Kermit Alexander And The Boy He Didn't Help

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Retiring in the early 70s, Kermit Alexander played for the San Francisco 49ers, the Los Angeles Rams and the Philadelphia Eagles. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)
Retiring in the early 70s, Kermit Alexander played for the San Francisco 49ers, the Los Angeles Rams and the Philadelphia Eagles. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)

"I thought I was too busy to go help this kid, because I thought I was doing enough. Well, the truth of the matter is I didn't do enough, and the community didn't do enough, because he ended up becoming a prima facie killer."  -- Kermit Alexander

Ever since Kermit Alexander was young, helping others has been his number one job. He’s the oldest of 11 children born to Kermit Sr, a World War II veteran who served with the Montford Point Marines, and Ebora, a preacher's daughter from the Jim Crow south. Alexander's number one job even influenced which sport he chose to play. His favorite was baseball, but...

"The more team members I had, the better I felt," he said.  "And so my job was to help 40 other guys get better. I had the speed and agility that was at that time unprecedented. What that gave me the opportunity to do was be the best that I could be for my teammates."

The best that Alexander could be took him to UCLA and then to the NFL, where he played for the San Francisco 49ers, the Los Angeles Rams, and the Philadelphia Eagles. He retired in the early 70s, moved back home to L.A. and his life hummed along for about a decade. He got a job. He was starting law school. He worked with youth football teams — four or five at a time.

But L.A. was becoming a more dangerous place to live. A fight broke out at a local nightclub, paralyzing a young woman who happened to live near Alexander's mother. Her family sued.

It didn't excuse him for what he did. I don't deny what he did, I only accept the fact that I'm part of the responsibility.

Kermit Alexander

"The bar owner decided to eliminate the lawsuit, and he wanted to do that by hiring somebody to kill the people who had filed the lawsuit. The people he hired were gang members and weren't very literate, and they ended up in my mother's house, killing my family. I lost my mother. I lost my sister, and I lost two of my nephews who were just visiting, spending the weekend with their grandmother."

Alexander's memory isn't perfect these days. His wife Tami says that's the consequence of too many concussions. He sometimes forgets details…like the date his family members were murdered. It was August 31, 1984. But the emotions of that day? Those have never left him.

"Normally I'm sitting there having coffee with my mom, but I had overslept. And my brother Neal called, and he was almost hysterical and couldn't understand why this had happened. And I rushed out of the house and went over to my mother's, and they had cordoned off the area and they wouldn't allow me in the house. They had taken my family members that were alive and taken them to the police precinct, and so I went there to talk to them.

"They were all adamant that I had had something to do with it, because I'm the oldest, and I was responsible, and I was always doing things that attracted a lot of attention. They figured I had attracted the wrong attention.

"It was devastating. They isolated themselves from me, and so I was left on my own with whatever help I could get from wherever I could get it to try to understand what had happened."

Eventually the police arrested the man who would be identified as the shooter. Alexander doesn't have any trouble remembering that man's name.

"Tiequan. Tiequan Cox."

"When did you realize that you had seen him play football?" I asked.

"I didn't realize it. My sister did. Mary Ann and I were sitting there in court and she nudged me in the side and said, 'Do you know who that kid is?' And she says, 'I remember this kid, we played against him.' I said, 'No, I don't remember him.' She says, 'Yes you do! He's the kid that everybody said was a tremendous athlete but had a terrible temper.' And I went, 'Oh, God. Is that him?' She said, 'Yes, that's the one.' And I went, 'Oh, Lord, the reason I'm sitting here is my fault. The reason that he's there is my fault.'

"I hadn't done what I was supposed to do. I hadn't done what I'd been taught to do by my mom and my dad.

[sidebar title="Sports Mentors Help Kids Take ‘Tiny Steps’ To A Better Life" width="630" align="right"] Can sports mentors really change the lives of children? Our experts weigh in. [/sidebar]"I had a mom and a dad that gave us support and direction throughout my life; his was sporadic. And his mom was having difficulties both emotionally and otherwise, until he was kind of left on his own. When you're a responsible person, you pay attention to people, especially people who are in pain. And I noticed the pain that this youngster was involved in, but I ignored it. I ignored it because I had all these other children I was trying to work with and felt that I was overloaded.

"He wanted to join a gang, and he became a gang member, and a fierce one at that. He had all the tools to be a tremendous athlete, but he used it to be a tremendous killer.

"There were many times when I didn't feel I was going to live through what we were going through. I miss my family. I miss those people that were killed, and so that's always going to be a part of my life. Although I've forgiven myself, I told Tiequan Cox personally it was as much my fault as it was his, and I was responsible for a lot of things that happened to him because I didn't help. It didn't excuse him for what he did. I don't deny what he did, I only accept the fact that I'm part of the responsibility."

"You apologized to the man who killed your family?" I asked.

"Yes, I did. In order to live my life, I had to take blame for what my responsibilities were. He's still in prison, he's on death row."

Cox has been awaiting execution for nearly three decades. He sits on California's death row with 750 other convicted killers. In his new book, "The Valley of the Shadow of Death," Alexander says he feels sympathy and guilt--but not mercy--towards Cox. It's a complicated set of emotions, and earlier this year Alexander sued the state of California to demand that Cox's sentence be carried out.

"I take issue with our system because our system hasn't lived up to the promise it says it's going to live up to, Alexander said. "And so I'm pushing to make sure the system does what it's supposed to do. And, you know, I'm also a former probation officer and I've dealt with a lot of criminals. It is a deterrent--when people transgress, they have to understand that when they break the rules, they have to pay the piper."

After the trial, Alexander says he spent more than a decade literally and figuratively wandering the desert. But then he met Tami and she showed him that there were still people who needed his help. Together, they adopted five children--siblings rescued from Haiti days after the 2010 earthquake. And, at age 74, after years of not talking to anyone about his story, Alexander sat down, with some help, to write a book.

"What the book gave me the opportunity to do was to purge myself, to get it off my chest, to get all of the feelings---good, bad and indifferent---put it on paper. Take a look at it. Try to make sense of it. And once it's all done, you realize that not everything that happened is your fault. You realize that you can only do the best that you can with what you have.

"You just got to pray that that's enough."

This segment aired on November 21, 2015.


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Karen Given Executive Producer/Interim Host, Only A Game
Karen is the executive producer for WBUR's Only A Game.



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