When I was young, my friends and I played pick-up games of basketball nearly year round. We generally played among ourselves and an extended group of kids in the neighborhood. The games varied in quality and intensity, from half court one-on-one to five (sometimes even six) on a team full court affairs.
Occasionally, we’d venture into another neighborhood, either by invitation or serendipity, and try out our skills against different opponents. One late fall day, a few of us headed across town to Simpson Field, where the local public school had some basketball courts, as well as football and baseball fields.
That day, on the court shooting around, was one of the largest human beings I had ever, or would ever, meet: Roosevelt Grier. Roosevelt Grier, legendary defense tackle for the New York Giants, who had returned to his alma mater, Abraham Clark High School, in the little North Jersey town of Roselle, was relaxing and shooting hoops.
There is a reason that certain phrases become clichés, for instance “a mountain of a man.” When Rosey Grier stood between you and the basket not only, from almost every angle, couldn’t you see it, you had no idea where the backboard even was. In fact, depending on the angle, the man blocked out the sun itself.
I remember very little of that day except that Mr. Grier was one of the least intidimating of men, extremely kind and gracious, casual and at ease, just one of the guys having a little fun, taking it easy on a day away from the gridiron. I would have been about 11 or 12 at the time, and what I will never forget is the general sense of what the great man was like.
And he was a great man in many ways. The next time I remember “encountering” Rosey Grier was a much more solemn occasion. Grier served as a bodyguard for his friend Robert Kennedy during his run for the White House and, along with Rafer Johnson, wrestled Kennedy’s assassin, Sirhan Sirhan, to the ground. In his autobiography, Rosey said that he struggled for years with the thought that if he had only done something different his friend might not have been killed that day. For the nation, the impact of still another assassination, after his brother Jack’s and the murders of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, threatened to shred the very fabric of country irreparably.
His greatness extended beyond the football field into the public arena: he was to me, and many others a hero.
In a lighter vein, before there was even a hint of any such oxymoron as a men’s movement, Rosey completely flaunted all stereotypes and authored a book about one of his favorities hobbies: Rosey Grier’s Needlepoint for Men . Macrame was another untraditional male pastime he became noted for.
Though it may seem hard to believe now, his off the field interests were as big a deal culturally as Joe Greene’s towel tossing pop commercial.
Now that’s my kind of hero!
Grier also became one of the first football players to make a successful transition to acting. He had his own community talk show in Los Angeles in the early 70s and guest starred in any number of TV shows, including The Man From Uncle, The Jeffersons, and I Dream of Jeannie. Along with Ray Milland, he co-starred in one of the worst movies of all times, The Thing With Two Heads, an exploitation film that simply boggles the mind in its concept (what were they thinking) and execution (oh, no, not that!).
After some personal struggles in the 70s, Grier went on to become an ordained minister and co-founded “Impact Urban America,” a social organization focused on helping urban communities via economic development, and was affiliated with several other community oriented organizations as well.
He enjoyed a modestly successful recording career, his most “famous” song being “It’s Alright To Cry,” which he performed on Free to Be You and Me. As a professional football player, he was selected twice for the Pro Bowl and had a distinguished career with the New York Giants and the Los Angeles Rams, where he became part of one of most famous defensive lines in NFL history, the Fearsome Foursome. Last year he was inducted into the California Sports Hall of Fame.
In whatever he does, Grier continues to make an impact in his amazing life. Here is a public service ad on prostate cancer in which he sends up his own image to benefit others, something he has done for most of his life:
Admittedly, meeting Mr. Grier once isn’t really much of a connection but it is one I’ll never forget. In doing some research for this posting, I discovered another personal, if tenous, connection. We were both born on July 14th. The mathematical probablity of sharing a birthday with someone is more complex than might be imagined. The concept even has a name: the Birthday Paradox.
Paradox or no, sharing a birthday with someone somehow makes you feel closer.