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When Rights Go Wrong : Before June 27 Drug Death, Don Rogers Was Troubled; Maybe He Cared Too Much

August 03, 1986|SAM McMANIS | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — In his short but eventful life, Don Rogers almost always did what most people would consider the right thing.

On the football field, the former UCLA and Cleveland Browns safety could be counted on to serve and protect Mr. Rogers' neighborhood. It was not a friendly place for opposing wide receivers.

And in Rogers' real neighborhood in suburban Sacramento, he was a one-man support group to his troubled family.

But on the morning of June 27, just hours after his bachelor party and a day before his scheduled wedding to Leslie Nelson, his college girlfriend, Don Rogers did not do the right thing.

He walked into a bedroom of a house he had bought for his mother two years ago, closed the door and ingested a lethal dose of cocaine.

Moments later, he lapsed into a coma. He died that afternoon.

A Sacramento coroner later said that the amount of cocaine Rogers had consumed probably was enough to kill an elephant, let alone a 6-foot 1-inch, 210-pound football player.

Nobody, of course, knows what Rogers was thinking or feeling that morning. But those closest to him say that, because of recent and increasing stress, he had grown tired of carrying his family's burdens.

On May 12, the day after Mother's Day, Rogers came home and found his mother, Loretha, lying face down in the garden. A victim of clogged arteries, she had suffered a minor heart attack and had to be hospitalized.

Then, as his wedding approached, Rogers confided to his mother that he was having "serious second thoughts" about getting married.

Don also had helped his father, Joe Henry Rogers, get a temporary release from the Sacramento County Jail so he could attend the wedding. Joe Rogers was serving 120 days for his third drunken-driving conviction in two years.

Financially, Rogers had obligations that most 23-year-olds, even ones with lucrative NFL contracts, would probably find overwhelming.

After turning pro, Rogers bought the new house for his family, furnished it, and bought expensive new cars for himself and the immediate family.

He also occasionally gave money to Roscoe Riley, a Los Angeles man who claims that he, not Joe Rogers, is Don's real father.

Rogers also was supporting a 4-year-old son, Don Jr., whom he had with a woman he met between his freshman and sophomore years in college.

Most recently, Don had helped his brother, Reggie, out of a financial bind in Seattle, where Reggie plays football for the University of Washington.

"He was under unbelievable pressure that last week, and he always carried the family burden on his shoulders," said Steve Arnold, an agent who represented Rogers and helped handle his finances. "I don't know, of course, but maybe he was looking for a way to escape for a while."

If cocaine was, indeed, meant to be an escape from reality for Rogers, it seems to be one he did not often pursue.

Two of Rogers' former UCLA teammates, who asked not to be identified, told The Times that Rogers and a few other Bruin players had used cocaine and marijuana during Rogers' junior and senior years. But several of Rogers' close friends on UCLA's football team said they never saw Rogers use drugs and that they never heard talk about it. UCLA Coach Terry Donahue has been on vacation and could not be reached.

The autopsy report from the Sacramento County Coroner's office showed that, although cocaine intoxication was the cause of death, Rogers' body showed no signs of long-term use.

What is known, unquestionably, is that Rogers used cocaine at least once. It was once too often.

"I don't know why people use drugs, but, of course, the pressure (on Don) might have had something to do with it," his fiancee, Leslie Nelson, said. "He's had responsibilities ever since Day 1 . . . but I honestly believe if he had made it through Saturday, everything would have been all right."

What was to have been a Saturday wedding turned into a funeral the next Thursday, though, and the traumatic effects of such a stark turnabout on those who knew Rogers well have only recently subsided.

For the first time since Rogers' death, his family and friends have talked at length about Don.

MAMA'S

'LITTLE GENTLEMAN'

It was a typically hot mid-June day in Sacramento, and Don Rogers was glistening with sweat as he walked into the house after a morning run. But Loretha Rogers noticed that her son's eyes were red and that maybe those were tears, not sweat, streaming down his face.

"What's the matter, Donald?" Loretha asked.

"I stopped by the grocery store and someone told me Len Bias, the basketball player, died," Don said. "Mama, I'm praying so hard that it isn't drug-related. That would just be terrible for his family if it was."

Loretha Rogers was holding back her own tears as she recalled that exchange with her son. Don's own death by cocaine overdose occurred just eight days after Bias' eerily similar death.

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