How a personal connection with Robert F. Kennedy -- and an up-front view of a harrowing moment in history -- awakened an NFL star's social conscience

By Jeffri Chadiha | Published June 4, 2018

LOS ANGELES -- On an unseasonably cool mid-May morning, an 85-year-old man squeezed his massive frame onto a metal folding chair at the entrance to the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools. He wore a tan suede leather jacket -- with decorative tassels across the chest -- dark denim jeans and a brown cowboy hat that covered his sensitive eyes. Roosevelt "Rosey" Grier calmly listened to his wife, Cydnee, as she gently discussed a strategy for approaching the day. He clutched a brown cane in his right hand as he nodded to each idea she mentioned, knowing full well that he couldn't prepare enough for the grueling task that awaited him.

The last time Grier walked onto that property, it was known as the Ambassador Hotel. It was a place where he had once come to celebrate and protect that same revered politician the schools are named for today, not long before a gunman named Sirhan Sirhan killed Kennedy and the hope that the presidential candidate had inspired in America. That tragedy happened on June 5, 1968. For Grier, even after the passing of 50 years, it still breaks his heart every time he thinks about all that was lost on that day.

Grier made his name as a star football player with the New York Giants and Los Angeles Rams, logging 11 seasons as a burly defensive tackle. That job surely taught him a thing or two about bracing for action, pushing through pain and producing whenever necessary. That's what he was steadying himself to do while resting in that chair. Grier would be taking a short walk around the schools, one that would involve him answering questions that he's obsessed over for five decades. Grier understood that this would hurt him in ways he'd rather avoid, but he also knew the importance of going forward.

"He was a great man," Grier said of Kennedy. "There was no one like him in the world."

There's been so much conversation about political activism in today's NFL that it's easy to forget pro football players had a social conscience long before former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and a host of other players decided to protest social injustice during the national anthem. The 1960s was a decade defined by people's willingness to take a stand, and Grier was one of the most interesting members of that movement. It wasn't because he had the charisma of Muhammad Ali, the edge of Jim Brown or the smarts of Bill Russell, all iconic rebels in their own right. It was because he had the courage to transform himself in ways he once never thought possible.

The beauty of Grier isn't so much that he was ready to battle during one of the most turbulent times in our country's history. It was that he truly embraced all that Robert F. Kennedy espoused.

"I only knew Bobby for a short period of time, but he was ... the man who was seeing this country, and he knew that something had to be done," Grier said. "And I thought we could do that together. And all these people, If we worked together, we [could] change our society."

It's easy to tell the story of Grier as a football player. He was a dominant force at 6-foot-5 and 284 pounds, a player who represented one quarter of the Los Angeles Rams defensive line nicknamed "The Fearsome Foursome" (a unit that also included Lamar Lundy and Hall of Famers Merlin Olsen and David "Deacon" Jones). Grier was the gentle giant of the group, a man who loved singing and playing his guitar as much as he enjoyed sacking quarterbacks. He played in two Pro Bowls and received Associated Press All-Pro honors three times during his career (first-team once, second-team twice).

The story of Grier as an activist is far more complicated. He didn't grow up looking for a way to shake up the system. In many ways, the system found him. The 1960s were filled with plenty of fights to engage in -- from the civil rights movement to the controversial war in Vietnam -- and it would've been impossible for a man who genuinely cared as much about humanity as Grier did to simply sit back and watch. He might have started his pro football career with a strong focus on competing and entertaining, but he ended it with a clear vision of what he thought this country should be.

Even today, when Grier hears about a tragedy on the news, his soul quakes a bit, as if he can't quite come to grips with a world where people can't co-exist more easily.

"When we see a student, or a young person, goes into a school and [carries out a shooting], it will trigger [him] back to [Kennedy's assassination]," said Cydnee, who is 68 today and was 18 when Kennedy was killed. "I mean, you know, everyone is there ready to celebrate (in 1968) because it looks like Bobby is going to be winning this area, and so everybody is there exhilarated and excited. He's going through the kitchen and he's speaking to everybody, and no one is even thinking in the least that a tragedy is going to happen. And so when we see more tragedies [today], it triggers him back to there, sometimes to tears and quiet ... where he just kind of goes inward for a while, to just think about that, and then it's always, 'What can I do? ... What can we do to make things better?' "

As Grier walked around the schools in May, he felt encouraged that some positives had happened on this site over the past 50 years. He moved as gingerly as one would expect from a gentleman in his mid-80s, supporting himself with the cane, finding a little more strength with each step toward the school library that had once been the ballroom where Kennedy delivered his final speech. The determination in Grier's eyes was unmistakable. So was the elation when he spotted a portrait of Kennedy outside the library doorway.

This facility was a huge departure from the Ambassador Hotel, which was known as one of the city's hot spots back in the '60s. It was the kind of joint that celebrities flocked to, where you could easily find somebody like Ray Charles or Milton Berle munching on roast beef in the Cocoanut Grove restaurant. Developers demolished the hotel in 2005 and '06, and the Los Angeles Unified School District opened this facility in 2010. Despite concerns about the overall cost of construction -- at $578 million, it was the most expensive public school in the country -- the RFK schools were designed to accommodate as many as 4,200 students (between kindergarten and 12th grade).

The school covers nine city blocks and includes a public park and state-of-the-art swimming pool. On that particular day in May, Grier often swiveled to his left and right to see kids of varying ethnicities attending a conference focusing on science and engineering. This was one version of the dream Grier believed Kennedy could've achieved had he lived and won the presidency.

"Bobby made me a different man," Grier said. "If it wasn't for Bobby, I wouldn't be where I am today. He gave me inspiration. He gave me a desire to do a lot of good things. ... He made a difference. He made me different."

The longer Grier walked around the campus at RFK schools, the more the emotions seemed to hit him. He eased inside the doorway to the library, and Cydnee immediately told Rosey to rest for a few moments. Some of that concern had to do with the fact that Grier needs to be mindful of how much energy he's expending at this stage of his life. Cydnee also knew a room that could be so inspirational -- somebody had painted an expansive mural of Kennedy on the wall opposite the door -- could also house countless demons for her husband.

Of course, Grier would be the first to admit that the notion of him winding up in that room 50 years ago, as part of an entourage surrounding Kennedy on a tiny stage, had once seemed absurd. He spent the first seven seasons of his NFL career with the Giants (before that franchise traded him to the Rams in 1963). Grier found a great situation in Los Angeles playing on a strong defensive line, but being a popular athlete in an entertainment town also gave him access to opportunities off the field. He continued recording songs on various music labels -- something he started doing while in New York in 1960 -- and also landed acting jobs as his career as a football player wound down. The last thing Grier was thinking about was how to help ease the growing tensions in America during that decade.

"I don't think I was too involved," Grier said. "The only time I heard [about protests] was when there were these men going around talking about Vietnam. ... All over the place, they were just talking about [Vietnam]. And I was playing football."

Grier's life changed in 1968, when his agent called to say Kennedy's wife, Ethel, wanted Grier to attend a celebrity event in Washington D.C. to help inner-city children. Grier -- who missed the 1967 season with a torn Achilles tendon that eventually ended his career -- liked the idea of doing something for the kids. He wasn't so crazy about flying to D.C. because he didn't like traveling on planes. But Grier, who was 35 at the time, eventually overcame his anxiety and agreed to the trip.

Grier became even more comfortable when, after arriving in D.C. and being driven to the Kennedys' home, Bobby and Ethel were standing in the doorway to greet him. Even though they had never met Grier, the U.S. senator from New York punched him in the stomach and dashed down the front lawn, with Grier in joyous pursuit. They played a game of touch football that day, with Kennedy's relatives and friends joining in the fun. It had never been so easy for Grier to be around people he didn't know. Grier had heard about the magic and charisma associated with the Kennedy family, and now he was being charmed by the man who was poised to carry on that legacy.

"It broke the ice ..." Grier said. "They were nice folks. And we just walked around that night, and I met (former associate Supreme Court justice and NFL player) Byron 'Whizzer' White and I met (actress) Lauren Bacall. ... I met all these great people."

"Bob Kennedy loved football and loved Rosey Grier," said Paul Schrade, who was the western regional director of the United Auto Workers union and Kennedy's labor adviser. "Bob was a football player at Harvard, who won a game with a broken leg. (Kennedy actually wore a cast on his leg in a game against Yale in 1946.) Bob knew a lot of his teammates were generally from working-class families [and] not the rich guys. And it became a favorite family activity (to play touch football) in the yard at the house."

Shortly after that initial meeting, Grier received another call involving the Kennedys, this time from a Washington insider named Joan Braden who was working on the senator's presidential campaign. She invited Grier to join their effort -- Kennedy had entered the race on March 16, 1968 -- and Grier decided it was worth a shot. Roughly three weeks later, on April 4, James Earl Ray assassinated Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis. That tragedy convinced Grier even more that he had to help Kennedy win the presidency.

Grier never really had a clearly defined role in the campaign. He served basically as a friend of the family, a noteworthy figure who could socialize at celebrity functions, enhance credibility within the black community and also operate as a bodyguard. Regardless of the job requirements, Grier had the time of his life while working with Kennedy. The same guy who grew up on a small peanut farm in Georgia was now operating with the most glamorous family in American politics.

One day, Kennedy asked Grier to take a trip with him while they were doing some campaigning in Indianapolis. The next thing Grier knew, they were on a private jet heading toward D.C., where they would hang out with Kennedy's brother, Ted. And there were countless parties with other celebrities.

"It was just fun to travel around with [Kennedy]," Grier said. "Because ... the final thing was that we were gonna make a difference in our world."

Grier also helped Kennedy with more serious ventures, like campaigning in Watts just three years after that Los Angeles neighborhood endured one of the worst riots in American history. During one visit through that community, a black man jumped on top of Kennedy's car, and Grier had to talk the guy off the roof. On another occasion, Kennedy met a little black girl and invited her to ride in his convertible with his family. That was the gift that Grier kept seeing in Kennedy, the ability to make people want to connect with the politician.

Kennedy didn't just have the right name. He had the right policies to attract someone like Grier. Kennedy campaigned on a platform of racial and economic justice, a strong opposition to the Vietnam War and a belief in social change. He also represented himself as a man of the people, somebody who would rather travel in a top-down convertible -- to be accessible to his supporters on his way to campaign functions -- instead of fearing for his safety.

"[Kennedy] would talk to people, not from notes," Schrade said. "[He would be] just off the cuff and really relate to the people he was talking to and the problems people were having in different communities, whether it was a student community or a black community or a Latino community."

That affability made Kennedy a hit on the campaign trail in 1968. He won primaries in Indiana and Nebraska before scoring his biggest victory with a win in California on the night of June 4, 1968. Winning California meant Kennedy could likely force Minnesota senator Eugene McCarthy out of the race and take on vice president Hubert Humphrey directly at that year's Democratic National Convention. (President Lyndon Johnson had decided not to run for re-election in March of that year.) Roughly five years after the assassination of his brother, President John F. Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy was priming himself to move forward with the dreams JFK once envisioned for this country.

Grier actually had the day off when he decided to drive over to the Ambassador Hotel to see the final results of the California primary. Once he found his way into the candidate's suite, Grier felt an immense sense of pride as the state turned in favor of Kennedy, who had heavy support from young people, the working class, blacks and Latinos. The joy in the entire room escalated after news spread about the impending victory. Minutes later, Grier was following Kennedy into a crowded service elevator heading toward a press conference on the first floor.

While jammed against an array of supporters, Grier couldn't help himself. He smiled and jabbed Kennedy in the stomach, just as the senator had done to him during their first encounter in Washington, D.C., months earlier.

"I told him that we got this," Grier said. "It was in the hole."

Grier stared intently as Cydnee showed him an array of photos that represented how the RFK school library compared to the Ambassador Hotel ballroom in 1968. The arched ceiling remains in place, but everything else about the room is different today. The stage where Grier and other supporters surrounded Kennedy is now a counter where kids can check out books. The kitchen where Kennedy took his final steps has transformed into a study room. Aside from the ceiling, the only other thing that hadn't changed in that space was the impact it had on Grier.

"[There were] people all over the place," Grier said, while scanning the room in hopes of remembering details. "[I was standing] behind Ethel ... and then Bobby made a speech."

It was just around midnight when Kennedy stepped to the podium to celebrate his win. He thanked a variety of campaign advisers, doted on his wife and joked that Grier was on the stage to take care of anybody who didn't vote for the senator. Grier chuckled at the line, but his focus at that point was sharply on Ethel, who was pregnant with a child who would become Robert and Ethel's daughter, Rory. Kennedy's security team had told Grier to be her bodyguard for that evening.

What Grier remembered most vividly about that night was the plan that was in place after Kennedy finished talking. Kennedy was supposed to head to his left when he departed the stage, which is where Grier and Ethel had been standing. Instead, Kennedy and Schrade jumped off the dais and veered right toward the kitchen. Grier maintained that former FBI agent Bill Barry, Kennedy's head of security, called the audible at the last minute.

Kennedy actually had walked through the kitchen after departing the service elevator with Grier and the rest of Kennedy's entourage on his way to the stage for his victory address. Yoshio Niwa, a man who worked as a cook in the Ambassador Hotel at the time, was startled to see Kennedy strolling through and talking to employees.

"He stopped by the kitchen and shook everybody's hand," Niwa said. "That made me shocked. ... I didn't know what to say."

There was just as much confusion after Kennedy's speech. Grier said Barry told him the path through the kitchen made sense after the speech because it was the quickest route back to the service elevator. Schrade said the senator also had been led off the stage by the Ambassador Hotel maître d', Karl Uecker, and another hotel staffer named Edward Minasian, not Barry. Finally, Schrade added that Kennedy's route had been altered to accommodate the press.

"Frank Mankiewicz (Kennedy's campaign press secretary) told [Kennedy], 'The media has not had access to you because you're out on the streets all the time and not available for interviews,' " Schrade said. " 'They want you to come over to the Colonial room, which is to the right off through the pantry, rather than left down to the master room.' And so that decision was made."

As soon as Kennedy started walking away from the spot where Grier was stationed, Grier immediately pursued him with Ethel. A swarm of bodies grew between them. A cameraman nearly ran into Ethel. so Grier shoved him out of the way. By that point, Kennedy had disappeared into the kitchen, and the next sound Grier heard was the rapid popping of gunfire.

Ethel dove to the ground instantly, and Grier instinctively moved over to the top of her to provide protection.

"I covered her for a second, and I take off and, and I ran right around the corner," Grier said. "I see these guys who were all over the senator. And so I ... grabbed [the shooter] by his leg, because I found out as a football player that ... if you want to stop somebody, you grabbed their legs. So I grabbed him by his leg, and I put him up on the table, and I locked his leg so he couldn't kick, and I just held on to him."

And so I grabbed [the shooter] by his leg, because i found out as a football player that if you want to stop somebody, you grabbed their legs. So I grabbed him by his leg, and I put him up on the table, and I locked his leg so he couldn't kick, and I just held on to him. Rosey Grier

Kennedy had been shaking hands with a busboy named Juan Romero shortly after midnight on June 5, 1968, when Sirhan Sirhan, a 24-year-old Palestinian who was upset about Kennedy's support of Israel, fired a .22 caliber revolver in his direction. Three bullets struck Kennedy -- one in his head and two others in his back -- while five other people in the room sustained wounds. Schrade was one of those injured, as a bullet hit his forehead and drove him back into Scott Enyart, who was a high school student who had snuck into the event just to take photos of Kennedy.

"Kennedy just dropped from the frame like a puppet [when you] cut the strings," Enyart said.

After Grier wrestled Sirhan away from the crowd, he noticed that writer George Plimpton had pulled the gun away from the shooter, but Plimpton had the barrel of the weapon pointing right at his own face. Grier then yanked the pistol away from Plimpton. After shoving the gun into his pocket, Grier fought off a few other men who had charged toward Sirhan. By the time police arrived to take the assassin into custody, Grier had seen the wounded frame of Kennedy stretched across the kitchen floor.

A few minutes later, an ambulance transported Kennedy first to Los Angeles Central Receiving Hospital and then to Good Samaritan Hospital. Kennedy had been alert enough after the shooting to ask Romero a few questions about what had happened, but then Kennedy lost consciousness after being placed upon a stretcher.

"I was sitting on the floor and I was crying," Grier said. "And next thing you know, as I sit there, there's this voice I heard that said, 'Rosey, do you have the gun?' I looked up and it was (former Olympic decathlete) Rafer Johnson. ... So, I gave it to him. And then ... I went up to the room, and I was gonna be up there, but the people were crying, and they were just mourning and just hurt because of this."

Grier eventually decided the best thing for him to do was to go home later that morning. When he reached his house, his wife at the time, Bernice, told him Ethel Kennedy had been trying to reach him. They wanted him back at the hospital. Grier returned and walked into Kennedy's room to find Ethel at the bedside of an unconscious Bobby, who already had spent several hours in surgery.

Grier stayed briefly before going to a waiting room downstairs. He ran into Jackie Kennedy, Bobby's sister-in-law and the widow of John F. Kennedy, and she wrapped her arms around him. When Grier heard Jackie say, "My hero, that's my hero," it didn't make him feel any better. All he knew was that his friend was fighting for his life upstairs, that Joan Braden already had told him, "I don't think he's going to make it." Kennedy ultimately died at 1:44 a.m. on June 6, 1968, nearly 26 hours after Sirhan shot him.

Of all the details Grier remembers about that night, the one that haunts him the most is the decision Kennedy made when he left that stage and headed in a direction opposite of Grier. They had talked about their plans after the event, how everyone was going to a nightclub in West Hollywood to extend the celebration. It was going to be a great, joyous evening, right until Kennedy disappeared into that kitchen.

"I've thought about this a lot of times," Grier said. "If we had gone that way (away from the kitchen), nothing would've happened. But it did happen. Then I thought about if we had someone who had talked to Sirhan Sirhan, then he wouldn't have done what he did. ... Who would think that somebody is going to kill him? When you think about all the people that are in the crowd, you think of all the people around, who would've thought that this was going to happen?"

The emotions swelled inside Grier as he steadied himself on his cane and recalled all that was lost that night. His deep voice trembled as he tried to remember key details to complete his stories. Tears slowly streamed down his cheeks the longer he spoke of all that went wrong at that event. As Grier well knew, with one simple, ill-fated choice, the life of a good man ended right along with the dreams that millions of people carried for a better world.

As hard as it was to relive that night, it was even harder for Grier to think about the emptiness that came after it.

"I know that there will never ever be a situation like that again for me ..." Grier said. "Here's a man ... who is rich. ... He didn't have to run for president. All the money that these people have, and yet they spent time doing all kinds of charity work and helping all kinds of people, doing just everything that they can to make the world a better place. ... I can think of a lot of people that are that rich and don't do nothing. ... That's what it's about. ... You see all these things [and you] do something about it."

Grier -- who retired from football prior to the 1968 season -- felt that impulse himself a few years after Kennedy's death. He was home one Sunday when a report aired on the local news detailing the shootings of three little girls by a street gang. Grier immediately picked up the phone and started calling friends to do something about the tragedy. He then walked into the bathroom, eyed his image in the mirror and asked a serious question: What am I going to do about this?

That was the moment when everything changed for Grier, when the seed of hope that had been planted by his friendship with Kennedy blossomed into an all-out commitment to action. Before long, Grier was spending more of his time roaming through the inner city of Los Angeles, searching for places where he could make a difference. He eventually met a local community activist named Fred Horn, who steered him to some kids who were willing to listen to what Grier had to say.

Grier spent the next 18 months talking to troubled kids, preaching to them about his own experience and explaining that there were better options out there if they just believed. He even worked some connections and encouraged then-Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley to help him find 15 jobs to offer those kids. It didn't even bother Grier that only one teenager he spoke to was willing to take him up on the offer of employment. As Grier knew from hanging around Kennedy, all he needed was a starting point.

"One guy ... passed by, and he said, 'I'll work with you,' " Grier said. "He came to the office and we went out into the community. ... And then after a while, 15 kids [had jobs] because [the city] put them in community service and they were paying them."

"[Kennedy's death] made him realize that he himself needed to be involved, and there were things he could [do] as one person that would influence others, and that we could make the United States of America and the world truly a better place to live if we do it one person at a time," Cydnee said. "We don't have to have a whole audience."

Grier never lost that passion for helping and connecting with others. He still worked as an entertainer -- he appeared in a number of films and television shows, hosted his own TV show and even recorded songs -- but he also devoted himself to the same ideals Kennedy espoused. Grier became an ordained Protestant minister in 1983, one who authored several books and traveled the country as an inspirational speaker. He co-founded the American Neighborhood Enterprises, a nonprofit organization that helped disadvantaged inner-city residents purchase homes and receive vocational training. As recently as 2017, Grier even flirted with the notion of running for governor of California before ending his candidacy after six months.

There might never be a day when Grier isn't still pained by what happened to Kennedy inside the Ambassador Hotel. However, there have been plenty of days when Grier carried on the spirit of his friend and the hope that it instilled in so many others.

"He goes out on the streets still today at age 85," Cydnee said. "We see the broken people from the homeless community, or we may even see an elderly man or woman that is alone, and we're walking and we're talking to these people and encouraging them."

Grier has kept in touch with Ethel Kennedy, along with Rory, the daughter who would enter the world on Dec. 12, 1968, just over six months after her father's murder. Sirhan remains incarcerated in California, as he was sentenced to death in April of 1969, before having that punishment changed to life in prison three years later. He admitted to killing Kennedy but has maintained that he has no memory of the crime. Grier probably talks about the murder three or four times a year with Cydnee, usually after something triggers the emotions of that night within him. The two married in 2013 -- this is Grier's third marriage -- after his second wife, Margie, died of cancer in 2011. The first thing Cydnee truly appreciated about Grier: his overwhelming sense of compassion.

The same sensitivity Grier displayed in winning over Cydnee was present from the moment he walked onto the campus of the RFK Community Schools. He traveled roughly 30 to 40 yards during his time at the schools, but every step meant something, just as every memory that hit him took him back to a place he likely will never leave.

When Grier finished talking about his recollections of that fateful night in 1968, he found himself back in the same position he was when the day began -- curled up on a metal folding chair. This time, he was crying uncontrollably, as Cydnee knelt beside him and rubbed his back.

There's no doubting that the death of Bobby Kennedy took a lot of out of Rosey Grier. However, this much is also true: Kennedy's life gave Grier plenty more to appreciate.

"He inspired me," Grier said. "I knew all these other great men ... and I'm just so sorry that all these people are gone today. They're dying. But the world is going on. And we all ought to be doing our best to make a difference. You do what you do, and I do what I do, and together, we make a difference."


Editors: Ali Bhanpuri, Tom Blair, Brooke Cersosimo, Gennaro Filice, Dan Parr | Illustration: Mary Jane Kim
back to top

Related Content