John Rollins, a former Providence city council member, civil rights activist and football star at La Salle Academy and the University of Rhode Island, has died. He was 77.
A witty, warm and friendly man with a wide smile, Rollins surprised Providence’s political community in 1986 when in an upset he defeated City Councilman Lloyd Griffin to win a Democratic primary in the 10th Ward on the city’s South Side.
Rollins defeated Griffin in a primary by about 200 votes after a relentless door-to-door campaign in the Washington Park neighborhood. "They all told me he (Griffin) could not be beaten, but I ran anyway and did it," Rollins told this reporter at his election night headquarters.
Griffin had been a longtime incumbent who was a favorite of the city’s political establishment, especially former Mayor Buddy Cianci. Griffin also had the backing in 1986 of then-mayor Joseph R. Paolino Jr.
But Griffin has alienated many of the voters in Washington Park with his focus on patronage and what was what perceived at the time as using his council seat to help himself and his allies and not paying sufficient attention to neighborhood needs, such a crime and a better police presence.
Rollins was the first star African-American football player at URI. He had tryouts with two National Football League teams, the Green Bay Packers and the New York Giants.
Rollins and his wife, Julia, were civil rights activists, particularly around issues of school integration and education.
Rollins worked in the construction industry and as a city building inspector and as the head of the city’s minority business program.
An accomplished chef, Rollins loved cooking for friends. He displayed his cooking skills to raise money for LaSalle with fund-raising dinners to harvest money for the school’s scholarship fund.