Rosey Grier has never actually made history, he has just kind of
surrounded it. He's in an NFL Championship Game, he's wrestling
with Sirhan Sirhan, he's singing with Marlo Thomas, campaigning
for Jimmy Carter, praying with O.J. Simpson. He stars in the movie
The Thing with Two Heads and writes a book on needlepoint. He
corresponds with Jackie Kennedy; she calls him her best friend. He
preaches in the streets. Shows up in Vietnam with Bob Hope.
Campaigns for George Bush. Writes a novel. Beats out Yaphet Kotto
for a part in the television series Daniel Boone and is a regular
on Kojak. He consults with the mayor of Los Angeles and sings in
Carnegie Hall. Works with gang members in the ghettos but rises in
defense of convicted felon Michael Milken, that icon of 1980s
greed. He leads the Simpson defense team in prayer and then goes
on Larry King, Today and Tom Snyder -- the same week he appears
in a commercial for the new TV show Extreme during the Super
A real-life Zelig, to say the least, surfing the changing
zeitgeist, staying afloat in every cultural wave. Who could play
roles, however peripheral, in two of the most sensational crimes
of our century -- the murders of Robert F. Kennedy in 1968 and
Nicole Brown Simpson in 1994 -- and, in between, sandwich a career
that included highly inconsistent tours of politics, religion and
show business? The son of a Georgia peanut farmer who grew up to
be a defensive lineman? Not even Forrest Gump was as accidental a
tourist as Rosey Grier has been.
He's now 62, removed from his glory days with the New York Giants
(he played in five NFL Championship Games) and the Los Angeles
Rams (remember the Fearsome Foursome?) by nearly 30 years and
certainly as many pounds. He was one of the great defensive
tackles of all time, and with both the Giants and the Rams, he
lifted line play to a kind of celebrity status. He and players
like Dick Modzelewski, Andy Robustelli and, later, Deacon Jones
and Merlin Olsen somehow became more famous than many of the
running backs they chased down. Looking back, you have to wonder
if it wasn't Grier's talent and luck at finding seams in pop
culture that allowed these big lugs to leak into public
consciousness. Do you really believe that with any defensive
tackle other than Grier, the Fearsome Foursome would have
performed a spoof of Day-O at the Hollywood Palace?
As glorious as those glory days were, it all seems a long time
ago, and Grier's football career seems sort of incidental at that.
Especially since Grier, in a shifting sea of involvements, seems
to have led about six different lives since then. It's difficult
even to think of him as a former athlete. Actually, it's difficult
to think of him as any one thing at all. And there's no promise
that what he is today -- sitting in an office in Santa Monica at
the Foundations of the Milken Families doing . . . we'll attempt
to explain that a little later -- is what he will be tomorrow.
``I don't plan things,'' he says. By now he knows that he's only
a newspaper headline, a sound bite or a phone call away from some
new conviction, some new career that grabs his attention and seems
more important than the last.
His ministry to Simpson does not qualify as one of these new
careers, since he has been ordained for some time. But knowing how
and why Grier became a figure in that weird CNN gallery might help
reveal his recurring gift for fame. Also, as he re-emerges in this
fresh venue, we must once more stand in awe of his ability to
reinvent himself, however unwittingly, for public consumption. You
see, from a fame point of view, a guy like Kato Kaelin needs 30
years of doing whatever it is he does before he rivals Rosey
Grier's secret is that he's not trying to do whatever it is he
does. He really doesn't plan, doesn't calculate, doesn't seek
attention. He acts out of his own innocence, his own need to do
good, and then is surprised (and maybe a little pleased) to find
himself a public figure.
Take his involvement with O.J., whom, Grier says, he had never met
before visiting him in jail last June. About 17 years ago Grier
was in a psychic jam himself, a former athlete in the process of
divorce who was paralyzed by his own ineffectualness. He never
actually considered suicide, but then again, he wasn't really
handling the alternative. So he knew depression. And it occurred
to him that Simpson, in jail accused of two murders, might be
going through the same thing.
``I watched on TV,'' Grier says, ``and I didn't see any minister
come down there.'' And so his own ministry was in motion, simple
That was enough to put Grier in our laps again. The Bible-toting
Grier -- that's what he and Simpson do, study the Bible --
suddenly began appearing on Headline News as he passed on his way
to the jail. And then Grier, with his invisible talent for fame,
headed into Hard Copy country when a deputy sheriff at the jail
claimed to have overheard Simpson yelling something loudly enough
for it to become evidence, or so the prosecution thought. And so
there was Grier, sitting alongside Judge Lance Ito, arguing for
the confidentiality of a little ``penitential communication.'' The
judge eventually agreed, and the hulking Grier was then handed
over to the talk shows, and he was famous for a while more.
Has he ever not been famous, not been lurking alongside one
national figure or another, not been caught in leftover attention?
How far back does this go?
Well, it goes back to the mid-1960s, when the civil-rights
movement and the Watts riots that coincided with Grier's trade to
Los Angeles began opening his eyes. Even though he had been named
Roosevelt after FDR, he wasn't born politicized. But all the
social heat of the '60s had a galvanizing effect on him. He was
about to retire from football, was unanchored in life and was
available to any heady mix of useful ideas and glamour that might
present itself to him. Like, say, Robert Kennedy.
Grier supported Kennedy because the presidential candidate shared
many ideals and characteristics with the late President John F.
Kennedy. In 1967 Ethel Kennedy, Robert's wife, invited Grier and
other celebrities to a fund- raiser in Washington. Then as now, it
was common to throw in an Ann-Margret for every Whizzer White.
But Grier and Kennedy hit it off well, and they became friends.
(Here we must tell one small story that indicates Grier's ability
to mingle effortlessly in both politics and entertainment. The
night of the fund-raiser, Grier and others retired to the house
of Averell Harriman, then U.S. ambassador-at-large. There Rosey
met the singing duet Peaches and Herb, and they stayed up
harmonizing until 5 a.m., when the 76-year-old Harriman began
banging on the floor to silence them. Thus was born that
expression about show business and politics: strange bedfellows.)
The friendship between Grier and Kennedy grew stronger when Grier
decided he would campaign for Kennedy for president. Kennedy
called on him often, sometimes to act as security, sometimes to
come up and sing Spanish Harlem at his rallies, sometimes to
speak when Kennedy couldn't attend. ``It was an incredible time,''
Grier says. ``I'd say, `Don't call me up there; I can't talk.' But
he made me believe I could make a difference. I would do anything
Grier suddenly found himself purposeful. ``Little by little,'' he
says, ``I got my own passion for America.''
It was an exhilarating time. Right up to the moment in June 1968
that Kennedy won California's Democratic primary and, with his
unofficial bodyguard right there, was assassinated in the
Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. It was odd, when you think about
it, that among Kennedy's last words to the crowd celebrating his
victory in the hotel were these: ``Rosey Grier said he would take
care of anybody who didn't vote for me.'' And yet Grier helped to
wrest the gun from Sirhan Sirhan, putting it in his pocket and,
odder still, protecting Kennedy's assassin from the mob, taking
care of him.
Whatever passion Grier had gathered departed him that night; he
was hollowed out. ``A big hole in my dream,'' he says, ``and I
didn't see how I could fill it.'' What followed were 10 strange
years during which he flitted from one medium to the next,
displaying that Grier flair for inadvertent fame but lacking
involvement. There was the TV and film career (he had a part in
the movie In Cold Blood to offset The Thing with Two Heads), born
of that screen test for Daniel Boone, that kept him busy. There
were record albums. He was on every talk show there was. He
floated through life for that decade, carried on currents that
invariably dropped him on the country's lap, whether he wanted
that or not.
Like needlepoint. One day in 1970, a few years after his divorce
from his first wife, Bernice, he noticed a gaggle of women in a
Beverly Hills shop. At the time, he was always noticing women. On
a whim, he parked his car to investigate so much well-maintained
beauty, and he discovered that all the women were doing
needlepoint. So he went from woman to woman, critiquing their
work, until Babbs Shoemaker, then wife of jockey Bill, challenged
Grier to take up the needle. He did, found it relaxing as well as
a terrific way to mingle with ladies, and soon was in a photo
spread in LIFE magazine. The book Rosey Grier's Needlepoint for
Men came a little later, and he was famous again, this time for
A strange 10 years. ``And I cried every day,'' he says.
There were forays into public service -- the residue of his
involvement with Kennedy. A headline in the early '70s about a
three-year-old girl who had been killed accidentally by gang kids
convinced him that he should hit the streets and work with young
people. But he didn't really know what he would do when he found
them. For that matter, he didn't know how to find them. He was on
the streets keeping an eye out for gang members for more than a
year before he found one.
Later he did succeed in gathering kids about him. And he would
take them to Ram practices or to meet other celebrities. He
learned he could attract money for such projects. He helped raise
funds for Giant Step, which eventually built a housing project for
senior citizens in San Bernardino and trained youngsters in
lithography and printing.
But none of this could lift him from his emotional torpor. Married
again in 1971, within six years he was going through a second
divorce, and he really wasn't up to the demands of being an adult,
much less a leader of youth. What he had been really good at was
following people, not leading them. One night in 1978 a carload of
gang kids pulled up to his apartment. One of the kids in the car
had shot somebody. What should they do? Grier advised them to go
to the police. When the kids left, he locked the door and closed
the blinds. They're asking me for advice on life and death? he
thought. He was shaking.
He was poised to fall under another spell. This time, with the
intervention of friends, it was the Bible that captured his
loyalty. There was, literally, a knock on the door. A
Bible-carrying friend. That took him to the Crenshaw Christian
Center, brought him and his then five-year-old son, Rosey Jr.,
together, and reunited him and his second wife, Margie (they
remarried in 1981). Ordained in the ministry in 1983, he seemed
grown-up for the first time. ``I was totally at peace,'' he says.
Grier's Christianity came with a price, however, and his acting
career didn't quite jibe with it. He had never taken any part that
required much violence. ``In fact,'' he says, ``if you go back and
look at Kojak, you see that I never actually wear the gun. I'm
always sliding it away in a drawer.'' But now he got more and more
particular about his roles. He turned down a lot of parts and a
lot of money.
And his well-paying speaking tour, $7,000 a pop just to gab on
college campuses about football and movies, was canceled in the
early '80s after he began lacing the gab with Scripture. So, more
than $20,000 in debt, he embarked on a campus ministry that paid
him $200 a stop. He says he was happy.
From this financial ground zero have sprung some of the best of
what Grier calls his good works. He is most closely associated
with Are You Committed?, a center he started in 1984 in Los
Angeles to train and minister to local youth. That began as a way
of helping kids penetrate the economic structure -- for example,
by staffing a neighborhood 7-Eleven. Grier's alliance with the
Milken foundations has a similarly practical aim. ``I'm learning
business here,'' he says. Grier's job is to make contacts for the
foundations' charities, and he hopes to exploit those contacts to
help businesses within the black community. And he's back on the
banquet circuit again.
He still is not militant -- if he were, how could he glide so
easily through these layers of society? -- but he is political
again. He had backed Jimmy Carter in his 1980 campaign against Ted
Kennedy, interrupting relations with the Kennedy family (now
mostly repaired). Grier backed Ronald Reagan in 1984 and
campaigned for George Bush in '88 and '92 (there are pictures of
Rosey with all these presidents, to go with the one of him and
Elvis). Now he's corresponding with President Clinton in an
agitating way, recently calling and urging him not to eliminate
affirmative action. It seems confusing until you hear his creed:
``The most important thing you can do is make up your mind. You
can always change it.''
Frozen in the glare of the Simpson circus, Grier is revealed as a
guy who once again is trying his hand at the wheel, keeping mostly
on course. It's kind of fun to notice him again, see this life in
progress, and to think where he might be the next time he turns up
in our lives. And you know he will. It's his gift. Whenever
history takes a turn, there's Rosey Grier standing on the corner,
directing the traffic.