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His Legacy Will Still Live On : Rogers' Death Continues to Puzzle Family and Friends

July 06, 1986|STEVE GEISSINGER | Associated Press

SACRAMENTO — The death by cocaine overdose of Cleveland Browns star Don Rogers, a man who had it all, has become a tormenting enigma to some and a new symbol to anti-drug crusaders.

The defensive back had youth, health, fame, money, a fiancee, solid family ties, close friends, dedication. His death June 27 on the eve of his wedding raises questions that are not likely to be answered by the criminal investigation into who supplied the cocaine.

Those battling drug abuse say his death underscores their belief the tragedy can strike anywhere, anytime. They note that Rogers' death the day following a bachelor party came just eight days after the cocaine overdose death of University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias.

The overdose deaths of Rogers and Bias are part of a "plague" that must be stopped by stripping the drug of its glamor and making its use unacceptable in society, the Rev. Jesse Jackson told more than 2,000 mourners Thursday at a service for Rogers.

"Pushers are terrorists and death messengers," he said. "Passing out a little 'snow' (cocaine) must become as unacceptable as passing out little ropes or little sheets," he said, labeling drug peddlers more dangerous than the Ku Klux Klan. "Dope is the hound of hell for this generation."

"I hope this wakes up the players' associations and the players," said Greg Lukenbill, owner of the Sacramento Kings basketball team. "We've got a responsibility to society to project a positive image because we're living in a glass house. I hope this leads to mandatory testing for players, management, owners, everyone."

Family, friends, and associates say Rogers, 23, a native of Texarkana, Ark., who grew up in Sacramento, wasn't the type to take drugs, that he was a straight arrow. They said it before coroner's officials disclosed overdose findings. They still say it.

They've repeated it to The Associated Press, Sacramento Bee, Sacramento Union, and San Francisco Chronicle.

Don's father, Joe Rogers, says flatly he doesn't believe the coroner.

"We're not going to go for it. He was devoted to his football team and to his family. Within me, I know my son never used it (cocaine). I think it (the coroner's statement) is incorrect."

"There was no cocaine" at the bachelor's party Don attended hours before his death, added Joe Rogers. "Everybody was just drinking beer. That's all it was."

Don's mother, Loretha Rogers, who was given a $100,000 house by her son, was unable for comment because she was hospitalized with heart problems and hypertension she suffered the day after her son's death.

Leslie Nelson, his sweetheart at the UCLA who was to have been on her honeymoon in the Bahamas with him this weekend, said: "The only thing I can say about the publicity Don is getting is that it's a shame the media waited until his death to recognize him."

"All the speculation about drugs makes it seem like he was a bad person. I don't think justice has been done to him and the type of person he was."

"He cared a great deal about his family. . .And he cared a lot about people in general. He would try to do whatever he could to make their lives happier."

Nelson wears the diamond ring that her fiance planned to give her. The ring she was to give him at the wedding was, instead, her final gift to him before the funeral Thursday.

"I was not even aware of Donnie doing drugs. That's the whole thing that's really got me upset, that Donnie died of a drug overdose," Browns member Hanford Dixon said after the coroner's report that Rogers' blood had five times the minimum lethal dose of cocaine.

Rogers' agent, Steve Arnold, said: "I'd venture to guess this was the first time or the second time (Rogers tried the drug). "If it can happen to a young man who's so strong and upright and intelligent, I'm scared it can happen to anybody."

Kenny Easley, a former All-America teammate at UCLA and a member of the Seattle Seahawks, said, "I would be as surprised as any person on the face of this earth (that Rogers used cocaine) . . . I loved Don Rogers like a brother. It's like part of me has died along with him. He was part of my family and part of my life."

Others also fondly recall the 6-foot-1, 206-pound football player.

"To the kids . . . he was a hero. He'd go away to football camps and bring all the kids in the neighborhood T-shirts," said Rogers' high school football coach in Sacramento, Bob Vukijlovich.

"Everything I knew about him was that he was a class kid, never arrogant like a lot of guys in this situation," he said.

"He'd come home in the summertime and whenever he'd see us out practicing, he'd stop by and work with the kids; show them little things, little techniques. The kids worshipped him."

Rogers' coach at UCLA, Terry Donahue, who watched Rogers set a school record with 399 career tackles, said: "This is a tragedy of unbelievable proportions. Don was one of the greatest football players in UCLA history and he had his whole life ahead of him."

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