-season leaders in that category as of 2021.
A Decision to Make
During the late rounds of the 1991 MLB Amateur Draft, McDuffie was selected by the California Angels.
It marked the second time that an MLB team had shown interest in him.
When he was a high school senior, the nearby Cleveland Indians were so sure that McDuffie could be a star for them that the franchise considered drafting him after he graduated.
However, McDuffie was adamant that he would play at Penn State and the Indians didn’t pursue him.
When the Angels drafted him a few years later, McDuffie sat down with Paterno and the coach asked him a simple question.
“Can you make the major leagues?” asked Paterno.
McDuffie indicated that he wasn’t 100% sure, but Paterno stated that he was certain McDuffie could play in the NFL.
— Autograph Appearances (@cravetheauto) September 8, 2019
That was all he needed to hear and McDuffie decided to stay in Happy Valley.
McDuffie’s Choice is Validated
After redshirting during the 1990 season, McDuffie returned to play football for the Nittany Lions in 1991.
His decision to focus on football paid off when he caught 46 passes for 790 yards and six touchdowns and added 102 rushing yards, a rushing touchdown, 358 punt return yards with two return scores, and 117 kick return yards.
Penn State ended the ‘91 season with an 11-2 record and met the Tennessee Volunteers in the 1992 Fiesta Bowl.
By halftime of the contest, the Vols were up 10-7 and looked to increase their lead in the second half.
“They mocked us a lot,” said McDuffie years later. “They figured they had this one in the bag because they knew they were a talented team.”
By the time the game ended with a PSU 42-17 win, McDuffie had scored a touchdown and racked up a plethora of yards on his way to being named the game’s offensive MVP.
Then, as a senior in 1992, McDuffie proved he was a star when he had 63 receptions for 977 yards and nine scores for the 7-5 Nittany Lions.
Penn State's O.J. McDuffie takes a bath in Aug. 1992: pic.twitter.com/mbstFuc7
— SI Vault (@si_vault) December 4, 2012
Additionally, he had 133 rushing yards and 721 combined punt and kick return yards.
Paterno later acknowledged that McDuffie was probably the best athlete that he coached.
During his time in Happy Valley, “Juice” set a number of program records and had totals of 125 receptions, 1,988 receiving yards, 16 receiving touchdowns, 330 rushing yards and a rushing score, 1,059 punt return yards and three punt return touchdowns, and 488 kick return yards.
1993 NFL Draft
When McDuffie concluded his 1991 season, he could have declared for the NFL draft since he had been on the Penn State roster for four years.
However, he decided to return for his senior year.
Then, before the 1992 season, Sports Illustrated called McDuffie the “best all-around player” in college football and he backed up that claim and then some.
McDuffie’s 1992 season confirmed to NFL general managers that he was one of the best receivers and special teams players in the draft.
Several media outlets listed McDuffie, USC’s Curtis Conway, and Cal receiver Sean Dawkins as the top three pass catchers available.
The NFL Draft starts in 7⃣ days.
— Pac-12 Network (@Pac12Network) April 19, 2018
On the first day of the ‘93 draft, a number of notable players went off the board in the top ten.
They included Washington State quarterback Drew Bledsoe first overall, Garrison Hearst third overall, Conway to Chicago at number seven, offensive linemen Willie Roaf and Lincoln Kennedy at the eighth and ninth spots, followed by Jerome Bettis at the tenth spot.
Meanwhile, McDuffie was at his mother’s house asleep.
“I was so tired that I fell asleep at the beginning of the draft,” recalled McDuffie. “I knew I wasn’t going anywhere in the first few hours anyway so I fell asleep and woke up around the 18th or 19th pick.”
Dawkins became the second receiver taken when Indianapolis grabbed him with their 16th pick.
O.J. McDuffie | Penn State Wide Receiver 1988-1992 | Dolphins Wide Receiver 1993-2000 pic.twitter.com/BI7C6maHuF
— Random Penn State Athletes (@PennRandom) April 25, 2021
Finally, with the 25th overall pick in the first round, the Dolphins selected McDuffie, much to his surprise.
“I didn’t even talk to the Dolphins at the Combine,” said McDuffie. “I thought I was going to San Diego, actually. That’s what everybody told me.”
Special Teams Ace
During the offseason before McDuffie’s rookie year, coach Don Shula and the Dolphins wanted to address their offensive attack.
The franchise picked McDuffie and Virginia running back Terry Kirby in the draft and also signed free agent receivers Irving Fryar and Mark Ingram Sr. (who had won Super Bowl XXV with the New York Giants).
Due to the additions of Fryar and Ingram, McDuffie didn’t start as a rookie, but he did play in all 16 games.
As Miami went 9-7 and missed the postseason, McDuffie had 19 catches for 197 yards.
His contributions that season were primarily on special teams where he had 755 kick return yards and 317 punt return yards.
— Autograph Appearances (@cravetheauto) December 9, 2019
McDuffie also led the NFL with two punt return touchdowns.
A year later, the ‘Fins went 10-6 and beat Kansas City in the Wild Card round before getting eliminated by San Diego by a point in the Divisional round.
McDuffie started three games and totaled 37 receptions, 488 yards, and three scores, and added 995 combined kick and punt return yards.
Marino’s Go-To Guy
In 1995, McDuffie finally cracked the starting lineup as a receiver.
The Dolphins still had Fryar and added former Washington Redskin Gary Clark in the offseason.
Even with the two veterans, McDuffie showed he could be a leading man.
He started all 16 games and became quarterback Dan Marino’s favorite weapon as a slot receiver catching tough passes over the middle.
During the season, Marino connected with McDuffie 62 times for 819 yards and eight touchdowns.
Dolphin Fans…it's been a tough few weeks. That doesn't mean there is nothing to look forward to. On the Dolphins Fan Cruise you have a chance to meet a legend in O.J. Mcduffie. That's right THE O.J. Mcduffie will be one of the legends on the cruise. Book your tickets now!! pic.twitter.com/dH3thfzozg
— Dolphins Fan Cruise (@1stClassCruises) October 20, 2022
On special teams, McDuffie had 727 combined kick and punt return yards.
Miami began the season on fire with a 4-0 record then lost seven of their last 12 games.
With their playoff hopes in peril in what would be Shula’s final season as coach, the ‘Fins played the St. Louis Rams in Week 17.
McDuffie confirmed Marino’s trust in him when he caught a touchdown in the third quarter while getting blasted by three Rams.
“Catch it or drop it, you’re going to get lit up so you might as well make the catch,” McDuffie said. “For me, I focused on the football alone, then worry about everything afterwards. If Dan (Marino) was going to trust me and give me the opportunity, then I had to make that play no matter what.”
The Dolphins won the game, 41-22, and advanced to play Buffalo in the Wild Card round.
Unfortunately, Miami lost the contest, 37-22, and then said goodbye to their iconic coach.
“The shot and the chance (Shula) took on me, that will never go unappreciated,” McDuffie said. “The way he treated me as a man, that was always appreciated. When we learned he was leaving, it was a sad moment.”
McDuffie Leads the NFL
With Shula now retired, former Dallas Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson was hired to take his place in 1996.
Although Miami missed the playoffs with an 8-8 record, McDuffie continued to get better by grabbing 74 passes for 918 yards and eight touchdowns.
For the next few years, he would only see limited time on special teams, although he did have 212 punt return yards in ‘96.
The following season, McDuffie had 76 catches for 943 yards, but only scored once as the ‘Fins went 9-7 and lost in the Wild Card round to New England.
Then, in 1998, Juice was nearly unstoppable and led the NFL with 90 receptions for 1,050 yards (both career highs) and seven scores.
He became the first Dolphin to lead the NFL in receptions during a single season.
— Dolphins SPORTalk (@SPORTalkPhins) December 20, 2015
His numbers that year marked the sixth consecutive season where McDuffie’s receptions and receiving yard totals increased each year.
Although he only had 12 punt returns for 141 yards in ‘98, McDuffie became the first player in NFL history to catch 90 balls and return 10 punts during a season without fumbling the pigskin.
Miami took its 10-6 record into the postseason and defeated Buffalo before getting crushed by Denver, 38-3, in the Divisional round.
Injury Forces McDuffie to Retire
A year after posting 90 catches, McDuffie started 10 games and caught 43 passes for 516 yards and two scores in 1999 for 9-7 Miami.
Then, in 2000, McDuffie sustained a toe injury that limited him to just one start, 14 receptions, and 143 receiving yards.
His ability to push off at the line of scrimmage and run effective routes was hindered by his toe and McDuffie was forced to retire.
During his career, McDuffie had 415 receptions, 5,074 yards, and 29 receiving touchdowns.
Did You Know:
O.J. McDuffie had 415 NFL receptions for 5,074 yards, & 29 TD. He led the NFL in receptions in 1998.
The 1st round selection of the Dolphins was also drafted by the Angels in 41st round of the 1991 MLB draft. pic.twitter.com/FxjCZg3Cip
— Halo Life ⚾ (@_HaloLife) February 12, 2023
Additionally, he had 1,127 punt return yards, two punt return touchdowns, and 2,103 kick return yards.
McDuffie’s receptions total puts him at fourth all-time in Dolphins history and his receiving yardage is fifth all-time.
McDuffie became a member of the Dolphins’ Walk of Fame in 2013.
Life After Football
Because he was forced to leave the NFL due to his injury, McDuffie decided to take former Miami team doctor, Dr. John Uribe, to court.
McDuffie alleged that Dr. Uribe told him that he could play despite evidence that there was tendon damage to his toe.
In May of 2010, a Miami-Dade County court ruled in McDuffie’s favor and awarded him $11.5 million.
O.J. McDuffie awarded $11.5 million in lawsuit over toe injury http://is.gd/bVW2x #NFL
— ProFootballTalk (@ProFootballTalk) May 5, 2010
The lawyer for Dr. Uribe complained that the jurors in the trial were enticed by McDuffie and his star witness.
“We had a jury swayed by Dan Marino and the celebrity influence of the NFL,” Uribe’s lawyer, Chuck Hartz said. “This was an irrational verdict. Some juries don’t understand medicine, and this was a case complicated by the fact that jurors were starstruck.”
Months later, the judge in the case decided to overturn the verdict due to the use of improper evidence.
A subsequent trial found Uribe not guilty.
Since then, McDuffie has spent time working in radio and also started the Catch 81 Foundation which raises money for children’s charities.