“Two kids from the (south) Eastside of Chicago doing big things and being great husbands and fathers,” Jeff Allen texted Glenn Foster. A childhood friend and college football teammate of Allen, Foster had texted him out of the blue, reconnecting after five years without contact. By then, both had had NFL careers, started families, and were building successful businesses.
This week, Jeff is left trying to process the tragic death of 31-year old Foster, a father, husband, son, former NFL player, and entrepreneur who died while being detained in the Pickens County Jail, in Alabama. His death is currently being investigated by the Alabama State Bureau of Investigations. According to some sources, including his family, he may have been dealing with a mental health episode at the time.
This latest bizarre incident is a familiar recurring tragedy: An African American man’s life and death become the center of a national debate on the justified lethal force law enforcement has statutory power to use on detainees with possible mental health challenges. These decisions can become death penalties within minutes.
Law enforcement institutions such as the Pickens County Jail are immune from fear of prosecution, even while depriving citizens of due process and equal protection under the law. A mental health breakdown isn’t a criminal offense worthy of capital punishment.
In the chilly December wind, walking with my 3-year-old son to the park, we passed a small-town police station down the street from our home. I thought of the high school senior I knew in passing, and of how police from any community in the United States have the unmitigated power to end your life.
Yet, there we were. My brown-skinned 3-year-old boy was bopping with excitement and anticipation to reach the swings and slides, as I observed two young white male police officers in the police parking lot. They were unaware of us, and my son unaware of them.
I thought about first meeting Glenn when he was a senior at Mount Carmel High School, a well-known football powerhouse in Chicago that has won numerous state championships. It’s where NFL quarterback Donovan McNabb played as a prep athlete. I had driven Jeff Allen to the University of Illinois Ron Zook football camp, and to most of the home games there after he was offered a scholarship.
It was at one of those games that Jeff introduced the tall and gangly Glenn to me, in the fall of 2008. Foster was also offered a scholarship at the University of Illinois. Like Jeff, he was beyond eager to hit the turf in Champaign.
Foster and Allen became members of the elite National Football League fraternity. Jeff was drafted in the 2012 NFL Draft as the 44th pick by the Kansas City Chiefs, and Glenn signed to the New Orlean Saints in 2013 as an undrafted free agent.
Even in light of the environmental and social challenges they both ascended from, the violence and frequent death in Chicago didn’t diminish their optimism, distinction, and honor. Young African American men who surpass obstacles such as the southeast side of Chicago, whose chronic violence and death is manifest in the more than 1,000 murders tallied there in the year 2021, are role models. They should be exalted, not extinguished by the leadership of their communities.
Jeff forwarded me the text messages he had received from Glenn before his death, lauding Jeff for his dedication as a husband and father and his support for his wife’s career goals. “Hope all continues to go well for you and your family,” he wrote. Glenn’s final text message to Jeff suggested that they get together for a visit: “Definitely would like to take the family on a trip to Dallas.”
This Christmas, Glenn and his daughter would have been learning how to bake from the successful boutique cookie business that Jeff and his wife Marisa own and operate in Frisco, Tex. They’re planning to open a second store in 2022, after the enormous success of the initial franchise.
Glenn was eager for his daughter to observe the inner workings of the multimillion-dollar baking operation of a childhood friend’s wife from “Terror Town,” the same working-class neighborhood Michelle Robinson—now Obama—called home in her youth, in South Shore. It isn’t far from the $700 million Presidential Center that bears her husband’s name.
But before that visit could take place, Foster took a drive through Reform, Ala., on his way to Atlanta, Ga., for a business trip. His encounter with law enforcement officers there, for a speeding infraction, would see his life ended. Glenn spent his last minutes and hours with no friend or family in the Pickens County Jail. The circumstances that led to his death are yet to be determined.
Whatever the circumstances surrounding the death of Glenn Foster, his children are now denied a proud father and his wife a husband. His triumph over inner-city violence was negated when his fate was sealed over a traffic violation he had the resources to fight in court.
Jeff reiterated that Glenn was one of the good guys. He never got in trouble in their neighborhood, although they were surrounded by it at every step. Several weeks ago, Jeff was informed of another childhood friend of his lost to Chicago’s daily murder count by violence. The lawless streets of Chicago murdered one childhood friend, and law enforcement the other.