Born: July 14, 1942
Roosevelt Grier was born July 14, 1932 in Cuthbert, Georgia and grew up in Roselle, New Jersey. He was named in honor of Franklin Roosevelt, who was running for president the summer he was born. One of 12 children, Rosey (he actually went by Roosevelt until his 20s), moved north with his family during World War II, finding employment at Merck. In Cuthbert, the walk to school had been 10 miles. With school now just a few streets away in Roselle, Rosey devoured knowledge and loved every minute of school.
Rosey was tall and powerful. He was a prep All-American at Abraham Clark High in Roselle as a defensive lineman and blocking back, and was also the star of the Rams’ track team, running sprints as well as throwing the discus and shot. He stood 6'5" and tipped the scales at over 250 lbs. For much of his pro career he would weight 300 or more. A bright student, he earned a scholarship at Penn State and was named All-American as a defensive lineman. He also played on the offensive line. The Nittany Lions went 20–7–1 under coach Rip Engle during his three varsity seasons. Rosey also captained the track team, specializing in in shot put, discus and javelin. He actually attended school on a track scholarship so that Engle had an extra football scholarship.
Unlike the previous coaching regime, Engle’s staff (including assistant Joe Paterno) worked hard to recruit African American players. Rosey was one of four black stars on the team, along with running backs Lenny Moore and Charlie Blockson, and defensive standout Jesse Arnelle. In 1954, Rosey, Lenny and Jesse were the first African American players to take the field against Texas Christian. Arnelle also led Penn State to the NCAA Final Four and was Penn State’s first First-Team All-American in basketball.
Rosey was taken by the New York Giants with the 31st pick in the 1955 college draft. That summer he helped the College All-Americans beat the Cleveland Browns in an exhibition game. The Giants had a hole to fill at right defensive end and Rosey stepped in during training camp and did a superb job all season long. In 1956, Rosey shifted to defensive tackle after Andy Robustelli was acquired from the Rams. Rookie Sam Huff was a terror at linebacker defense gelled and the Giants went 8–3–1 to win the Eastern Conference title. Rosey was named All-Pro along with Robustelli and defensive back Emlen Tunnell. The Giants wiped out the Bears in the championship game, 47–7.
Rosey played for the Giants through the 1962 season. The team reached the title game four more times but lost each year. “Big Ro” earned All-Pro and/or All- Conference recognition each season between 1958 to 1962. In 1963, coach Allie Sherman began a disastrous house-cleaning and the Giants traded Rosey to the Rams for a no-name lineman and high draft pick. He joined Deacon Jones, Merlin Olsen and Lamar Lundy to form the famous Fearsome Foursome. He was
Rosey retired after the 1966 season at age 33 after tearing his Achilles tendon. During the 1968 presidential campaign he and Olympian Rafer Johnson agreed to be bodyguards for Robert Kennedy. The night Kennedy was assassinated Rosey had been assigned to guard his wife, Ethel. After Sirhan Sirhan fired his fatal shot, Rosey darted toward the killer, placed his thumb in front of the gun’s hammer to prevent another shot, and then snapped Sirhan Sirhan’s arm. Then he turned and shielded the killer from an angry mob ready to take him apart. This moment illustrated the two sides of Rosey Grier as well as any on the gridiron. He was a man capable of incredible violence, and yet a man of peace.
During Rosey’s time in Los Angeles, he had picked up small parts on network television shows, including The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Wild Wild West. After retiring he hosted a community affairs show in LA and also had recurring roles on TV series Daniel Boone and Make Room for Granddaddy. He also had his own variety show, which only ran three episodes. His younger cousin, Pam Grier, became a star during the 1970s in a string of “Blaxploitation” classics. Rosey’s acting ability left a bit to be desired, and the film roles he coveted never materialized—as they did for NFL contemporaries Jim Brown, Fred Williamson and Bernie Casey.
Rosey’s film career is perhaps best remembered for The Thing with Two Heads, a campy 1972 horror movie that co-starred Ray Milland. Milland played a dying racist whose head was transplanted onto the body of a belligerent “soul brother.” The Simpsons has riffed off this idea in several episodes. Milland was looking for a paycheck, while Rosey reportedly was lured to the role with the promise of “working closely” with a legendary actor. Looking past the absurd premise, both actors were really trying hard to make a silk purse from a two-headed sow’s ear.
Nevertheless, Rosey continued to get the occasional guest star role and remained a favorite on talk shows and game shows in the 1970s, playing up his big teddy bear side. He took up macramé and folk guitar, but also devoted himself to being a voice for the underprivileged and disenfranchised. In 1983 he continued this work as an ordained minister. Among the organizations Rosey supports is The Prostate Cancer Foundation. In 1997, he was inducted into the New Jersey Sports Hall of Fame. In 2006, he was recognized by the NCAA as one of the Top 100 Most Influential Student-Athletes.