Monday, May 25, 2015

Giving 'Em Fitz: Echoes of Trayvon Martin incident in death of ex-football star Janerette

Charlie Janerette, a Germantown High grad who went on to play in the pros, was fatally shot in 1984. (Penn State file photo)
Charlie Janerette, a Germantown High grad who went on to play in the pros, was fatally shot in 1984. (Penn State file photo)

Amid the waters roiled by Trayvon Martin's death, Charlie Janerette's name bobbed to the surface.

The two compelling images of Janerette that once coexisted in my head - the Penn State all-American with a master's degree, and the disheveled, mentally ill man with a policeman's bullet in the back of his head - weren't easily reconciled.

It was easier to forget both. And so, for me, a resumé filled with remarkable accomplishments disappeared on a bloodstained Center City sidewalk 271/2 years ago.

Some of the questions now at play in Martin's death were raised when Janerette was killed in 1984: What is acceptable force? What role did race play? And how much did perceptions cloud reality?

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  • In Janerette's case at least, they've never been fully answered, which only adds to the heartbreak of a life marked by famous acquaintances, significant firsts, and terrible irony.

    Born in 1937, Charles Janerette Jr. grew up in the Richard Allen Homes in North Philadelphia and later in East Oak Lane. He was the only boy among Charlie Sr. and Lillian's five children. All would earn master's degrees, two of them earned Ph.Ds.

    One of his closest boyhood friends was Bill Cosby, who has hinted that the supersized youngster was the inspiration for his Fat Albert character. During a 1973 appearance on the Dick Cavett Show, the comedian said he used to laugh hysterically whenever Janerette's mother called her physically precocious son "Junior."

    The two went to Germantown High School, where they starred in football. Janerette, described as smart and sweet-tempered, also became the first black president of Germantown's senior class.

    At 6-foot-3 and 250 pounds, the lineman earned all-city honors and a football scholarship to Penn State. He had planned to major in premed before the demands of big-time college football disabused him of that ambition.

    Janerette was a second-team all-American guard as a Nittany Lions senior in 1959. Joe Paterno, an assistant to then-head coach Rip Engle, once recalled that the Philadelphian had arrived in State College as a "sensitive, shy" young man who "got tougher and tougher."

    It was in his final collegiate game that Janerette made history. Until Penn State's 7-0 triumph in the inaugural Liberty Bowl, which took place at Municipal Stadium, Alabama had never played against an opponent with a black player.

    C.J. Schexnayder, an Alabama writer working on a book about that bowl game, explained its significance: "By playing a team with a black starter in 1959, Alabama broke a racial barrier that would have been all but impossible even a year later due to the polarized political climate in the state over segregation."

    Selected in the fifth round of the 1960 NFL draft by the Los Angeles Rams, Janerette's seven-year professional career also included stints with the NFL's Giants, with the Jets and Broncos in the AFL, and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the Canadian Football League.

    Paterno hired him as a graduate assistant after he became head coach and Janerette earned his master's in educational counseling at Penn State.

    He married, had a daughter, and lived for a while in Syracuse, N.Y. It was there, relatives later contended, that he began exhibiting the first signs of a mental illness, a condition later diagnosed as manic-depression.

    In 1972, Janerette pleaded guilty to driving-while-intoxicated charges after he struck and killed a pedestrian. He served no prison time, but for the rest of his life the date, Oct. 18, was an emotionally painful anniversary.

    When he took the lithium doctors prescribed, Janerette apparently functioned well. He accepted a job as an English teacher at Daniel Boone School in North Philadelphia, where the principal said he was "absolutely no problem."

    But he grew to dislike the medication, and the more he ignored it, the more erratic his behavior became.

    On Oct. 25, 1984, Janerette failed to show up at the school on North 26th Street. Later that day, he reportedly had an angry confrontation with a neighborhood merchant and turned up near the seedy bus terminal at 13th and Arch Streets.

    At about 2:30 a.m. on Oct. 26, near 15th and Cherry Streets, Philadelphia Police Officer Kurt Von Colln stopped two men on mopeds. It was then that Janerette stumbled onto the scene.

    Fourteen years earlier, as he sat behind a desk in a Cobbs Creek Park guardhouse, the policeman's father, Sgt. Frank Von Colln, had been killed by gunmen who branded themselves as black revolutionaries.

    Now, as the slain officer's son talked to the youngsters in the middle of the night, Janerette entered Von Colln's empty, idling cruiser. All agreed that he sat in the vehicle, but the policeman said that he'd tried to drive it away.

    One of Janerette's sisters, Hope, told the New York Times that her parents had taught their children that if they ever needed help, the best thing to do was to find a police car and get inside.

    Whether or not they ever intended or envisioned that a 45-year-old might be in that position, it's impossible to assess Janerette's motives. When the 5-foot-7, 180-pound Von Colln attempted to remove him, an altercation ensued. It ended when Janerette was shot once in the back of the head. He died 12 hours later in Hahnemann University Hospital.

    There were immediate questions about the shooting and conflicting versions of what had led to it.

    The joyriders initially reported that Janerette had been shot during a scuffle, but later altered their stories. A neighbor said she'd seen the victim up against a wall being frisked by the policeman. An Inquirer truck driver reported seeing the officer and the ex-football player wrestling.

    Janerette's family sued. A U.S. District Court jury ruled in 1987 that Von Colln was justified in using deadly force, but negligent. It awarded the family $188,000.

    The ambiguous verdict made nothing any clearer. No one is ever likely to know exactly what happened that night. Maybe the violent death ended a life hurtling downhill. Or maybe it only assured that someone desperately in need of help would never get any.

    All these years later, there's really only one thing certain about the incident: Charlie Janerette's terrible death forever obscured a wonderful life.

     


    Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068, ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com, or @philafitz on Twitter. Read his blog, "Giving 'Em Fitz," at www.philly.com/fitz

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