Grier, Roosevelt 1932–
Roosevelt Grier 1932–
Minister, writer, social activist
Few people have lived on the fringe of the public recognition longer than Roosevelt“Rosey” Grier. Once a football star with the New York Giants and the Los Angeles Rams, Grier has also made headlines for being present at Robert Kennedy’s assassination, for counseling O. J. Simpson in prison, and—of all things—for doing needlepoint pictures. He is an ordained minister who works with inner city youngsters in Los Angeles and a quiet crusader for Christian values in politics and the private sector. A Sports Illustrated correspondent calls Grier“a real-life Zelig [the chameleon-like title character of a Woody Allen film]… surfing the changing zeitgeist, saying afloat in every cultural wave,” adding that“not even Forrest Gump [the mentally impaired title character of the 1995 motion picture fable starring Tom Hanks] was as accidental a tourist as Rosey Grier has been.”
Grier faced a crossroads in the late 1970s after having worked as a television and film star as well as an ambassador for the arcane art of needlepoint. He had always been socially aware and more than willing to help with charitable causes big and small, but a newfound commitment to Christianity sent his life in a whole new direction. Movie and television roles he might once have accepted suddenly seemed demeaning or too violent. His political affiliations changed from liberal to conservative as the Republicans embraced a right-wing Christian agenda. And his own deep faith led him to minister to people he perceived as needing Biblical support, including O.J. Simpson.
Never far from the limelight, Grier found himself a celebrity again after meeting with Simpson in prison while Simpson awaited trial for the murder of his wife, Nicole Brown.“Grier’s secret is that he’s not trying to do whatever it is he does,” noted the Sports Illustrated reporter.“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.”
Roosevelt Grier began his singular career on July 14, 1932, when he was born on a small peanut farm in
At a Glance…
Born July 14, 1932, in Cuthbert, GA; son of Joseph (a farmer) and Ruth Grier; married Beatrice Lewis (divorced); married, wife’s name Margie; children: (first marriage) Denise, (second marriage) Roosevelt Kennedy. Education: Attended Pennsylvania State University, 1951-55.
New York Giants football team, defensive lineman, 1955-63; Los Angeles Rams football team, defensive lineman, 1963-68; singer, songwriter, actor on television and in movies, 1963-83. Principal television appearances include Mr. Novak, TheManfrom U.N.C.L.E., Daniel Boone, Wild, Wild West, Kojak, and numerous variety shows. Film appearances include In Cold Blood, 1968, Skyjacked, 1972, and The Thing with Two Heads, 1972. Ordained Christian minister, 1983; Are You Committed? (a resource center for inner city teens), founder, 1984. Author, Rosey Grier’s Needlepoint for Men, Walker and Company, 1973.
Selected awards: Named All-Pro twice while with New York Giants.
Addresses: Office—do National Football League, 410 Park Ave., New York, NY 10022.
Cuthbert, Georgia. His was a large family indeed-he was seventh of 11 children and was named after President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Grier’s father eked out a difficult living selling produce from a wagon. The family often suffered periods of dire poverty, and by the age of nine Roosevelt was helping to support his siblings by working in the local cotton fields. He was a large and strong youngster but also quiet and introspective, spending as much time teaching himself to play the piano as he did playing sports with his friends.
When Grier was ten his father sought work in the North, eventually moving the family to Roselle, New Jersey. There Grier found a new calling when he joined the varsity football team at Roselle High School. His ability as a defensive lineman soon brought scholarship offers from all over the nation, and he chose to attend football powerhouse Penn State, where he majored in education and psychology and found time to sing with a quartet called the Mysterious Cavaliers. Grier earned All-America honors as a defensive lineman with the Nittany Lions and also set a new national shot put record. In 1955 he signed a contract to play professional football with the New York Giants.
In these days of fantastic sports salaries, it is hard to imagine that Grier went to work in pro football for $6,500 a year and a $500 signing bonus. Many players today make more than that per game. Nevertheless, Grier soon established himself as a lethal member of the Giants’ front four, and he helped the Giants to win the 1956 national championship in a lopsided 47-7 rout of the Chicago Bears. After missing the 1957 season due to military service, Grier returned to the Giants in time for the 1958 season and a second national championship game, which New York lost to the Baltimore Colts. In the following four years, Grier’s defensive play helped to win the Giants three Eastern Division championships. He was named an All-Pro twice.
Even then a football career was not enough to satisfy Grier. He enjoyed writing songs, singing, and playing the guitar. A Giants teammate introduced Grier to an artists’ manager who arranged for Grier to perform at selected venues in New York City. One of those venues was the prestigious Carnegie Hall where, in February of 1963, Grier drew warm applause for singing two songs.
Later in 1963 Grier was traded to the Los Angeles Rams. Deeply disappointed at first, he soon found reasons to applaud the move. Even as he brought his considerable talents to the Rams’ front four—known affectionately as the“Fearsome Foursome”—Grier accepted offers to sing on variety television shows such as The Kraft Music Hall, The Steve Allen Show, TheBob Hope Show, and The Joey Bishop Show. Singing and acting on television actually brought him more salary than football did, even though his appearances were restricted by the demands of the gridiron season.
A torn Achilles tendon early in the 1967 season effectively ended Grier’s football career. He resigned from the Rams in 1968. By that time he was well established as a singer and actor, with recording contracts and recurring roles on The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Daniel Boone. He also briefly hosted his own variety program, The Rosey Grier Show, televised in syndication. Grier is better remembered, however, for his political ties during that period—and his presence at one of the most tragic events of the 1960s, the assassination of Senator Robert Kennedy.“Grier’s football career seems sort of incidental,” observed the Sports Illustrated reporter.“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.”
On a fateful night in June of 1968, Grier was serving as a celebrity bodyguard for Senator Robert Kennedy during an important presidential campaign stop in Los Angeles. Kennedy had just finished delivering a speech which, incidentally, included the admonishment:“Ro-sey Grier said he would take care of anybody who didn’t vote for me,” when Kennedy was killed by an assassin named Sirhan Sirhan. It was Grier who tackled Sirhan, grabbed his gun, and held him down until police arrived—as much to protect Sirhan from the retribution of the crowd as for any other reason. And it was Grier who stood with Kennedy’s widow a few days later during the senator’s state funeral in Washington, D.C. The Robert Kennedy assassination, Grier told Sports Illustrated, left“a big hole in my dream, and I didn’t see how I could fill it.”
Maintaining close ties to the Kennedy family, Grier dropped out of politics and concentrated on his acting and singing careers. He made several record albums in the early 1970s, all of them containing original songs he had written himself. He also starred in the rather bizarre cult film The Thing with Two Heads, in which he portrayed a death row convict onto whose body a white man’s head is grafted. Grier’s other movie roles included Skyjacked and In Cold Blood .
It was another art of Grier’s that caught the public attention in 1974. Some years earlier, Grier had noticed a group of women doing needlepoint at a shop in Beverly Hills. When he boldly critiqued their work, one of them challenged him to do better. He took up the craft and found that he liked it very much-so much, in fact, that he wrote a book called Rosey Grier’s Needlepoint for Men. A Saturday Evening Post contributor noted that the book“forever emancipates men who enjoy needlecraft from the label of sissy. Nobody, but nobody, calls Rosey a sissy.”
Recalling his years as a television performer and needlepoint craftsman, Grier told Sports Illustrated: “I cried every day.” Even though he was a sought-after speaker—commanding as much as $7,000 per appearance—and a popular fund-raiser for charities such as California’s Giant Step, he was deeply depressed and struggling with mid-life issues. A caring friend brought him to the Crenshaw Christian Center, a nondenomina-tional church near Los Angeles, and there he“was totally at peace” for the first time in years. His spiritual rebirth led to a reconciliation with his estranged second wife and a renewal of contact with his young son, Rosey Jr. It also led to his own ordination as a clergyman in 1983.
Grier’s devotion to Christianity changed the direction of his life profoundly. He began turning down television appearances that did not reflect his Christian values.“They offer parts with no dignity at all,” he explained in Newsweek.“They want me to play a dummy or a rapist or a killer. Why should I take a role just for money? I’m not going to sell my soul for it.” Grier also moved from the high-priced speaking circuit to a campus ministry that paid far more modest stipends. Most noticeably, however, he began to support the so-called“religious right,” including the Moral Majority headed by Jerry Falwell. The last Democratic presidential candidate Grier supported was Jimmy Carter. Grier moved into the Republican fold in the 1980s and has since campaigned for Ronald Reagan and George Bush. In 1982 he told Newsweek: “This is the most exciting time of my life. I’m becoming a man—finally.”
Rosey Grier had never met O. J. Simpson before the latter was accused of murder. Had Simpson—a running back—played during the same era as Grier, the two might have been arch rivals on the field. Instead, Simpson’s pro football career began just as Grier’s was ending. Like most of America, Grier watched on television as the bizarre events surrounding the arrest of Simpson unfolded. When Simpson was taken to jail, Grier recalled in Sports Illustrated,“I didn’t see any minister come down there.“Grier went himself, Bible in hand, to offer Christian support and pastoral counseling to the accused.
Twice a week Grier visited Simpson at the Men’s Central Jail in Los Angeles. The controversy arose when a fellow inmate reported overhearing a conversation between Grier and Simpson that was allegedly incrim inating to Simpson. Grier was served a subpoena by the Los Angeles district attorney, who demanded that Grier reveal details of conversations he had had with Simpson while Simpson was in jail. On the witness stand Grier explained that he was an ordained minister, and that his sessions with Simpson were protected from public scrutiny because he was serving as Simpson’s clergyman.“A minister hears a lot of things he keeps to himself,” Grier told Jet magazine. He said essentially the same thing when the talk shows called him. The jailhouse conversations between Simpson and Grier were never made public.
The O.J. Simpson controversy brought Grier back into the spotlight briefly, but it also overshadowed the daily work Grier does in Los Angeles and elsewhere to further the cause of Christ in the United States. In 1984 he founded Are You Committed?, a youth center in Los Angeles that helps to find jobs for inner city teens. He has also served as a liaison between the Foundations of the Milken Families and various charities and businesses in the black community.“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,” wrote the Sports Illustrated reporter.“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.”
Jet, January 9, 1995, pp. 46-47.
Newsweek, November 15, 1982, p. 25.
New York Times, December 10, 1994, p. A6.
Reader’s Digest, December 1969, p. 65.
Saturday Evening Post, November 1974, pp. 148-149.
Sports Illustrated, March 20, 1995.
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