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...

March 02, 1997|By Mike Littwin | Mike Littwin,SUN STAFF

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."

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