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MIKE DOWNEY

Foreman Foremost a Father

June 14, 1996|MIKE DOWNEY

George Foreman's father drank and quarreled violently with George's mother. He was never around when George needed him. George ditched school, smoked cigarettes, drank cheap wine, dropped out of junior high and mugged innocent strangers for money.

As a father himself many times over, much is made today of Foreman's sunny disposition and teddy-bear bearing. The hard truth is, however, that George once had to virtually kidnap two of his own kids back after their mother absconded with them to a Caribbean island, and later George's teenage daughter broke his heart with things she told a tabloid newspaper about him.

Parenthood. It's no picnic. This is one of the reasons the two-time heavyweight champion felt eminently qualified to be the host of "Bad Dads," a one-hour documentary that Fox will televise Sunday night, on Father's Day. It hits harder than any fist Foreman ever felt.

As someone who once ran from the law himself--slogging through mud puddles to throw dogs off the scent, the way he had seen a fugitive do on television--Foreman understands all too well what can happen without the proper parental influence. As he puts it, "All fathers make mistakes with their children, but what we do, or what we don't do, can really damage them."

In the TV special, from the makers of the Oscar and Emmy award-winning "Scared Straight," three inmates from a federal penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pa., are enrolled in a parenting program to address the impact their crimes have had on their families.

Foreman's own story is familiar to most, that he transformed from a grim, physically abusive punk to a sweetpuss who became an ordained minister and founded a Houston youth center. On television, he often frolics with his kids, including five sons named George Edward Foreman II through V and a daughter named Georgetta.

Just ask Big George if it's all been a joy. It hasn't. He has had several wives, a couple of whom didn't stick around long after the honeymoon. He ended up not on speaking terms with his daughter Freeda George, who got married at 17, before finishing high school.

Parenting has presented such a challenge to Foreman that once, determined not to drag the kids through a dirty custody fight, the Rev. George recalled the story of King Solomon, whose solution when two women claimed motherhood of the same baby was to threaten to cut the child in half. That made one relent, as George himself relented, giving up custody and going off to cry for days.

He kept flashing back to his own childhood in a family with seven children and so little money that his mother would bring home one hamburger and slice it into eight pieces. The frequent absence of George's father took a toll on his mother, who whipped him with a belt. George loved and forgave her, but not before letting her know at 13 that he wasn't going to take such treatment much longer.

His brothers and sisters teased George all the time. They called him "Mo'head," for reasons he couldn't figure out. They told George he didn't resemble anyone else in the family, implying that he must have been dropped off on the doorstep. They needled him until George got hot and punched back, settling things, as usual, with his fists.

Then one day in 1974, after losing his title to Muhammad Ali and feeling about as low as he could go, George's sister, Gloria, hit him with some startling words.

"You know Daddy's not really your daddy," she said.

"Stop lying," George snapped.

"Do you remember when we used to call you 'Mo'head?' " Gloria asked. "Well, we weren't saying 'Mo'head.' We were saying 'Moorehead.' Leroy Moorehead was his name. He wrote Mama a letter saying he'd like to meet you."

At 25, George Foreman found out that his father wasn't his father. J.D. Foreman had drunk and disappeared so much, George's mother took up briefly with an Arkansas gentleman who had been a decorated World War II veteran. George met his biological father for the first time at a prearranged meeting inside a church, and liked him immediately. Moorehead died a few years later.

At the funeral, Moorehead's service pistol and a flag were presented to the son he hardly knew, George Foreman. George would never forget looking into an open casket and thinking, "Man, that is my father . . . or could have been."

After winning the heavyweight title for the second time, George later heard that his daughter, Freeda, sat in front of a television, rooting for her father's opponent. According to George, her mother told her child, "Don't you destroy your relationship with your father. It's way too important."

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