Standing before a hotel ballroom packed with supporters, Bobby Kennedy had many people to thank after winning California's Democratic presidential primary 42 years ago on June 5, 1968. Among them was football player Rosey Grier.
The crowd cheered as Kennedy expressed his appreciation 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 in our country.
Grier, a family friend who had been out on the campaign trail with Kennedy and was protecting a pregnant Ethel Kennedy that night, grinned broadly and waved from the stage, where he stood behind the couple.
Moments later, having finished speaking, Bobby Kennedy jumped off the stage and began making his way through the Ambassador Hotel kitchen. After helping Ethel Kennedy from the stage, Grier said in a recent interview with the AARP Bulletin, he heard gunfire and ran toward the kitchen and saw Sirhan Sirhan waving a gun."
"I got his gun and his leg and pulled him up on this table," Grier said. "George Plimpton was trying to wrestle the gun out of his hand, but George couldn't do it. He wasn't strong enough. And so I had my hand covering George's hand, and so I just kind of put my finger under the hammer so it couldn't fire."
Grier wrenched the gun from Sirhan and put it in his pocket. As an angry crowd approached, Grier fended it off. He believes that otherwise Sirhan now serving a life sentence in California would have been killed that night.
After Bobby Kennedy was taken to the hospital and Sirhan to jail, Grier, known as the gentle giant, slumped to the floor and cried. Ethel Kennedy later summoned him to the hospital, where he found her lying next to her husband in his hospital bed. Also in the room were Ted Kennedy, Jackie Kennedy and others. Ethel Kennedy thanked him for coming, and after shaking hands with everyone, he left after a few moments. About 12 hours later, Bobby Kennedy died.
I grieved for him a long time, Grier wrote in Rosey, an Autobiography: the Gentle Giant. For years, I agonized about what I could have done differently.
A month later, an injury forced him to retire from the Los Angeles Rams, where he had been a member of the formidable defensive line known as the Fearsome Foursome. Stints as a singer as well as a television and film actor followed. In the early 1970s, he famously took up needlepoint, in part to calm his fear of flying, and wrote Rosey Grier's Needlepoint for Men. It didn't hurt, he has said, that it was also a great way to strike up conversations with women.
But two divorces and his work with troubled street kids left him burned out, depressed and lonely. By the late 1970s, he had bottomed out. Prayer was the only way he knew to keep his depression at bay. He joined the Crenshaw Christian Center in Los Angeles, and later became an ordained minister.
"I really realized that what I needed was a relationship with God, and it changed my whole life,"he told the Bulletin.
In the 1970s and 80s, he helped organize the construction of federally financed senior housing projects. He also threw a number of Senior Proms for Senior Citizens are getting hotels in Los Angeles to donate ballrooms and the musicians union to donate musicwhere celebrities, including Ethel Kennedy and Gene Kelly, mingled with older people, many of them with low incomes.
His focus now, however, is the urban community. In 1992, with San Diego businessman Estean Lenyoun, Grier founded Impact Urban America, which offers job training and housing to inner city residents.
Although he parted company with the Democratic Party over school prayer and abortion issues more than 25 years ago and became a Republican, he voted for President Obama and remains a supporter.
The great-grandson of slaves, Grier was named for Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was running for president the year he was born, in 1932. He and his second wife, Margie, who were divorced and then remarried six years later in 1981, live in San Diego. They have one son, Roosevelt Kennedy Grier, who lives nearby. Grier also has a daughter from an earlier relationship, Sherryl Tubbs of New Jersey, as well as four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
He will turn 78 next month and is feeling fine, he said, although he occasionally suffers from some back and joint pains, which he calls "football flashbacks." His needlepointing days are behind him"it's very tedious," he says"and he relaxes by playing computer chess. Although he said he's made plenty of mistakes in his life, his only regret is that he never became a great guitar player, something he fantasized about but never pursued.
He is on the boards of the Milken Family and Prostate Cancer foundations, and recently shot a humorous public service announcement about prostate cancer prevention.
He speaks and preaches frequently on the need to end violence, greed, hatred and racism.
"Man is the one who has the ability and the key to changing our society by the way we treat each other, by the way we support one another, by the way we band against the evil stuff that goes on in our society," he said. "The solution is still within our grasp if we would only live by the rules of society, by loving one another as we love ourselves. That's God's rule."
Kitty Bennett is a news researcher and writer living in St. Petersburg, Fla.