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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

"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:

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