A life too short
Eight days after the death of Len Bias, Cleveland Browns star Don Rogers also died of a cocaine overdose
Don Rodgers was only 4 at the time, but parts of that day from 30 years ago are still etched in his brain.
Well-dressed uncles, aunts and cousins had gathered at his grandmother’s home and started piling into cars and limousines.
There was a brief ride to nearby Arco Arena in Sacramento, where the procession pulled up to the back door. His uncle Reggie picked him up and clutched him tightly as they walked into the building.
Rodgers paused as he recalled the moment. Then laughed, nervously.
“We get inside, and there my father was in a casket,” Rodgers said. “I didn’t even know he was dead.”
His father, Don Rogers, was one of the greatest athletes ever to come out of Sacramento. In high school, he starred in basketball, baseball and track. But he chose football as his ticket out, becoming an All-American safety at UCLA before being selected with the 18th pick of the 1984 NFL draft by the Cleveland Browns. He was the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, and some said he was talented enough to become one of the best defensive backs in football.
Rogers was only 23 when he died 30 years ago today. It was the morning after his bachelor party and the day before he was to be married. The cause of death: a cocaine overdose.
It was eight days after Maryland basketball star Len Bias also died of a cocaine overdose.
Rev. Jesse Jackson spoke at the funeral service for Rogers, just as he did at the funeral for Bias. But while each year people mark the death of the basketball star who died shortly after being drafted by the Boston Celtics, few outside of Sacramento remember what happened to Rogers. The reason is unknown. But when educators teach the dangers of cocaine, each should be used as an example.
Little Don Rodgers (he spells his name with a ‘d,’ like his paternal grandfather but differently from his dad) has been told that he cried uncontrollably as the service for his father began.
He doesn’t remember. Just like he doesn’t remember much about his father.
“I constantly hear he’s a great guy, and it seems everybody loved him,” Rodgers said. “But I don’t remember too much personal interaction.
“How do I find out about my dad aside from what I hear?
“I Google him.”
The events leading up to Rogers’ death are outlined in the 2007 book One Moment Changes Everything by Sean Harvey.
Rogers had returned home to marry Leslie Nelson, his college sweetheart. The week before the wedding was hectic: Rogers flew from Cleveland to Seattle and drove 800 miles to Sacramento with his brother, Reggie, who was a star defensive tackle at the University of Washington. He flew back to Cleveland, then to Los Angeles to finish his last class at UCLA, and back to Sacramento for his bachelor party.
What happened next is in dispute. Harvey wrote that the Rogers brothers and 20 friends gathered Thursday night for a quiet party at a suburban Sacramento hotel, with a tired Don leaving early without saying goodbye.
Hanford Dixon, a Cleveland Browns teammate who attended the party, wrote in his book Day Of The Dawg: A Football Memoir that Rogers left the hotel with a girl on each arm for “his last great party.”
At some point, Rogers returned to the house in the Sacramento suburb of South Natomas that he had purchased for his mother, Loretha Rogers. At about 10 a.m. Friday, Rogers screamed for help, collapsed and slipped into a coma.
Rogers was taken to the hospital and died that afternoon, just hours before the scheduled wedding rehearsal. The next day — what was supposed to be his wedding day — Loretha had a heart attack at home and was hospitalized.
Three days after Rogers’ death, the coroner released its report identifying the cause of death. Rogers had 5.2 milligrams of cocaine per liter in his blood, which the coroner described as a “fatal level.” Bias, in comparison, had 6.5 milligrams per liter at the time of his death.
“It was surprising because no one in our family could ever recall him doing any drugs,” said his son. “That he would die that way is a big mystery to everyone.”
Police were unable to find out who provided Rogers with cocaine or anyone who had witnessed him using drugs that night.
Loretha Rogers was still in the hospital the day the funeral service was held. Several thousand people, including players and representatives from UCLA and the Cleveland Browns, attended.
Tom Clark, who covered Rogers’ career at Norte Del Rio High School for The Sacramento Bee, was at the funeral. “There’s no doubt in my mind that had Don Rogers decided to become a decathlete, he would have been a world record contender,” he said. “He was popular, low-key and charming. He was born to be a star.
“I remember there being an open casket, but I didn’t go up for the viewing,” he said. “I just didn’t want to remember him that way.”
Don Rogers died, and the implosion of his family followed.
Loretha Rogers ached for her oldest child, whom she had spoken to on the phone nearly every day. Financially, there was no more support from the son who had taken care of her since joining the NFL.
“My grandmother never recovered from my father’s death,” Rodgers, her grandson, said. “If you so much as mentioned my dad’s name, there would be an immediate rush of emotions.”
Loretha Rogers was 58 when she died from heart failure in 2000. Her grandson says her spirit died long before that.
Rogers’ younger brother, Reggie, also struggled. When the 1986 season for the Washington Huskies began, Reggie Rogers, who wore a black armband with his brother’s No. 20, was consistently bombarded with questions about Don.
Reggie Rogers was selected by the Detroit Lions in the 1987 NFL draft. But shortly after the season began he left the team and checked into a counseling center for a 21-day program.
A media report at the time said Reggie Rogers left the team because of problems with drugs. His mother told reporters he suffered a nervous breakdown because of his brother’s death. The Lions said he was getting emotional counseling.
His problems continued the following year. Five games into his second season, a car Reggie Rogers was driving t-boned another vehicle, killing three teenagers. His blood alcohol level was over the legal limit, and Reggie Rogers was convicted of negligent homicide. He served 13 months in jail.
He played in the NFL for parts of two more seasons. Through the years, Reggie Rogers was arrested several times, including on charges of drunken driving and domestic violence. He died in October 2013 of cocaine and alcohol intoxication.
“Uncle Reggie never got over my dad’s death,” Rodgers said. “He would get real emotional when he spoke about my father.”
Jackie Rogers, the youngest sibling, was one of the top high school basketball players in Northern California before Don Rogers’ death. Harvey wrote that even before her brother died she was “listless and lacked enthusiasm” during her final year of high school.
She still received a scholarship to Oregon State, but dropped out after a year and returned to Sacramento. The death of her brother later left her devastated.
“Jackie lost herself with a life of substance abuse,” Rodgers said. “I remember nights where me and my grandmother would go out searching for her. At the time, I hated Jackie for all the pain she put my grandmother through.”
Jackie Rogers, in recent years, has worked to put her life back together, according to Rodgers. She declined, through her nephew, to talk to The Undefeated.
“She came to my job one day and was in a lot of pain,” he said. “She cried, and I believe she changed that day. I went from hating her to absolutely loving her.”
Ajuanta Meadows, Rodgers’ mother, turned down a request to speak with The Undefeated. She and Rogers had broken up when Meadows was pregnant.
Nelson, the woman Rogers was to marry that week, told the Los Angeles Times in 1986, “… I honestly believe if he had made it through Saturday, everything would have been all right.” She did not respond to an interview request from The Undefeated.
A couple of months ago Rodgers was waiting in line at a local supermarket when a man tapped him on his shoulder.
“Are you Don Rogers’ son?”
His face is a near spitting image of his father’s, so Rodgers is approached like that constantly.
“Some of the people who come up to me knew him, so I’m a little envious because they can remember their interactions with him,” Rodgers said. “They tell me ‘Your dad was a great guy.’
“And that’s cool. But no one ever asks about me. No one seems interested in my life.”
What would the 34-year-old Rodgers tell them if they asked?
He might tell them that he’s often gone to bed wondering what life would have been like if he’d spent the last 30 years as the son of a superstar dad.
He might reveal his hardships of being laid off from jobs and having his car repossessed on several occasions.
He might disclose that, deep inside, he wished he had gotten the long-term guidance and support of a father.
Rodgers never got to know his father. But he’s learned, over the years, to appreciate him.
Recently he was watching TV in his office — he works as an auditor for Marriott — when an image flashed across a television. It was his father, shown briefly in a scene from ESPN’s Believeland documentary about Cleveland.
“I told the security guard, ‘Hey, that’s my dad,’ ” Rodgers said, laughing. “I was like, ‘wow.’ He had a life, he was a big-time football star, and that was pretty cool.”