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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

"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.

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