No goal line in sight Mike Rozier, Heisman Trophy winner and former NFL running back, nearly died a few months ago on a drug corner in his hometown of Camden, N.J. The shooting incident focused attention on a man and a city with...

THE BALTIMORE SUN

CAMDEN, N.J. -- The news hit hard, even in this city where gunfire is hardly news at all: There was Mike Rozier, famous ex-football player and native son, standing on a drug corner last November at 3 a.m., big holes blown through his chest by a .357 Magnum, his life -- just like in the movies -- passing before his eyes.

No one knows exactly what happened on that drug corner last November, only that, if choreographed, there'd be no "Chariots of Fire" music. There was an altercation. Somebody had a gun. Was it a drug deal gone bad or just a guy so messed up on booze and drugs that he opened fire on his friends? All we know is that Rozier, Heisman Trophy winner, was rushed to the hospital, the two bullets in his chest and another in his hand.

"You ever watch 'ER'?" Rozier says. "It was just like that. They rush me into a room and nine people working on me, cutting your clothes off, putting in IVs. I seen it on TV, but it's really happenin'.

"I'm scared. I'm just sitting there hoping I wouldn't die. You start seeing your life pass, I swear. I see myself playing little league football, college, pros. I didn't see no star lights, all that stuff. Just my life. I was, like, 'Why me? I don't want to die. I want to see my mom and dad. Why me?' I promised I'd do anything. Just let me live."

Today he's alive and well, looking good in his black hat, black turtleneck, leather jacket, shades and scarf. His 5-foot-11, 200-pound frame seems to be as football-ready as ever, his winning smile as personable as ever. Back in high school, he was voted most popular as well as most athletic. He tells the story of his shooting as if it's a great anecdote he can't wait to tell his friends, and, in Rozier's mind, anybody on the other side of the table must be his friend.

All that remain of that night are a few bullet scars and a hand that doesn't work right yet. And questions. Many, many questions.

The story seems obvious, the kind that sends the press boys into symbolism overload. You may have read it before: Star Ex-Athlete Hits Skids, Victim of Celebrity/Drugs/Too Much Money Too Soon. It is the story writ large of the modern out-of-control athlete.

Except that, as always, life is a little more complex than a story line.

Rozier isn't homeless. He owns two houses, one in Camden where he grew up and one he bought for his parents in nearby Cinnaminson. A self-confessed mama's boy, he says, "They don't make moms and dads like that anymore."

He's not broke. Five years into retirement, he says there's enough money left over from his football days. He drives around town in a big, bad, red Mercedes. And the cops say he's probably not in the drug business. He does hang around, though, with some questionable characters, people Rozier would describe as his "boys."

"The cops think I'm a stick-up guy because I hang out with guys who used to do that kind of stuff," Rozier says. "That was one incident. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time and got shot."

The wrong place is a run-down, low-rise public housing complex known locally as the projects, which is poor even by Camden standards and serves as a drug market. The wrong time was 3 a.m. But some would take it another step, that the wrong place for Rozier is Camden itself. And the wrong time is anytime.

Here's the theory, and observation bears it out: If you have any money, you don't live in Camden, which, by one measure, is rated as the fourth-poorest city in the country.

"Everybody asks me, 'Why you living in Camden?' " Rozier says. "You may have some guys try to clean up their act. I was born and raised in Camden. You know: The guy can leave the ghetto but the ghetto can't leave the guy. I mean, I'm just a homeboy from Camden. That's who I am. I love Camden. There's no place like home. It's like Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz."

All that's missing is the happy ending.

The first time Mike Rozier faced a gun fired in anger, he wasn't anywhere near a drug corner. He hadn't won the Heisman Trophy or signed any multimillion-dollar contracts.

The first time, he was running.

Running is, of course, what would make Rozier famous. And, back in 1979, he looked just as he would forever in the mind's eye: racing down the sidelines, the crowd cheering, the goal line in view. And then the bullets began whizzing overhead.

"You must've heard about it," he is saying recently over a breakfast of eggs and pancakes at a diner just outside town, there being no diners in Camden. No movie theaters, either. Or department stores in this ravaged town of 87,000 people.

"Whenever I tell people I'm from Camden," he says of the long-ago shootout, "that's the first thing they ask me about."

In 1979, Rozier was a senior at Wilson High, where the football field is now named for him. Everything was in front of him then, including the goal line, the football firmly tucked under his arm, Wilson leading in the annual Thanksgiving Day game against archrival Camden High. For those keeping score, it was the third quarter when two motorcycle gangs -- Wheels of Soul and Ghetto Riders -- began shooting it out in the stands.

"All you hear is bam, bam, bam," Rozier says. "Everybody on the field hit the ground. I hit the ground and stayed down. I didn't care about no touchdown. I just wanted to get out alive."

Nobody died. But many were wounded and taken to the hospital. It was the last game Rozier ever played in Camden.

And it was a scandal, a shooting that brought national attention to Camden, a once-proud city, once known as the Biggest Little City in the World, as a city under siege. The siege remains in place, and, once again, Mike Rozier is at the center of it, guns blazing.

It's not the kind of story Camden needs. Nor is the one last year in New Jersey magazine that begins this way: "The rats are eating the children of Camden."

Yes, it gets your attention. And there are definitely rats in Camden, but a tour of the town -- during which one finds abandoned housing, shuttered stores, long-empty factories, drug dealers, more abandoned housing, a man urinating against the side of a building, a wreath for a young girl found beaten and strangled in a weeded lot behind an elementary school and even the place where Mike Rozier was shot -- yields not a single sighting of rodents carrying off children.

It doesn't yield a single middle-class neighborhood, either. Or hardly a block without dilapidated buildings. But it can also show, for those who bother to look closely, signs of rejuvenation in a city that, as they used to say of towns in the old West, refuses to die.

"That [magazine] story tells you only the bad things about Camden," says community activist Tom Knoche. "It's such a one-sided story about a complex town with hard-working people who have not given up hope."

Knoche, 46, who was once a city planner in Baltimore, wears a "My Heart Is With Camden" hat over his longish hair. Knoche arrived here 18 years ago, determined to join a grass-roots effort to hold off the effects of all that poverty and despair. Take his tour, and Knoche will show you houses restored, parks planned and a sparkling new private/public housing project on a bluff overlooking the river.

But he knows the daunting statistics. A murder rate that often beats Baltimore's. Half of all residents on some kind of public assistance.

It's no wonder that when a cop draws a reporter a map of the site where Rozier went down, he labels the road out of town as "Escape Route."

Camden wasn't always this way. Once upon a time, it was a small miracle, a symbol of can-do America. Campbell Soup started here and still has its headquarters here. RCA Victor began here, too. Situated on the Delaware River, just across the Ben Franklin Bridge from downtown Philadelphia and its imposing skyline, Camden built ships and did the other work that people do with their backs and hands. Then the jobs went away, as manufacturers looked overseas for cheap labor, and Camden began its long decline.

This is where Rozier came home to live.

If the jacket doesn't explain everything about Mike Rozier or his role in the life of Camden, it is a starting point.

It's one of those two-tone leather deals, black with red trim. On the back is a big "Heisman," for the trophy he won in 1983 and that defines him even today. Beneath the Heisman is a complete-with-logos road map of all the football stops he made -- through Jacksonville and Pittsburgh in the USFL to Houston and Atlanta in the NFL. At the bottom, there's a big "N" for Nebraska, where it all began. It's a life story told in the latest in urban wear and suggests something that Rozier must implicitly understand: With or without a jacket, he carries his story, both its glories and its burdens, wherever he goes.

And yet.

As Rozier describes the jacket, he begins, unprompted, to unbutton his shirt, revealing two holes -- bullet holes -- in his chest. They tell the rest of the story.

"You can see where they came out on the back," he says matter-of-factly, and maybe even a little proudly, as he buttons up and then begins his story of that night, which the cops have put down, so far, as just another unsolved shooting.

The way Rozier tells it, he was hanging out with a few friends, doing a little late-night drinking, just chilling. And then this guy they all knew came along, and he was very messed up, on gin and mad dog and smack, which can happen at this corner of Camden at 3 a.m. This guy was coming after Rozier's friend, Bart Merriel.

"He was gonna shoot my buddy," Rozier says. "That's why I stepped towards him. He shot me three times. He shot my buddy three times in the back, messed up his lungs and everything. I couldn't believe it because I knew the guy. I was more in shock than anything: 'I'm shot. The mother------ shot me.' I knew the boy. Why would he shoot me?

"They say a bullet burns, but I felt like somebody hit me with a sledgehammer in the chest. I thought I was dyin'. I looked at him. He just walked away. He was all [messed] up. I ain't saying that I don't blame him, but he was messed up.

"I wanted to scream at him, but I couldn't say nothin'. I just looked at him, like, 'Why did you shoot me?' He didn't say nothin'. He was scared that I was gonna come after him 'cause he shot my boy."

Rozier, who thought he was going to die, did not die. In fact, he was reborn in a way. A world that had largely forgotten him was now suddenly interested again.

And here's what the world wanted to know: What was he doing on that corner at that time, hanging out with those guys?

Rozier doesn't understand the question. Who else would he be hanging with?

"These are the guys I grew up with," he says. "They kept me out of trouble. I wanted to do things they were doin'. 'No, Mike, we'll do it. Not you.' That's why I still come out and hang out where I hang out, with the guys I hang out with. Most of the guys I know, unfortunately, they're doing something illegal. I'm gonna stop talking to you, stop hanging out with you 'cause you're doing something illegal? They're my buddies."

Billy Thompson understands. Another famous Camden native, he played basketball at Camden High, Louisville and the NBA and now plays in Israel. He knows Rozier. "The whole of America knows Rozier," he says by phone from Jerusalem. "He was a role model for me."

And when Thompson, who's also now a minister, comes home, he sees his old friends, too.

"Your friends are your friends," Thompson says. "You grow up there. Everyone's not making it like you, but they're still your boys. They're the friends you go back home to see and kick it with.

"The decision Mike has to make is to be strong when he's around them and they're doing stuff."

Rozier insists he wasn't doing anything wrong. But he was there, and he knew what he had to do.

"The way I was raised," he says, as if explaining a values system an outsider wouldn't understand, "if you're with me, and something happens, I'm supposed to defend you. You're my buddy. You're my boy. I got to take care of you. That's the rule of the jungle."

It sounds like gangsta talk. And it doesn't end there. Rozier tells ,, you about he was arrested twice in Houston for carrying a gun and how he once shot at a guy -- and missed.

He tells you how he has two children -- he shows you their pictures -- both 7, who live in Houston. He gets the kids, who have different mothers, during the summer.

On the police report about his shooting, he listed his profession as "retired." He doesn't do much of anything with his life. His typical day: He gets up late. Watches some soaps on TV. Around 6, heads over to the Holmes Lounge, a tavern that sells cold beer and hot crabs.

If this were all you knew about Rozier -- a layabout, former gun-toting, long-distance dad -- you'd wonder why anyone cares about him. But people do. If you hang out with him, you know why. He's so engaging. He's got that smile. He's disarmingly honest. And how do you not like a guy who insists that a visitor meet his mother, Bea, a preschool teacher? When Rozier leaves, she says, "Now behave," gazing upon her 35-year-old son as only a mother can.

Rozier doesn't strike you as a person with an overactive ego. He strikes you as a person who never grew up.

He seems to know it himself. "Kids grow up too fast today," he says. "If you're 13, you better hope you stay 13. I wish I was 13 now."

The date above the front door says that Cramer Elementary was founded in 1913. Inside, though, it's as young as its students and as orderly as its principal, Annetta Braxton. The decor is early-education, and the artwork that lines the halls is a counterpoint to the bleakness outside the school's doors.

"I can't worry about what goes on outside the doors, only what goes on inside," Braxton says. "I can't re-raise the parents. I just concentrate on the kids."

Cramer is where Mike Rozier went to school, and where, on this day, he has returned as guest speaker. Once a week, he visits area schools with other notables and tells kids to stay in school and listen to their parents and brush their teeth and grow up to be doctors and lawyers. He brings along his Heisman Trophy, and the kids, when they're told what it means -- that Mike Rozier was the best college football player in the country -- want only to touch it and to ask Rozier if he knows Michael Jordan.

As a lecturer, Rozier is, well, eclectic. Actually, he talks like he used to run -- all over the place. Listen in:

"Your mom tells you something, listen to her," he instructs a group of third- and fourth-graders. "Respect your older brothers and sisters. Say, yes ma'am and no ma'am. Once in a while, when your mom and dad give you money for candy, say thank you. Tell your mom and dad you love 'em. Nothing wrong with that.

"My mom and dad raised us right. I got five brothers. None of 'em went to jail. I got shot in Camden. That night, eight nurses fixed me up. Take care of yourself. Eat the right kind of food. Remember your hygiene. Brush your hair. Brush your teeth. Stay in school. Respect your teachers. Respect your parents. My problem, when I was in school, I couldn't read real well, so I hated school. I didn't tell nobody. I was embarrassed. If you have problems, ask your teacher. If you don't ask her today, ask her tomorrow. Don't be afraid. That's what they're here for."

He tells them he grew up in Camden. "If I made it," he says, "you can make it, too."

Rozier made it by running a 4.4-second 40-yard dash and thanks to a body built to bounce off tacklers. These kids may have a tougher time. And his speech gives some clues as to how he got where he is today.

He did grow up in the neighborhood, in the very house he lives in today, since remodeled and made livable, unlike many of the boarded-up houses that surround it. In Rozier's mind, his youth was idyllic. He tells of Saturday picnics, of mowed lawns, of pitch and catch with his brothers, of a loving mom and a strict dad, of friendly neighbors, of youth football and baseball in a town that no longer seems able to support youth sports. And as for neighbors, at Cramer, these days, there is a 40 percent annual turnover.

He tells the kids he was raised right, and he can point to brother Guy, the youngest of six children and a year younger than Mike, as evidence. Mike and Guy did everything together, up to and including playing ball at Nebraska together.

Now Guy lives in New Haven, Conn. And he's as busy as Mike is not. Guy has four jobs. He owns a restaurant, a radio station and a nail salon, and he works at a high school as a counselor and a baseball coach. He loves his brother. He loves Camden. And he worries about both of them.

The problem, Guy says, is not where Mike lives. The problem is what happens when he's there.

"Mike is a walking legend," Guy says. "He's in the history books for life. He's even on the Sega and Nintendo cartridges. But Mike never wanted to be that guy. He didn't want to win the Heisman. He wanted to be a trashman, maybe own a trash-collecting business. He wanted to be a hometown guy. He never wanted to sever those ties.

"He thinks, everyone knows me, everyone loves me, I love everyone. Times have changed. I'm not saying he needs to run from Camden, but some parts of the environment he needs to pull away from because it's going to bring him down."

But maybe it's more than just Camden and more than just a poor choice of friends. Mike was always in trouble, and always getting out of trouble, because, from a young age, he was Mike Rozier, star athlete. This is a tale familiar to most of us by now. If Rozier stole a bike, he was told simply not to do it again. Allowances were made. They continue to be. Rozier tells the story of a recent episode on the New Jersey Turnpike. A cop stopped him going 100 miles an hour. The cop was a football fan, and all it cost Rozier was an autograph.

It's inside Cramer and inside all the schools to come that Rozier faced his real problems. Again, allowances were made. Again, the favors he received may not have been favors at all.

If you sit with Rozier and talk to him about his life, he rarely mentions football -- not the famous Orange Bowl game against Miami or the Heisman voting or the years in the NFL. He talks of his childhood. He talks of how he went to Coffeyville (Kan.) Junior College because his grades weren't good enough for Division I, and how he cried all the way on the bus ride there. He talks of his embarrassment at Nebraska when he struggled with his classes.

"Here I was," he says, "a big-time athlete and everybody was looking at me, and I couldn't do it, not the way they could do it. I always felt bad about that."

How bad? "If I had a bomb, I'd blow the place up."

Often, he'd think of leaving, even though he loved being at Nebraska. He just couldn't bear being in the classroom. Not even with his six tutors helping him.

"When I was in high school, they always tell you that in college they get somebody to do the work for you," he says. "I was looking forward to that. I ain't lyin' to you. I thought, you had a problem, they get somebody smart, take my classes for me, take my tests. That's what I always heard. They'd help you. But [take] tests, no way."

He didn't graduate; he stayed eligible.

And now he's back at Cramer telling the kids to do, maybe, better.

When Braxton, the principal, looks at Rozier, she sees one more kid in need.

"Mike just doesn't want to grow up," she says. "He doesn't want to give up his childhood. I'm going to work on him. I'm going to mentor him. No child is a lost cause. That's what we believe here at Cramer. And Mike has a lot of little kid in him."

Two guys are sitting at McDonald's. Ask them about Rozier, and you get an opinion. Everyone in Camden has an opinion on Rozier.

"I don't know the brother," says Michael Jones, "but you've got to wonder about a guy who gets shot in the projects."

"I know him," says Anthony Adams. "I don't see him doing nothing. This is a hard place, and what's he doing to help? Sometimes I think, 'No hope. No hope.' "

Roy Jones is a community activist. He's not exactly excited that Rozier has come home to Camden, a city that just doesn't need any more bad publicity.

"It's one thing to move back to the city," Jones says, "but why not do something positive? Don't get caught up in that Tupac kind of syndrome. Some guys make it to the top, but the city never leaves them. They've got to go back to the corner and act like the corner boys. They don't move to a new level of maturity. Instead, they go back to the gutter with their past. It's almost like they don't want to rise above it."

Richie Holmes and his brothers run Holmes Lounge, where Rozier hangs out nearly every night. Holmes knows Rozier and knows what people are saying about him. It breaks his heart.

"Mike does a lot of positive things," he says. "I think he's still just looking for himself. I keep telling him to go back to school to get a degree. I said your goal when you left here was not to win the Heisman, it was to get a degree. I think he'd be an excellent PR man. You been with him? You already like him. Everyone who knows Mike likes him."

Ask Rozier what he'll be doing five years from now, and he says, "I never thought much about tomorrow."

He does have a girlfriend who's a lawyer. He thinks they might get married, someday. He thinks he could get a job, someday, maybe even go into the trash business. "I'm getting bored doing nothing," he says. He also says he learned a lesson from the shooting.

"I'm still going to hang out with my buddy, go to a movie or something," he says. "But as far as hanging out in different neighborhoods with him, no."

What? A sign of encroaching maturity?

Rozier laughs.

"My mama always told me you put your shoes on in morning, but you'll never know who's going to take them off," he says. "I never understood what she meant until I got shot. I definitely learned something from that."

The shock trauma nurses ripped off his shoes that November night. Guy raced down the three hours from Connecticut, even though his new restaurant was to open the next night. His mom and dad were there. His mom, Rozier remembers, was trying hard not to cry.

Doctors, nurses, friends, family, fans. All the people trying to save one person.

Imagine how hard it is to save an entire city.

Pub Date: 3/02/97

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