Rosey Grier has never actually made history, he has just kind of surrounded it. He's in an NFL Championship Game, he's wrestling with Sirhan Sirhan, he's singing with Mario Thomas, campaigning for Jimmy Carter, praying with O.J. Simpson. He stars in the movie The Thing with Two Heads and writes a book on needlepoint. He corresponds with Jackie Kennedy; she calls him her best friend. He preaches in the streets. Shows up in Vietnam with Bob Hope. Campaigns for George Bush. Writes a novel. Beats out Yaphet Kotto for a part in the television series Daniel Boone and is a regular on Kojak. He consults with the mayor of Los Angeles and sings in Carnegie Hall. Works with gang members in the ghettos but rises in defense of convicted felon Michael Milken, that icon of 1980s greed. He leads the Simpson defense team in prayer and then goes on Larry King, Today and Tom Snyder the same week he appears in a commercial for the new TV show Extreme during the Super Bowl.
A real-life Zelig, to say the least, surfing the changing Zeitgeist, staying afloat in every cultural wave. Who could play roles, however peripheral, in two of the most sensational crimes of our century—the murders of Robert F. Kennedy in 1968 and Nicole Brown Simpson in 1994—and, in between, sandwich a career that included highly inconsistent tours of politics, religion and show business? The son of a Georgia peanut farmer who grew up to be a defensive lineman? Not even Forrest Gump was as accidental a tourist as Rosey Grier has been.
He's now 62, removed from his glory days with the New York Giants (he played in five Nil. Championship Games) and the Los Angeles Rams (remember the Fearsome Foursome?) by nearly 30 years and certainly as many pounds. He was one of the great defensive tackles of all time, and with both the Giants and the Rams, he lifted line play to a kind of celebrity status. He and players like Dick Modzelewski, Andy Robustelli and, later, Deacon Jones and Merlin Olsen somehow became more famous than many of the running backs they chased down. Looking back, you have to wonder if it wasn't Grier's talent and luck at finding scams in pop culture that allowed these big lugs to leak into public consciousness. Do you really believe that with any defensive tackle other than Grier, the Fearsome Foursome would have performed a spoof of Day-O at the Hollywood Palace?
As glorious as those glory days were, it all seems a long time ago, and Grier's football career seems sort of incidental at that. Especially since Grier. in a shifting sea of involvements, seems to have led about six different lives since then. It's difficult even to think of him as a former athlete. Actually, it's difficult to think of him as any one thing at all. And there's no promise that what he is today—sitting in an office in Santa Monica at the Foundations of the Milken Families doing...we'll attempt to explain that a little later—is what he will be tomorrow.
"I don't plan things," he says. By now he knows that he's only a newspaper headline, a sound bite or a phone call away from some new conviction, some new career that grabs his attention and seems more important than the last.
His ministry to Simpson does not qualify as one of these new careers, since he has been ordained for some time. But knowing how and why Grier became a figure in that weird CNN gallery might help reveal his recurring gift for fame. Also, as he re-emerges in this fresh venue, we must once more stand in awe of his ability to reinvent himself, however unwittingly, for public consumption. You see, from a fame point of view, a guy like Kato Kaelin needs 30 years of doing whatever it is he does before he rivals Rosey Grier.
Grier's secret is that he's not trying to do whatever it is he does. He really doesn't plan, doesn't calculate, doesn't seek attention. He acts out of his own innocence, his own need to do good, and then is surprised (and maybe a little pleased) to find himself a public figure.
Take his involvement with O.J., whom, Grier says, he had never met before visiting him in jail last June. About 17 years ago Grier was in a psychic jam himself, a former athlete in the process of divorce who was paralyzed by his own ineffectualness. He never actually considered suicide, but then again, he wasn't really handling the alternative. So he knew depression. And it occurred to him that Simpson, in jail accused of two murders, might be going through the same thing.
"I watched on TV." Grier says, "and I didn't sec any minister come down there." And so his own ministry was in motion, simple as that.
That was enough to put Grier in our laps again. The Bible-toting Grier—that's what he and Simpson do, study the Bible—suddenly began appearing on Headline News as he passed on his way to the jail. And then Grier, with his invisible talent for fame, headed into Hard Copy country when a deputy sheriff at the jail claimed to have overheard Simpson yelling something loudly enough for it to become evidence, or so the prosecution thought. And so there was Grier, sitting alongside Judge Lance Ito, arguing for the confidentiality of a little "penitential communication." The judge eventually agreed, and the hulking Grier was then handed over to the talk shows, and he was famous for a while more.