Triumph And Heartbreak: Football Provided A Way Out, But It Couldn’t Save Donald Rogers From Cocaine

By Joe Davidson
Updated: July 14, 2006

Donald Rogers

Donald Rogers

SACRAMENTO, Ca. — On a Friday summer morning 20 years ago, Donald Rogers collapsed against a wall of the home he bought for his mother.

According to Sacramento Bee reports at the time, Rogers slammed his fists on the floor and pleaded, “Ma, call for help!”

The shower was running. Rogers rose and slumped onto the bed. He fell unconscious and died within hours.

Cause of death was cocaine poisoning.

He was 23 years old, a football star for the Browns. Rogers was to be married the next afternoon in Oakland to Leslie Nelson, his college sweetheart from UCLA.

Until he died, Rogers was the definition of success in Del Paso Heights, the tough Sacramento neighborhood where he was raised and where he attended the now-shuttered Norte Del Rio High School.

With an easy smile, handsome face and winning personality, he capitalized on his athletic abilities to win a scholarship to UCLA, earn cheers from 100,000 football fans at the Rose Bowl and sign a $2.5 million contract with the Browns.

Those accomplishments no longer mattered when the coroner confirmed that cocaine killed Rogers.

“We have always counseled kids around here about the dangers of drugs,” said Eugene Washington, a pastor at Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church in Del Paso Heights. Washington gave the eulogy at Rogers’ funeral.

“I knew Donnie since he was a child,” Washington said. “Knew him as well as anyone.

“I never had that talk about drugs with him — and I should have. That will always bother me.”

When the pastor talks to neighborhood kids today, he says he uses Rogers as an example of the tragedy drugs bring.

Authorities investigated a bachelor party thrown for Rogers at the Sacramento Hilton the night before his death. They traced his movements and interviewed friends and witnesses.

Police could not track the source of the cocaine.

No arrests were made.

In the end, authorities said Rogers’ lungs were so congested with blood as a result of the drug that he essentially died of asphyxiation.

Drugs close by

Twenty years later, the sorrow and healing continue.

“It crushed our world,” said Connell Johnson, who grew up with Rogers. “It’s still hard to understand and accept. Your whole life, you try to find people as good as Don Rogers. We had him, then we lost him. And you’ll still find a lot of people around here who can’t let go.”

Those who knew Rogers still insist he would never do anything to hurt or disappoint his mother, Loretha.

At 6-foot-1, she was literally the family pillar. She reared three children and saw each earn athletic scholarships.

She once explained, “It was their only way out of here.”

Don Rogers was the first born. He was a mentor to his brother, Reggie, who would follow Don’s football path and play in the NFL. Don was a protector to his sister, Jackie, still regarded as one of the Sacramento area’s best high school athletes.

Don Rogers appeared to enjoy the role of family provider. When he was drafted and signed with the Browns in 1984, he moved his mother into her home. He bought her a white Cadillac.

He purchased a BMW for his brother and a compact car for Jackie.

For Don Rogers and many other professional athletes in the early 1980s, drugs were never far from their world.

The Browns had one of the leading anti-drug programs in professional sports during a time many team officials believed cocaine to be commonplace in the NFL.

Drugs were also present in Rogers’ childhood neighborhood. They were familiar among his friends. The dangers were explicit — made even more obvious with the fatal cocaine overdose of Boston Celtics rookie Len Bias, whose death made international headlines eight days before Rogers ingested his fatal drugs.

Rogers called his mother when he learned of Bias’ death. And he wept.

There would be more tears to come.

Memorial services were held at Arco Arena. Among the speakers were Rev. Jesse Jackson and UCLA football coach Terry Donahue.

Loretha Rogers could not attend. She had been hospitalized for a heart attack many believed was caused by the stress of losing her son.

One year after her son’s death, Loretha Rogers recalled the child she lost to cocaine in an interview with the Bee.

“I don’t have any regrets of the way I brought him up or the area I brought him up in,” she said, “because he turned out to be a wonderful young man. He strived to show a good child could make a name for himself and his community.”

Loretha Rogers died in 2000 at age 58 from heart failure. She is buried next to her son, under a shade tree.

“She died of a broken heart; I know it, I saw it,” said Linda Williams, a lifelong friend of Jackie Rogers and a local author.

Family hit hard

Some people close to the Rogers family say they believe Don’s death made the deepest impact on Jackie. She was home that morning. She made the frantic phone call for help.

Jackie received a scholarship to Oregon State but dropped out and never played basketball again. Today, she lives in Sacramento and says she has “ups and downs.”

She works as an in-home care provider.

“I don’t think of the bad ending,” Jackie said. “I remember all of his good. He was my best friend, my bodyguard. When I visit him, I always tell him: `I love you, I miss you. You’re in a special place in my heart.’ ”

She has struggled to comprehend the choices and fates that killed her brother.

“It wasn’t like Donald at all to do drugs,” Jackie said.

“He was such a good man, so proud to be a football player. But he wasn’t perfect. It still bothers me there was never no arrest. Just like Len Bias — never solved.”

Reggie Rogers grew five inches taller and considerably stronger than his 6-foot-1 older brother. Reggie was a star at the University of Washington and a first-round pick in the NFL Draft.

He admits he can’t get over the loss of his brother. He had a nominal NFL career and was involved in a drunken-driving accident that left three teenagers dead in Michigan. Reggie Rogers lives in Seattle, near his five children.

When contacted by phone, he said he didn’t wish to talk about his brother.

“For me, the way it all transpired, how it happened, it’s hard,” Reggie Rogers said.

“It’s difficult. I’ll never understand. But I’d rather just leave it alone.”

`A good kid’

Hanford Dixon grew close to Don Rogers while they played for the Browns. In a matter of days, Dixon went from groomsman to pallbearer.

Dixon remembers Rogers’ hotel bachelor party as relatively uneventful. There were drinks, he said, but no drugs.

“I knew Donnie as well as anyone,” said Dixon, now a real estate broker in Cleveland. “That’s the mystery to me. It came out of nowhere. I never saw him use, never had any idea. That’s why it’s still so devastating. He was such a good kid.”

Donahue, Rogers’ coach at UCLA, said that’s what made losing Rogers so hard, that he was so well-liked by so many people. If there was any good to come out of such a tragic situation, he said, it was increased drug awareness.

“People can take solace in knowing that Donnie’s death brought awareness to a drug issue that was lying dormant,” Donahue said.

“This was such a national event that people had to pay attention all of a sudden. Up to that point, it seemed like those sort of deaths only happened to a bad guy, not someone who was so well-appreciated and loved.”