Rosey Grier, the lineman who wrestled the gun that killed Bobby Kennedy from Sirhan Sirhan, has spent his life wrestling stereotypes, proving that big men can cry—even do needlepoint—while black men can vote for Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump.
One of the last names Robert F. Kennedy uttered fifty years ago was Rosey Grier’s. In his California primary victory speech moments before he was shot in June 1968, Kennedy said: “And to Rosey Grier, who said that he'd take care of anybody who didn't vote for me. In a kind way because that's what we are. Smile pretty.”
Indeed, this six-foot-five, 300-pound defensive tackle has charmed Americans with his grin and light touch for decades. But that night darkened suddenly, when Sirhan Sirhan started shooting while shouting “Kennedy, you son of a bitch.” Sirhan, a Palestinian with Jordanian citizenship, resented Kennedy’s support of Israel. Although it wasn’t reported that way in 1968, Kennedy’s assassination was one of the first Palestinian terrorist attacks against an American—and in America.
Grier was protecting Ethel Kennedy, Bobby’s wife, pregnant with their eleventh child. Grier had just helped her down from the stage in the Ambassador Hotel, when he heard the gun shots. The kind of hero who runs toward gunfire not away from it, Grier found the writer George Plimpton trying to wrench the gun from the killer.
People were scrambling, shouting, running in different directions. Acting instinctively, reliving a teenage trauma, Grier remembered his father coming home drunk one night, and pointing a gun at his sister’s face, “so I took the gun away from my dad. And now, there's a gun pointed at George Plimpton's face, so I put my hand over the gun, then I pulled the trigger back so my thumb went under it so it couldn't fire."
Grabbing the .22, then pocketing it, Grier lifted the killer onto a nearby table. Onlookers started beating Sirhan to “get even.” Super-sized in moral stature too, the “Gentle Giant” stopped them, showing the world that “we don’t take some weapon and shoot people that we disagree with.”
The adrenalin faded. Grier wilted, collapsing in tears on the floor. He visited the hospital room briefly the next day—then helped lead the nation in mourning.
Grier would write, speak, and even sing soulfully in People Make the World (1968) about what today we would medicalize as his post-traumatic stress disorder. Back then, we just called it mourning. His friend was gone. His political inspiration was gone. His hope for America was gone. And, in a bad twist of timing, as this superstar lineman for the previous thirteen seasons tortured himself by wondering “what could I have done to save Bobby”—an Achilles tear ended his football career.
Rosey Grier, however, born in 1932, in Cuthbert, Georgia, was irrepressible. You had to be, to go from a struggling family with eleven children in the heart of the racist South, to become an All-American at Penn State, a New York Giants All-Pro lineman, and one of the Los Angeles Rams’ “Fearsome Foursome”—in the 1950s and 1960s. The four Rams linemen made up “the most dominant line in football history,” according to their rival Dick Butkus.
For his first 35 years, Grier lived the American Dream, Professional Sports Edition. One of the fruits of celebrity in the early 1960s for him was the occasional invitation to the amazing soirees at Hickory Hill, Bobby Kennedy’s 5.6 acre Virginia estate.
When the Democratic Party’s inner civil war ultimately propelled RFK into the 1968 presidential race, Grier campaigned with him. Sometimes, Grier was a security guard, clutching Kennedy’s legs to steady him as he waved at crowds from a rolling convertible. Sometimes Grier played den mother, holding Kennedy’s head as he vomited from exhaustion the day before that California primary. Sometimes, Grier was the muse, entertaining crowds by singing his funky, soul hit, Spanish Harlem. Sometimes, he was RFK’s substitute. “I'd say, ‘Don't call me up there; I can't talk,’” Grier remembers. “But he made me believe I could make a difference.”
The short, exhilarating campaign transformed Grier. “Little by little,” he says, “I got my own passion for America.”
That love flagged after Kennedy’s killing. Overwhelmed by this “big hole in my dream,” Grier “didn't see how I could fill it.”
While languishing personally, Grier became a powerhouse culturally. Increasingly just famous for being famous, he cut records, starred in a variety show, and guest-starred on TV, from Sesame Street to Kojak. In 1972, he starred in The Man with Two Heads. The cheesy movie’s tag line, summarizing the civil rights vibe, proclaimed: “They transplanted a white bigot’s head on a soul brother’s body.” Grier was the “brother.”
That same year, Grier started “breaking down those old sex roles.” He collaborated with Marlo Thomas, Alan Alda, Tom Smothers, Mel Brooks, Carol Channing, a young Michael Jackson, and Diana Ross in that heavy-handed, light-hearted, delightfully propagandistic, stunningly influential, so-very-Seventies lifestyle-shaping phenomenon: the mega-selling album, book, and TV show Free to be You and Me. Amid these beautifully-executed odes to assertive women, vulnerable men, female athletes, male doll-players and people just being people, this ex-lineman’s contribution stood out—making cultural history.
In the 1974 ABC television special, Grier stood on stage alone, a poster boy of the Seventies sporting his Afro, goatee, aviator glasses, guee-tar, pinkish jacket and a flaming, shoulder-to-shoulder white collar that looked wide enough to fly most jet planes. This groovy Big Galoot purred, “It’s all right to cry.”
Stopping just short of satire, Grier articulated the New Sex Role Sensibility, carried with a sweet, infectious, get-that-tune-out-of-my-head melody. Papa Grier urged daintily: “Crying gets the sad out of you.” Calling tears “raindrops from your eyes,” he dug deeper, explaining that “feelings” themselves come and go. Then, after two minutes of EZ-listening feminist indoctrination, Grier exclaimed: “I know some big boys that cry too!”
Although lacking the force-multiplier of that ensemble, Grier’s 1973 book Rosey Grier’s Needlepoint for Men, endorsed what most American boys then called “sissy” activities in hipster language: “You can have a lot of fun with it, jive around with it, and just relax with it… Pretty soon you're just into those little holes, man.”
Grier had stumbled onto needlepoint by hanging out a Beverly Hills needlepoint shop—Jebba’s—and enjoying all the female attention he received. Asked about his buddies’ gibes challenging his masculinity, he replied, in Me-Decade-speak: “I am too into myself to let anything like that bother me. I know who I am, which is a heavy trip, because a lot of people don't know.”
Always searching, this Southern farmboy living in sinful celebrityland returned to what he calls “a relationship with God, and it changed my whole life.” In 1978 he joined a Los Angeles megachurch emphasizing good works, the Crenshaw Christian Center. He became ordained in 1986. Grier distanced himself from pop culture’s moral rot—refusing to fire guns on TV, and even spurning acting roles that were too violent or vulgar. “I believe in the image thing,” he explained. “I owe the kids of America something, because I've been fortunate, and I wouldn't want to teach them anything negative.”
In 1994, Grier counseled O.J. Simpson, frustrating prosecutors by refusing as a pastor to confirm whether the murderous ex-running back actually confessed to him: “I didn’t mean to do it!... I’m sorry!”
Grier’s cultural conservatism, including his opposition to abortion and support for school prayer, led him to support Ronald Reagan and the Republican Party in 1980. When he endorsed the conservative evangelist Pat Robertson for President in 1988, he defied his critics by asking: “If the Rev. Pat Robertson’s candidacy is such a terrifying church-state threat, why isn’t the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s?” Although he supported Barack Obama in 2008, this maverick named after Franklin Roosevelt followed his cultural instincts into becoming a rare African-American supporter of Donald Trump in 2016.
While few African Americans have followed his lead politically, many, especially older blacks, agree with Grier culturally and theologically. This was the overlooked split that surprised white liberals in 2008, when the surge of black voters for Obama blocked gay marriage in California. It’s a cultural and religious dynamic Democrats cannot afford to ignore.
Rosey Grier’s remarkable journey testifies to the tremendous progress African Americans have made, the impressive life-improvements women—and men—now enjoy in our more open, less constrained, age. Although politically we risk becoming a world of “free to be me not you,” culturally, we live in Free-to-be-you-and-me-ville.
More sobering, Grier’s life reminds us of the lingering “what might have beens” when we contemplate the assassinations of the 1960s. Fusing his Sixties “we-change-the-world-rearrange-the-world” liberalism with his cultural conservatism, Grier preaches: “Man is the one who has the ability and the key to changing our society... if we would only live by the rules of society, by loving one another as we love ourselves. That's God's rule."
The arc of Grier’s political life challenges both parties: do Republicans really think they can succeed as the party perceived as hostile to blacks, women, and the modern gender reforms? And do Democrats really think they can succeed as the party perceived as hostile to God, Christianity, and traditional morality?
Perhaps, having learned how to cry, Americans can remember how to ally—even with “people that we disagree with.”
Correction: The article has been updated to reflect Grier's career as a lineman, not a linebacker.