My friend Christian Cullen was telling me a story of how he was robbed in his apartment at dead-blank, carotid-artery range by two inept assailants with a .45. They mistook Cullen for a major marijuana dealer instead of the minor dealer he was back in 1996. The men were African-American, he told me. In the end, they tied him up, took a quarter-ounce of grass, $150, and Cullen’s phone card.
“I busted out of the Christmas-tree lights [they’d tied me with] in about one-and-a-half seconds,” he continued. “I looked through the small peephole on my door and saw the backs of their heads as they ran away. I ran out the back door to alert my neighbor — who’d already confronted the men with his empty shotgun — that they were gone. Nothing else really happened. I stayed home the rest of the day, seething, still terrified. I’d had guns pointed at me by cops, but, you know, right up against your.…” It is 13 years later, and the only ease Cullen finds is in the number of times he has retold the story.
The day after the robbery, Cullen had a football game to play with more than 20 black teammates or opponents he had been playing with for months. “I was the only white guy playing with these men for all this time. They called me Big Homie. I showed up late at Water Tower Park, what they now call Ted Williams Field, in North Park. It was halftime. My team was down 28-0. In the huddle they asked, ‘Where you been?’ I said I just got robbed by these two [expletive deleted]. The guys didn’t like that. I said, ‘Well, the good news is, everybody on the other team looks just like the guys that robbed me.’ They laughed; they were more than okay with it.”
Cullen went on to accomplish five quarterback sacks in the second half. “We ended up winning 56-49. In my five quarterback sacks, I removed the ball three freakin’ times and it was recovered twice by my team with one of the guys going for a 99-yard return for a touchdown.
“Also, I almost got in a fight that day. Someone didn’t like how well I was playing. He took out my ankles. I took umbrage at that and gave him what- for from the other side of the ball. While he was standing there threatening me, one of his own teammates — must have weighed 275 — wrapped him up and dragged him away and said, ‘Don’t be fuckin’ with Big Homie. He’ll rip your fuckin’ head right off.’ That ended up being probably the best defensive performance of my entire life. I was voted MVP of the team.”
Cullen shifted gears in his narrative as if enough about glory days, or possibly he was embarrassed at the anger that prompted such aggressive athleticism that day. “About three weeks later I got my phone bill. It included all the charges on the phone card that was stolen from me. Within four hours of the armed robbery there was a call to Bakersfield, a three-hour phone call. So, I got on the phone and with my best cop’s voice [Cullen had extensive training as a policeman but eventually chose otherwise], and I called that number. A young girl answered. I said, ‘This is Detective Sergeant Richardson of the SDPD. We’re investigating a burglary...’
I didn’t even finish, and this girl started singing like she was on American Idol. ‘Yeah, his name is James K., and he lives at blah blah Market Street in San Diego.’
“I staked out his home every night for two weeks with no luck.” James K. was, as they say, in the wind. “As far as that game,” Cullen blurted this out as if there were some mystery here, “that was fueled by anger. That is the absolute best emotion to have as a football player — defensive football player, I guess. It really seems to help. He stared off, reflecting. “It seems to add to any talent that might be missing.” It is not exactly as if it was the first time this has occurred to him, but a sense of astonishment was still there.
It might be noted that these events followed on the heels of another home robbery two years earlier; a similar deal involving twisted violence and revenge. In the wake of these things it is interesting to note Cullen’s fascination with and enthusiasm for the oratory of Barack Obama during the Democratic Convention. “I was more than happy to work for him some 40 hours a week, working the phones from my house. I just wish he would start steamrolling again. Like, now.”