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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

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.

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