THOUSAND OAKS — The night of March 21, 1984 was a cold one in Texas. Some of the Dallas Cowboys were returning to Dallas from Colgate, Okla., where they played an exhibition basketball game.
In a poker game in the back of the bus, Drew Pearson, the National Football League team's all-time leading receiver, was cleaning up on his teammates. A few rows to the front, Pearson's younger brother, Carey, slept. He had gone along to help with the equipment.
An hour later, on a Dallas freeway, Carey Mark Pearson lost his life, and Drew Pearson lost his football career.
While driving Carey to a third brother's home, Drew ran his sports car into the rear of a tractor-trailer rig. Carey, 27, was dead at the scene. Drew, an 11-year NFL veteran, suffered internal injuries, among them a torn liver.
Pearson says now that he remembers little about the crash. "I remember getting on the freeway. That's all. I didn't hear or feel anything. I was stunned when I woke up. My brother's head was on my shoulder. I tried to wake him up, but I couldn't."
Before he was taken to a hospital, he was told that his brother was dead. "I was shocked," Pearson said. "I wondered, 'What the heck happened here?' "
Police said that Pearson had been driving at an "unsafe speed." His blood-alcohol level was .053, only slightly more than half the level of .10 that is classified as legally intoxicated.
Said Pearson the other day at the Cowboys' training camp here: "I don't understand how I could just fall out like that. I'd had just two beers on the bus. I was winning too much money in the card game.
"I was tired, but not sleepy. Maybe I got on the freeway and did nod. It's the only explanation. But Moose (Pearson's brother) wasn't asleep.
"I can't piece anything else together. I've racked my head trying to remember, but I can't."
Although Pearson's liver healed after surgery, the scar tissue that remains makes it risky for him to play football. He attempted a comeback before the 1984 season, but doctors told him he would risk possible life-threatening injury if he played.
It was a sad end to an NFL career during which Pearson rose from the obscurity of a free agent from the University of Tulsa in 1973 to one of the league's all-time leading receivers.
Pearson was best known for making big plays.
There was an 83-yard bomb from Roger Staubach that beat the Rams in 1973. In 1974, there was a 50-yard touchdown reception that beat the Washington Redskins on Thanksgiving Day, 24-23.
In 1975, Pearson caught a 50-yard scoring pass, the original Hail Mary pass, from Staubach in the last 20 seconds, beating the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC playoffs, 17-14. In 1981, Pearson scored twice in the last four minutes, knocking the Atlanta Falcons out of the playoffs, 30-27.
With all of that came NFL fame and glory. Staubach called Pearson the finest receiver in pro football. Coach Tom Landry once said he knew of nobody in the league who could outperform his receiver.
Said Pearson: "I had average speed, but I could stop on a dime. I had good acceleration out of the break. I had good explosion off the line of scrimmage. I had good hands. I had a lot of confidence."
He also had, by his own admission, a big mouth.
"On the field, I talked a lot," he said. "A lot of guys didn't like me. But it's the way I had to do it to play. I'd talk, then have to back it up."
Away from football, Pearson was shy and introverted, a family man with a wife and two daughters. In some of his spare time, he worked with underprivileged children. He tried to build a clean image.
His life appeared as good as any NFL star could hope for.
Then Pearson reached a crossroads in both his professional and personal lives.
Said Billy Joe DuPree, a former Cowboy teammate: "At one point in time, everything Drew Pearson touched turned to gold, but lately things have taken a turn."
Besides the accident, Pearson has had to live with the death of his father, a divorce, financial strain, unsuccessful comeback attempts and the ups and downs of a new career in television.
After being advised not to play in 1984, Pearson was hired by CBS as a football analyst. He was released by the network, however, after his first season.
"I did eight games with CBS last year," Pearson said. "Most of my reviews were positive. I thought it was just a matter of working out a contract.
"Then, Terry O'Neill (executive producer of NFL Football for CBS) called and told me my contract wouldn't be renewed. He told me I didn't have the potential to be exciting.
"They have their own style they want. It's the John Madden style. I'm as funny as the next guy, but it's not that yuk-yuk type of thing.
"He even said my coming out of the Dallas system--a conservative one, under Landry--was the reason I wasn't excitable enough. He said Staubach had the same problem."
Said O'Neill: "We only have eight analyst jobs. He was caught in a numbers game in a very competitive business."
Pearson's reviews were mixed.