Mike Rozier: `We Should Have Been Dead' -- Heisman Winner Was Injured On Home Turf

CAMDEN, N.J. - Wide staples run like a gridiron tattoo from the middle of Mike Rozier's chest to his navel, flanked on the right by two blackened bullet holes, as if they were O's in a gruesome football play sketch.

"If one of those bullets was just a little bit over and hit the artery next to my kidney, I'd be dead now," the 1983 Heisman Trophy winner said recently, nearly two weeks after a street shooting almost killed him and a friend.

A thick cast covers a wound where a third bullet chipped off a chunk of the knuckle and bone on his right index finger, ripping through the back of his hand and out the palm.

Down the hall at Cooper Hospital he visits with his friend, Bart Merrill, who also caught three bullets, one in his back that came out his chest, another in his chest that tore into his lung, and one in his left forearm. Merrill's 6-year-old daughter sits on the side of the bed, licking a green lollipop, staring curiously at the two men in gauze, tape and plaster. Prayers and get-well cards from friends are tacked on the wall.

"You can't be living wrong, and you certainly can't be physically wrong to survive the type of caliber gunshots we had," Merrill said, unsnapping his hospital gown to reveal strong, lean muscles from serious workouts. "My doctor said it was anywhere from a .38 or .357 to a .45."

They've heard the rumors, seen the newspapers, know people are wondering how Rozier, a running back who made millions as a pro, came to be gunned down in a "drug area" at 12:48 a.m. on Nov. 6. Police aren't sure they buy Rozier's story - an unprovoked attack by a drunk. They wonder if there's a more sinister motive behind it.

"I'm the one who got shot. Now I'm the bad guy," Rozier said with a laugh, shaking his head.

Some may wonder why Rozier is even living in Camden, a South Jersey city where gunfire is rampant, drugs and drinking are everywhere, and whole blocks look like boarded-up, bombed-out war zones. Directly across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, Camden squeezes 200 liquor stores and 200 churches into nine square miles - sin and salvation in perpetual battle for 87,000 souls.

"They're saying it's a gangster-ghetto-dope thing. Rozier's in the wrong place. What's he doing in Camden?" the 35-year-old Rozier said. "Man, I'm from Camden. I was born and raised in Camden. When I got done with football season, I always came straight home. Most guys don't go home. They're scared to go back home because they feel like they failed. I go home. I'm a mommy's boy. My mom and dad and everybody are good. I miss them when I'm gone. I started here and I want to end here - not that I'm trying to get killed or anything."

Others might not hang out on the street and drink beer with friends after midnight behind rows of a HUD housing project, but for Rozier there was nothing unusual or especially dangerous about it. This was his turf, a few blocks from the white, two-story house he's long owned and fixed up nicely, close to his mother's house and the friends he's known since childhood. The football field at his high school, Woodrow Wilson, bears his name.

"When bad things happen, people are going to start rumors," said Philadelphia Eagles receiver Irving Fryar, a South Jersey rival of Rozier in high school and a teammate at Nebraska. Fryar overcame some problems in his own life, recently became a minister and has visited Rozier several times since the shooting.

"Mike's a good guy who has good morals," Fryar said. "His mother and father raised him right. I know Mike is where he is because he wants to be home, be around his family, the neighborhood, his old friends, and you can't blame him for that. He's not going out and hurting anybody or doing anything wrong. He got part of a bad situation because of where he was. Camden is not a real safe place to be. People get shot too frequently."

One of the first people to call Rozier in the hospital the day after the shooting was Nebraska coach Tom Osborne, who guided Rozier through his years with the Cornhuskers and has stayed close to him.

"I love Coach Osborne," Rozier said. "If he had a kidney problem and wanted a kidney, I'd give him mine. That's how much I think of him."

Rozier, though bandaged and in pain, looks only slightly softer than the days when he ran, as a 5-10, 198-pounder senior, for a Nebraska-record 2,148 yards - second in NCAA history behind Marcus Allen's 2,342 for Southern Cal in 1981 - and scored an NCAA-record 29 touchdowns.

Rozier never let his Heisman status change him or distance him from his old friends, and he still plans to show up for the Heisman announcement Dec. 14 at the Downtown Athletic Club in New York.

The trophy and his talent brought him a $3 million contract as the No. 1 draft choice of Pittsburgh in the USFL in 1984, $200,000 the following year with Jacksonville of the same league, and a four-year deal reportedly worth $1.4 million with Houston in the NFL later in 1985. Placed on waivers by the Oilers in 1990, he finished his career after three seasons with Atlanta, quitting in part because of a knee injury and in part because he lost interest in football.

In seven NFL seasons, Rozier had modest success with 1,159 carries for 4,462 yards and 30 touchdowns and caught 90 passes for 715 yards.

The story of the fast, wild shooting two weeks ago makes no more sense than many of the 27 homicides in Camden so far this year, a statistic the police boast is about half of last year's total.

Rozier and Merrill, the way they tell it, were driving around in Rozier's red 1989 Mercedes, a car virtually everyone in Camden knows. Red chrome, red carpeting, every inch meticulously maintained.

First they stop to see some friends, then they go to a little store that one of Rozier's six brothers opened. It's late, and Rozier is there to make sure nobody messes with his brother when he picks up the money. Then they drive around a little more and see a couple of guys they know, who holler for them to pull over and talk.

"I pull over, no problem," Rozier said. "I do that all the time."

"They had a little 12-pack of Heineken, and they were just sitting," says Merrill, a friend since third grade. "One of the guys had his car parked but with the music on, just playing a CD, and we talked about everything from the new CD to some of the games that took place over the week and that were gonna take place, and the (Tyson-Holyfield) fight that was coming up. Just jock talk."

Soon, a man they know from the neighborhood, but identified to police only as "Lou," comes along acting drunk and obnoxious.

"I seen him drink Mad Dog and a bottle of gin," Rozier said. "Mad Dog 20-20's a cheap wine, a project-ghetto thing. He was doing all this stuff before we got there. But I knew the dude. It wasn't like we were out to beat somebody up or start a fight or anything like that.

"He was drunk. He was in my face. I know him, and I know how he is. It wasn't like he was trying to threaten me. Bart was just saying to back off."

Rozier and Merrill think it's over, but about 30 minutes later Lou returns - with a gun under his coat.

"He never said anything. He probably was too drunk to say anything," Merrill said. "He didn't walk up to Mike. He walked up behind me. Then after he shot me in the back, Mike, being my friend and everything, he thought he'd better try and shoot Mike."

Rozier described it only slightly differently:

"All of a sudden homeboy pulled a gun on me. He was going for Bart, so I came toward him and he shot me three times and then he shot Bart."

Rozier had heard plenty about shootings, knew the sound of gunfire, but never felt its sting.

"They say bullets burn, but it was like a dream," he said. "I didn't think it was happening 'cause we was just sitting there talking. It cut my wind off real fast. I had a hard time breathing. My hand was worse than my side. But Bart was worse than me, because one bullet cut his lungs off and went through his chest and blood was coming out. We should have been dead."

The story Rozier and Merrill tell doesn't sound convincing to the police, who are still investigating the case.

"They said this guy just pulled out a gun for no apparent reason," Lt. Joe Richardson said. "I mean, if you and I are drinking, I don't just pull out a gun for no apparent reason and shoot you three times or four times. There's usually a reason."

Richardson is also suspicious of Rozier's and Merrill's "limited cooperation" with officers investigating the shooting.

"I think Bart wants to get the guy that shot him, and shoot him himself," Richardson said.

"Well, put it like this," Merrill said in response to police worries of retaliation. "I'm not out to shoot nobody myself because I got daughters to raise and this guy's not worth me leaving my children. I'm a very well respected guy with a lot of brothers, and that's because I'm straight up."

One longtime friend of Rozier's, Orlando Pettigrew, said "word on the street" is that the shooting happened the way Rozier and Merrill say it did, and there's nothing extraordinary about it.

"That's very common in Camden, with the exception that this time it's a celebrity," said Pettigrew, a youth league coach. "There's gunshots all the time. It's getting to the point now where people talk about shootings in Camden and it's not even a big deal. It's like a car accident. It's just that wide open. Anybody could be carrying a gun these days."

There's also a different version of what happened, according to Martin Sartin, who grew up admiring Rozier, played running back at Long Beach State and had a brief NFL career with the Los Angeles Raiders and San Diego Chargers.

"Mike was a role model for me," said Sartin, now a middle school teacher and family service counselor. "I have mixed feelings about him at this point. Instead of turning to the people who could help him, he turned to the streets and the corruption of it, from drugs to drinking to poor selection of friends.

"There's very few people in the city of Camden that don't know he has a drug problem. Hard drugs. It's just open. Kids in high school are talking about it. Everybody knows it. It's a drug-infested area where he was at. I don't think a drug deal was going down. I think he was trying to steal some drugs without paying and got shot. I don't think they were shooting at him. I think they were shooting at who he was with. He was there, and got shot also.

"The community needs to open up and let's be for real. Let's not cover up anymore. Let people know that it's up to him to make a change in his life and that a lot of people are aware of where he hangs and what he does, and the money that he's spent through the years for drug deals in the city. It's pretty open. But I refuse to lie about what I think and what I know."

Sartin, however, admits he never saw Rozier buy drugs or use drugs. No drugs were found at the site of the shooting. Nor has Rozier ever been arrested for buying or using drugs, though he acknowledges trying various drugs while playing in the pros.

"I tried cocaine before, smoked weed before," Rozier said. "There's nothing out there that I don't know the effect of. As far as pills, acid, and other stuff, nah. I hate needles."

Rozier says he dealt with all that and put it behind him, voluntarily going for alcohol counseling when he played for Houston and rehab for drugs another time as a pro.

He shrugs off Sartin's comments and similar rumors as nothing more than fantasies rooted in jealousy and ignorance.

"Whether you're going good or bad, people want to think bad things about you," Rozier said, his tone less bitter than wearily resigned. "It makes no difference what they think about me. I know what I'm doing, and people with me know what I'm doing. The people who say I'm doing drugs, how do they know I'm doing drugs if they're not there watching or participating? How they gonna tell me what I'm doing? I'm a grown man. I take care of my responsibilities, take care of my kids, take care of Mom and Dad.

"I don't have any cash flow like I had before, but I ain't broke, and I ain't poor and I ain't homeless. Everything I got is paid for. So I ain't worried about it. I'm driving around in a $70,000 car - that's more than half the houses out there. People want to talk bad stuff. I can't believe Martin says something like that."

Rozier, who has never been married but has two 7-year-olds in Texas, said the shooting has given him a new urgency about life and deepened his religious beliefs.

"A lot of people don't understand about life," he said. "You better get a grip on it, take advantage while you can. Things y'all put off today, you better do it today. Your families, your kids, the ones you love, if you had an argument, call them up and tell them you love them. I don't have that problem in my family because I tell them all the time that I love them. I realize I could be gone, just like that. In a split second, I could have been dead, man."

Perhaps strangely for a man who once was the best running back in college, he has no interest in coaching, going to games or even watching them on television.

"To be honest with you, I never wanted to play football," he said. "I wanted to be a trash man. Carry trash. When I was young they weren't making much money. They're making good money now. I still want to be a trash man. People say it's not safe. I wouldn't mind it. I'm not scared to work. I did hard work all my life. Yard work, construction, I did it all.

"I hated school, but I had a very good gift from God to run the ball. I never studied the plays, I just picked them up. I didn't work out and I still don't. I'm just naturally big. It was a blessing that I won the Heisman because when I went to Nebraska, I wasn't looking for no Heisman."

For all his apathy toward football, Rozier doesn't diminish the significance of the trophy in his life. Nor does he shy away from the award ceremony, though he showed up at the black-tie affair a couple of years ago in a leather jacket and stretched out on his back near the bar.

"It's an elite club that got the Heisman," Rozier said. "I feel proud to be a part of that club because there's some great guys up there with me. I've been to the last three and I'm going this year. Why not? I'll be healthy. They'll send a limousine. I'll sit in the backseat. No problem."

By that time, the cast on his right hand should be off, the staples in his belly gone. He likes to move around, go where he wants, when he wants. Up to New York, out to Nebraska, down to Dallas, Houston or Atlanta. But nowhere for too long, and always right back to Camden.