'I'm Not Worth a Damn'

Cocaine ruined Don Reese's NFL career and put his life in jeopardy. The same insidious drug, he says, is messing up NFL players and games
June 13, 1982

Cocaine arrived in my life with my first-round draft into the National Football League in 1974. It has dominated my life, one way or another, almost every minute since. Eventually, it took control and almost killed me. It may yet. Cocaine can be found in quantity throughout the NFL. It's pushed on players, often from the edge of the practice field. Sometimes it's pushed by players. Prominent players. Just as it controlled me, it now controls and corrupts the game, because so many players are on it. To ignore this fact is to be shortsighted and stupid. To turn away from it the way the NFL does—the way the NFL turned its back on me when I cried for help two years ago—is a crime...

...Users call cocaine "the lady." The lady has a widespread acceptance in the best of circles. However, those of us who are—or were—hooked can tell you it's no lady. And until I am cured, I consider myself hooked. Even now, talking about it makes me want it. I can feel the familiar signals going through my body, making my heart beat faster.

I am 30 years old, and desperate. A 6'6", 280-pound desperate man who should have known better. Who knew better, because I was raised better. Six weeks ago I took myself out of society (and out of football, which I don't intend to play again) to a rehabilitation hospital where help was available, and I think, I pray, I've seen the light. But to see it, I had to see a lot more.

I had to see myself depicted in the press and on television and everywhere else as a drug dealer, even if my dealing was a silly one-shot kind of deal that was more naive than evil.

I had to see the jailhouse door slammed shut, and know I wouldn't walk free again for a year. As bad as that was, it still didn't cure me. I got worse after I was freed.

I had to see my family shy from me, the wife I doubt I could live without grow disgusted, the mother and father I love and respect grow ashamed. I had to see players I considered close friends go through the same deterioration, their lives messed up, their talent blowing away.

I saw my own fortune wasted—thousands and thousands of dollars, down the drain. I now know the embarrassment of hiding from creditors, of having checks bounce and cars repossessed. I was like a man at his own funeral as my career as a defensive lineman went from what I thought was the brink of All-Pro in 1979 to the edge of oblivion in 1981.

And I saw more. I saw the dark side of the drug world, from a frightening perspective. Twice I looked down the barrel of a loaded gun, held by men who said they would kill me if I didn't pay the debts I owed. Debts for cocaine. At this writing, I owe drug dealers $30,000, and there's a bullet scar in my home in New Orleans because one dealer tried to scare me into paying. I couldn't pay.

I now see myself as a miserable human being, not worth a damn. I reached the point where I really wanted to die. To kill myself. One night in Miami I went into the streets looking for enough heroin to do the job. Other times I put the barrel of my own gun into my mouth, and practiced pulling the trigger.

Here's what it's like to be a big-time football player in America and screwed up: In New Orleans, where the drugs got to be so bad in 1980, I began getting blackouts in my thinking. Like climbing a ladder with rungs missing. I couldn't hold conversations without my mind going off somewhere. I thought I was losing it. I was in a stupor much of the time. I had no conception of day and night. My little boys, Myron Paul, 7, and Philip Charles, 2, are crazy about me. Every morning they would come and jump on me in bed, playing on me like little deer. I would remember them doing that, and I wouldn't be aware of anything else until they came and jumped on me again at four in the afternoon.

I hate football. I hate the NFL. I know those feelings aren't completely rational, that I am responsible for my actions before anyone else. But I feel them just the same. I wish now I'd never made the decision to play the game beyond high school. I wish I'd never accepted a college scholarship. I wish I'd stuck to my word when I said I didn't want to play pro ball. I think I would be a better person, whole, today.

Football—the environment, not the game itself—as good as wrecked my life. I should have been smarter. I should have been stronger. I know that. But drugs dominate the game, and I got caught up in them, and before I knew it I was freebasing cocaine. And then I was a zombie.

The lady is a monster, a home wrecker and a life wrecker. In the body of a skilled athlete, she's a destroyer of talent. Right this minute she's spoiling the careers of great athletes you pay to watch on Sunday afternoon. Even the super ones like Chuck Muncie, who I think potentially is the greatest player in the game. Muncie has to be a superman to do what he does on the field and use coke the way he does off it. I single Chuck out because I love him like a brother, and if he ever got off this stuff he would be like two Jim Browns. Somebody has to shock hell out of the players of this game and scare the league. I hope I do that. I'm scared myself. Scared to death it won't happen. The NFL is heading for catastrophe. Drugs are causing it.

But even if you don't give a damn about the players, if you care about the game you have to be alarmed. What you see on the tube on Sunday afternoon is often a lie. When players are messed up, the game is messed up. The outcome of games is dishonest when playing ability is impaired. You can forget about point spreads or anything else in that kind of atmosphere. All else being equal, you line up 11 guys who don't use drugs against 11 who do—and the guys who don't will win every time.

If you're a team on drugs, you'll never play up to your potential, at least not for more than a quarter or so. Then it's downhill fast. I've known times on the field when the whole stadium blacked out on me. Plays I should have made easily I couldn't make at all. I was too strung out from the cocaine. It was like playing in a dream. I didn't think anybody else was out there.

Pittsburgh has always been a clean team, and look how long the Steelers stayed on top. Miami was clean until it started winning Super Bowls, then it changed. I was there when it was changing. New Orleans lost 14 games in a row in 1980, when freebasing became a popular pastime in the NFL. New Orleans was a horror show. Players snorted coke in the locker room before games and again at halftime, and stayed up all hours of the night roaming the streets to get more stuff. I know. I was one of them. San Diego is a team that should have won the Super Bowl twice by now, as talented as it is. San Diego has a big drug problem. For a short time, I was part of it. I played my last football in San Diego in 1981.

Ask the people who are using and they'll tell you that a cocaine cloud covers the entire league. I think most coaches know this or have a good idea. Except the dumb ones. Dick Nolan must have suspected that we were on the stuff in New Orleans, because he asked me about it a couple of times. Don Shula was too sharp to let it go by unnoticed in Miami, and we had to be extra careful around him. Don Coryell must have known in San Diego.

I have to think the owners know. Or at least have heard. I know John Mecom Jr. found out in New Orleans, because we talked about it later. He systematically broke up the Saints team during that time, and I think for that reason. I know that Mr. Mecom loved Chuck Muncie, and he got rid of him just the same.

Cocaine is a .38 at the head of every player in the game. And it's getting easier to put your finger on the trigger all the time. I had 15 different sources for cocaine in New Orleans. Dealers even had a "beeper" system in operation there, just like doctors. Ring up your friendly coke supplier, wait for the beep, leave your order and in minutes get a delivery at your front door.

I've seen dealers literally standing on the practice fields of the NFL, guys everybody knew. They're not there to make the game better. What they do, and what they know about the players, can't possibly be good for the game.

You know all this if you're a player. You might not know for sure who's really hooked, but the heavy users are easily spotted—the big heaving chests, the sweat pouring down, the nervous energy, and most of all the decline in effectiveness. You see a player coming off the field complaining about phantom injuries and you know he's probably messed up. He's coming out of the game because he needs to come off. I asked to be demoted in New Orleans in 1980. I didn't want to be first team anymore, considering the condition I'd let myself get into by then.

And in the privacy of locker rooms, players talk about it. And argue.

In San Diego, Fred Dean, the defensive lineman, used to yell at us. Dean was clean. He didn't even drink beer. None of the Chargers I freebased with would do anything around Dean. But the Chargers had Dean so screwed up over his contract he was always up tight, and he'd yell at the players in the locker room: "Why don't you freebasing bastards get the hell outta here! You're killing us!" Fred got lucky. The Chargers got so tired of listening to his tirades that they traded him to the San Francisco 49ers last season. And what happened when Fred got to San Francisco? The 49ers won the Super Bowl, with Fred playing a big role—the biggest role, in fact—on the defensive line.

The reality of how contagious it has become hit me a year ago in New Orleans just before I got released by the Saints and picked up by the Chargers. The Saints had come off the misery of 1980 without much hope of anything better. My own life was a mess. I was high half the time, and wishing I was the other half. But for a while I got myself straight, and a few of us started working out, getting ready for a new start. Then this rookie running back showed up at mini-camp.

I'd never met the kid. Never even seen him play. But we were in the dressing room, and he and another dude came over to where I was standing. He said, "Hey, man, I understand you're the one can put us on to a little coke." I couldn't believe it. I said, "Get your ass away from me." He disgusted me. He hadn't played a lick in the league, and here he was talking like Captain Cocaine. Then I realized what I was looking at: me seven years before. Just as eager to screw up my life then as he was now.

Two months ago I got a letter from my mother in Prichard, Alabama. My mother is a beautiful person, in every way. Very compassionate, very perceptive. I hate myself for ever causing her a moment's pain. All this time I had thought I had kept most of my disgrace from her. I was kidding myself. In the letter, she told me exactly what I had been doing. From A to Z. And why it was wrong, from every standpoint. She begged me to see a doctor. She said if anything happened again like what happened in Miami, when I got arrested and sent to jail, it would kill her.

It was like a fist in the face. All along she had known. When I look back on all of it now and realize what it did to my family, I'm amazed they stuck by me. But if they hadn't, I'd probably be dead.

I take shelter in none of the standard excuses for being where I am. I wasn't raised in a ghetto, scratching for bread or fighting for turf. I knew no poverty or hunger. I came from a strong, loving, God-fearing family that taught the responsibilities and joys of hard work. I learned those things early. And later on, I married the best woman a man could have. That sure didn't hurt me. So Don Reese can't blame his downfall on anybody but Don Reese. My progress down the ladder of success is Horatio Alger in reverse.

There were 11 children born to Albert and Osie Dean Reese, and I was the fourth, the third of eight boys. My father was no respecter of sex. He treated us all like daughters. I wasn't allowed to go out until I was 17 or so. I didn't smoke or drink, either, and a marijuana cigarette was something I only heard about. Education, not pot, was pushed on all of us. Albert Jr. and my oldest sister, Gladys, both went to college. My brother Eddie played football at Grambling.

I really didn't want to go to college to play football myself. I'd have been content to stay in Prichard forever. I got a letter from Alabama asking if I'd be interested in being one of the Bear's first black players, and I certainly didn't want that. But there were a number of scholarship offers, and my father very skillfully changed my mind about playing football in college. I know how strongly he felt, because I was going to sit out one game in high school due to an injury, and when I asked him if I could use the car to take a girl, he said, "Hell, no. If you don't play, you don't use the car." He had started a vault [grave digging] company when I was 15 or 16, and four days a week he had me up at 6 a.m. and on the road digging graves. Sometimes I'd dig four or five a day, with a pick and shovel. Sometimes the funeral procession would be coming down the road and I'd still be digging. And if the work made me bigger and stronger, it also made me realize I didn't want to do that the rest of my life, either. College football seemed like a good place to hide.

I wound up at Jackson State, a mostly black college in Mississippi, partly because I had an uncle who played there and partly because it was only 180 miles away. My father supplied me with wheels—a 1967 Chevrolet Impala SS 396, the slickest car on campus—and I became a college boy, with a diamond in one pierced ear and the hair piled high on my head, looking every bit the punk a lot of people probably thought I was. I always say I eased out of Jackson State, but that's not quite right. There was nothing easy about it. Jackson was the best of times, and the beginning of the worst.

I met my wife, Paulette, at Jackson. And I was a football hero. My play as a defensive end got me an invitation to both the Senior Bowl and the Coaches All-America Game, and eventually got me drafted in the first round—number 26 overall—by the Dolphins.

But I was in trouble all through college. Little things, mainly. Breaking curfew, jumping the wall to visit Paulette off campus. But drugs were never a problem until the very end, and then only marginally. My junior year, I smoked my first reefer. They were plentiful on the Jackson State campus by that time, and I was curious. Paulette and I and three other couples took some rooms at a hotel in Jackson for a party, and the Greeks—the fraternity guys—brought in some marijuana. It seemed like they always seemed to have it.

Actually, we were more into drinking then. We drank Ripple wine, or that Mogen David 20/20 everybody calls "Mad Dog" because it's 20 percent alcohol and looks like blood and can knock you on your tail. But I tried a reefer with the others at the hotel. And like everything else I try for the first time, wine included, it made me sick.

A couple weeks later I tried one again, with some players in the football dorm. This time I kind of liked it. We all got a little buzz on, and we sat around listening to music, and it was cool. I smoked it fairly often after that, usually after games at parties, and then in the off-season. But if I said I used it more than once every couple weeks, it's probably an exaggeration. I know I never paid for it. The guys just had it, and they passed it around.

My career at Jackson State ended on Thanksgiving night of my senior season, after we had beaten Alcorn State in our last game. We were celebrating, and one of the guys sneaked a couple of majorettes into the dorm, and a group of us went up to my room to smoke some reefers. We had barely lit up when there was a banging on the door: "Reese!" It was Coach Bob Hill. "I know what's going on in there, Reese. Just pack your bags and get the hell out of here. We don't want you here anymore." I left school right away.

Then came the day Don Shula called to tell me Miami had drafted me. I was all pumped up. The Dolphins sent a scout to bring me to Miami to negotiate. We were the only two in first class out of Mobile. "You're in the big time now, baby," he said. "Order anything you like." I ordered a vodka and orange juice. Then a gin and orange juice. Then a bourbon and orange juice. I was flying high.

Joe Robbie, the owner of the Dolphins, gave me a $45,000 bonus to sign, and a three-year contract calling for $28,000 the first year, then $30,000, then $30,000 again. That's important to remember. Abner Haynes, a former player, was my agent. He took his cut off the top of the bonus, and they took some more for taxes, and I wound up with $9,000 to buy myself a new car. That was about all I saw of my signing bonus.

Then Haynes took me back to his place in Dallas "to celebrate." If I knew then what I know now, I'd have skipped Dallas and gotten my rear end back to Prichard. But I was going to be a big shot. In a Dallas Holiday Inn, downtown, I sat in a room and watched some people take out these little brown vials of white powder, pour it on a glass, cut shares with a razor blade, and then sniff it up their noses. My first look at cocaine.

I didn't do any. I wanted to, just to try it, but I didn't. The next night they snorted again, at an apartment, with some of the other players Abner had under contract, but I passed again. I left the party early and went back to my room, still a virgin.

While I was in Dallas I got a call from Jackson State asking me to come back to the campus—the same campus I had been kicked off—to be honored. The frog had become a prince. I never got my degree, but I have pictures of me shaking hands with the governor.

I was still clean when I went to Miami's training camp. I remember how impressed I was seeing the big names of the Dolphins in the locker room—Larry Csonka and Mercury Morris and Larry Little. Little had gold all over him, and those two Super Bowl rings, and I thought, "Damn, wait'll I get me one of those suckers."

I tried coke for the first time that week, right there in a room at Biscayne College in North Miami. Lloyd Mumphord brought some to the room. Mumphord had played for Texas Southern in the same league I'd been in at Jackson, and he was a regular defensive back for the Dolphins. We divided it up, and he and I tooted it through a straw. It seemed natural enough. I heard a lot of the guys were doing it, and if they were doing it, why shouldn't I? The only regret I had was that it burned my nose. But I got a terrific tingling sensation, and then a sudden and powerful need to go to the bathroom. I remember sitting there and thinking, "Dang, this is the best s——I ever had."

The next week I tried it again, a little heavier. This time I really felt it—wiinnnnnngggg, opening up my nostrils and going right to my toes and back up again. From then on, I was available whenever it was available. By the time the season started, I was snorting at least once a week.

I never paid for it. Not then. I'd guess half the players on the Dolphins—whites as well as blacks—were using it in small amounts, as "recreational" doses, you could say.

After a while I realized I would have to find it on my own occasionally, so Mumphord put me on to a Cuban dealer named Juan, and he was my principal source. Juan had a place in Little Havana. I'd call and he'd say, "Come on by," and I'd go get it. I only had to pay $40 a gram at that point. The players always got it cheap, if they paid at all, which should tell you something. I didn't give it much thought one way or another. It was fun. It was "sociable." I liked it. I wanted it.

And my want grew just like a cancer. I went up to two grams and then to what people called "eighths"—three and a half grams. An eighth is a "big snorter." Later on, tragically for me, I learned it's also a "small baser" or freebaser. You really can't freebase with less than an eighth. The going rate for that now is around $325. But I didn't know what freebasing was then. That piece of carnal knowledge came much later.

By 1976, my third season at Miami, I was riding the crest—a starter at defensive tackle, with a lot of good publicity. My coke use was expanding, too. I had about 12 sources; some I paid, some I didn't have to. You get lulled into believing the bargain rates will last forever. And it was still a well-hidden exercise. I didn't think so at the time, but the best thing we had going for us at Miami was Don Shula. He's smart, and he's been around players too long not to see things. Everybody always had to be on their toes. That kept the lid on. Mercury Morris said Shula asked him once if he was on anything. Merc said no.

I didn't use it before games at Miami, and I don't think many Dolphins did. We sure as hell didn't use it in the locker room. If you're only snorting, you can do without coke before a game. It's after a game that you want it bad. The only real chances we took at Miami were on plane rides back from road games. The coaches always sat up front, and we'd be in the back where it was dark, with our little brown bottles that held about a gram, and we'd sit and sniff right out of the bottle. Or if we were being extra cautious, we'd slip into the bathroom and sniff it there. It's almost impossible to tell when you're doing that little, especially under circumstances where you're supposed to look strung out.

A Dolphin assistant coach would come back and see me dead in my seat, all sprawled out, and say to me, "You tired, Don?"

And I'd say, "You know it, man." What I was feeling was no pain. Coked out.

Nobody really checks like they should, of course. The league could attack the drug problem in a minute with urine tests, but they steer off that land mine because the Players Association objects so strenuously. It's crazy, really. You object to something that will prove you're doing wrong, and you get carte blanche to keep on doing it. In sports involving dogs and horses, they take tests all the time. And Olympic athletes have to be tested. But they don't dare test the players in the NFL. It's crazy.

After a while, I began snorting it at our home in Hialeah. I'd stay up, waiting for Paulette to put Myron Paul to bed, and then I'd take some cocaine out and toot it. One night I even got Paulette to try it, but one sniff and she said, "Unh-unh. That ain't me."

On May 4, 1977, the bubble burst. It was bizarre, and it was dumb, and when I look back I still can't believe I did it. For a lousy 500 bucks, I threw my career into the toilet.

Randy Crowder and I were never drug "dealers." The first time we tried "dealing" was the only time, and like the amateurs we were, we screwed it up every way possible. I don't think Randy would have done it at all if I hadn't talked him into it. He was a good person, a starting defensive lineman for the Dolphins, and when the "opportunity" first came up he was dead against it.

Here's what happened. One night Randy and I went down to Mercury Morris' house to play some basketball and drink some beer, and when we dropped back by Randy's place—he wasn't married then; he lived alone—an airlines stewardess named Camille Richardson called. She said she wanted to buy some coke. Camille had tooted with us before. She said she had a problem and needed to get some to sell. Randy said, "Girl, you must be crazy. No way."

But Camille persisted. She said her mother was sick in the hospital, and the bill was running close to 5,000 bucks, and that's what she figured she could make on a coke deal, selling it "to a couple guys from Philadelphia." If we got it for her. Dumb Don Reese fell for it like a ton of bricks. The little professor in my mind said, "Hey, you can make something on this transaction without even getting involved."

I talked to a dealer the next day. He said there was a "lot of good stuff in town, at a good price." I called Randy and told him we should go along. Just pass it from one hand to the other and take a middleman's cut. He was still reluctant.

This went on for eight or nine days. Camille changed her story. She said the Philadelphia guys wanted to come in and get it that week, but now they needed a pound and they'd pay $18,000 or $19,000 for it. I was still willing. I figured if we bought a pound for $13,000, we could cover Camille's mother's expenses and still split a thousand bucks between us. Just to make the switch. Finally, everyone agreed.

It rained hard all morning on May 4, a bad omen. Randy and I drove to Camille's place in Randy's baby-blue Lincoln Continental, and the cars were flooding out all around us. We were unlucky. We got through. I should have known something was wrong immediately because Camille's apartment was practically cleaned out. I said, "Camille, you didn't tell me you were moving." She said, "Oh yeah, I have a new place."

We tooted a little on the way over to meet the "buyers" and got lost, but we finally met them at the Green Dolphin restaurant in Miamarina. After she introduced us, Camille left..."to make a flight." Randy and I took the two guys outside to the Lincoln to talk. One of them said, "We can only pay $15,000." I said, "Man, that's not near enough." We dickered, and they agreed to pay $18,000. I pulled out a half ounce for one of them to sample. I was watching in the rearview mirror and it looked like he faked sniffing it, but he said, "Hey, man, this is good," so I let it pass.

"You want it then?"

"We want it."

We arranged to meet at the Holiday Inn on Brickell Avenue in Miami to make the switch. But when Randy and I left to get the stuff, I began to get antsy. I told him we ought to meet at the Ramada Inn on LeJeune Road instead. I could get adjoining rooms, and we could check them out before we made the final commitment. I got my car and went to Little Havana and bought the stuff from the dealer, and when I walked into the Ramada Inn there was a call waiting for me at the desk. It was Randy. He said the Philadelphia guys wouldn't come way over there in the rain, they were "afraid they'd get lost," and for me to bring it to the Holiday Inn as originally planned. I didn't know it then, but the Ramada Inn is outside the jurisdiction of the Miami police.

By this time I was so nervous I couldn't sit still. Scared stiff, actually. I drove around the Holiday Inn six times before I went inside. I had two bags in the car with me—the bag of coke and a bag of bread. I took the bread inside. As I walked through the lobby I began getting really bad vibes. But I kept on walking and went to the room, and they were there drinking beer.

"Where you been, man?"

"It's still raining outside," I said.

"Where's the stuff?"

"Right here."

And I handed them the bread. If I hadn't said another word, we might never have been arrested. But I got a pang of conscience, or an attack of ignorance, or something, and I said, "Wait a minute. This isn't it. The stuffs in the car." And I went back down and got the coke.

When I walked through the door again and they checked it out, the room exploded with cops. One hit me on the head and another put a gun down my throat. Randy panicked and tried to back off the bed where he was sitting, and they jumped on him and beat hell out of him. It was a nightmare. In the wink of an eye we had turned from prominent big league athletes to common criminals.

I said, "Oh, my God, what have we done?"

One of the detectives took me into the other room and said, "O.K., Don, we'll make you a deal. You tell us which players are messing with this stuff and where you're getting it, and we'll let you go. Shula won't know, Robbie won't know." I said, "I don't know where it came from. I'd tell you, but I don't know." They tried the same thing on Randy, and then they took us to jail, to a holding cell, where the magnitude of our predicament really hit Randy. He went wild, yelling and beating on the wall. He was sick that his parents would find out. I knew it would break my mother's heart, and I thought it would probably end my marriage.

We got busted at about 7:30 p.m. We were in jail until almost 1 a.m., and then we got out on bail. When I got home, Paulette met me at the door, sobbing. It had been on the late news. We were both numb. I prayed all night that night. I saw the sun come up. The next three months were pure hell. Our trial had been announced, and nobody would touch us. My parents were mad. Our friends were scared to come around. Joe Robbie said the only way we'd ever play for the Dolphins again was if it proved to be a case of mistaken identity. Some players asked Shula if we could still come to mini-camp, but Shula said no.

Randy stayed at our house most of the time, and we just sat there, soaking in our own sweat. Our money was running out. Two days after we got arrested, the credit company sent a couple of guys around to repossess my Continental; at the time I was a month behind on the payments. They weren't taking any chances. I don't seek sympathy when I tell, all this, because I deserved what I got. But I won't pretend it was easy. Paulette had a job teaching school, and four or five days a week Randy and I got up at dawn, rented a rowboat at six dollars a day, and fished the Everglades for bass and bream. Sometimes we paddled over a mile to get to a pond. I mean we went fishing, Jack, and everything we caught, we took home and cooked and ate.

Despite having every reason to believe we'd been set up, we pled guilty to the charge, hoping to get a light sentence. We took lie detector tests before the court of Judge Joseph Durant Jr. to make sure we'd never been involved in any other drug deals, and when we passed he got all the lawyers together and agreed to the punishment: a year in the Dade County Stockade. Light if you don't have to serve it, heavy if you do.

I had a seed with me when I went in. I put it in a flowerpot and watered it every day, and when I came out 12 months later, it was a full-grown plant and so pretty that Paulette hung it on a wall. But I came out more stunted and fouled up than ever. There were as many drugs inside the jail as out. We used marijuana freely. Coke I snorted there once; I could have had as much as I wanted, but I was wary.

The question at that point wasn't so much who Randy and I would play for, but if we would ever play again. Shula had been encouraging. He said we "should not be condemned for all time." The Miami papers didn't like that a bit. One writer jumped all over him for being such a flaming liberal. Then Robbie said we would "never play for the Dolphins again," ending the debate. Robbie tried to get the league to ban us, too, but Pete Rozelle decreed that we could play...if anybody still wanted us.

The Toronto Argonauts sent their general manager down while we were in prison to offer us contracts. Good ones, too—$60,000 a year. But they were contingent on our getting out early to play, and Judge Durant said no. He had taken a lot of heat for going "soft" with our sentence, and when our attorneys tried to get him to cut it to nine months, he wouldn't hear of it. I didn't really blame him.

As it turned out, it probably wouldn't have mattered. Canadian immigration authorities let it be known that we wouldn't be allowed into Canada to play football.

We were released from the stockade in August of 1978, not knowing what to expect. But within eight days we had signed to play again—Randy with Tampa Bay, me with New Orleans.

Mr. Mecom made me an offer I couldn't refuse. First he said he would clear all my debts. Then he gave me a $40,000 bonus and a $70,000-a-year salary. Then he hugged me and said, "I don't care what's happened before, you're a Saint now, and I'm glad we have you." I really liked Mr. Mecom. He was like a little boy over the signing. I thought I'd died and gone to Heaven.

For two seasons, I did my best to repay him. I was the closest thing I could be to a changed man. I had my best year as a pro in 1979. I led the team in sacks and was named Most Valuable Player on defense. I felt I should have made the Pro Bowl. Mr. Mecom renegotiated my contract to $150,000 a year, and gave me another bonus. My troubles, at last, seemed all behind me. Then something happened that even now I hesitate to bring up, but I know it affected me deeply. How much it screwed up my mind I'll never know.

Our second son, Philip Charles, was born right after the 1979 season, two months premature. He weighed only four pounds, 12 ounces. He contracted so many diseases at birth, the doctors said it was almost as if he didn't want to live. Right away I felt a closeness to Philip that I'd never felt for anyone before. I sat with him 48 hours straight in the hospital, and it was so sad, watching him struggle to live. His main problem was hypospadias, a malformation of the penis. He is still far from cured. Already he has had one operation and needs another.

I felt so helpless and depressed I couldn't stand it. Here I was, always so big and healthy, and there he was, so small and sick and vulnerable. It didn't seem fair. Deep down I think I blamed myself. I thought he was being punished because of me. I know I began feeling sorry for myself again, something Paulette hates in me. She thinks self-pity is for losers, and totally unproductive, and she's probably right. In any case, for whatever reason, I was on the verge of the next fateful step down in my life.

The popularity of cocaine got a dramatic boost in early 1980. Who knows why, but everywhere you went, people were talking about it. And the big new item was freebasing: cooking a large amount of coke down to a gummy rock, "freeing up" the base, then scraping off a little at a time, putting a hot flame to it and pulling the fumes right into your lungs through a glass pipe. Freebasing is what nearly ruined Richard Pryor.

Except for a few reefers, I had stayed away from drugs in New Orleans. Partly because I was afraid, and partly because the players were afraid of me. Elex Price, a defensive tackle, said a lot of the Saints thought I might be an undercover narcotics agent. He said, "Man, you got off light in Miami. We better not be fooling with you." I said, "Listen, man, I'm not looking for stuff. I just want to be friends."

Then one night a bunch of players went over to Bob Pollard's house—Pollard, a defensive end, himself was clean; he was out of town, having been traded—to toot some coke, and I went along. And I got that old familiar zing. We sat around snorting, and the subject turned to freebasing. I'd only heard about it that year, but Chuck Muncie said, "Man, that's not new." I said I wanted to try it. So Chuck and I got together at his house and he cooked some up and brought out the pipe. And I took one pull and threw up. I got sick as a dog. It tasted like raw chemicals.

But if I am consistent about anything in life, I am consistent about being a glutton for punishment. Two weeks later, Lloyd Mumphord came through town, and he was into free-basing. He still had a house in Miami and he made periodic stops in New Orleans on his way home to Opelousas, Louisiana. Mumphord had the stuff, and I tried freebasing with him. This time I liked it. It had a different taste—sweeter, actually. And it gave me the best high I ever had with drugs.

I inhaled it, and when I blew it out I got that ringing in my ears—wiinnnnnngggg, real high. One of the popular drug songs calls it "ringing your bell." I call it getting a ringer. When people ask me to describe the total experience of freebasing, I say it's like enjoying an all-league climax. The funny thing is that it makes you want to fornicate, too, but you can't. You usually can't get an erection.

Muncie got me in on the freebasing after he'd processed it, and I wanted to learn myself, so Mumphord showed me how. Paulette was working, the kids weren't home, and whenever Mumphord came to town I got the pot out and lit up the stove and we cooked. Mumphord always wanted Muncie to join us, but Chuck did it with us only once. There were others who didn't hesitate to join in. We got a regular little circle going, at one place or another, and we started basing every chance we got—Clarence Chapman [a defensive back] and Mike Strachan [a running back], and even some of the white guys on the team. I freebased with Guy Benjamin [a quarterback] one night. Another time Strachan and I sat there and smoked nearly an entire eighth.

After a while, I stopped snorting altogether. All I wanted to do was freebase. And that meant an ever-increasing expense. I suddenly realized I wasn't getting as much free stuff as I used to. I began making regular withdrawals from the bank, and when I stopped to figure it out, I had a habit that was costing me $1,500 to $1,800 a month.

The 1980 training camp started, and instead of tapering off, we accelerated. The dealers scurried around Vero Beach, where we trained at Dodgertown, to answer our needs. We had pots and little stoves and hot plates in our rooms at camp, and every night was fun night. We were so bold with it, it got to be ridiculous. One time Chuck and I cooked all night long for three nights in a row. I just about went nuts one day when I got back to the room and found that someone had run off with my hot plate.

More than once I came right out of freebasing into team meetings. A coach would be talking, and I'd sit there in a daze, all messed up, breathing hard, my chest swollen, my heart pounding, just dying for another hit and unable to get it. Finally I said screw the meetings. I started skipping. And every time I missed, I got fined $250. Which meant that I was spending $400 a day for coke in order to screw myself out of another $250.

If anybody on the team didn't know what was going on, they were deaf, dumb and blind. Players would come into the dressing room after being up all night, and they'd brag about it. "Boy, I got me some good stuff last night. I couldn't stop, man. I had a rock this big." Or, "Boy, the s——I had last night was awful. Like to made me throw up." They'd be in the meetings with their chests all puffed out, and sweating, and unable to sit still, and you'd have to be in another state not to recognize the symptoms.

Finally, Dick Nolan asked me what was going on: "Are you on drugs?"

I said, "Coach, I'd be a fool to be on drugs."

He said, "O.K.," and that was all.

About that time the NFL sent Charles Jackson around for his annual pep talk. Jackson is an ex-narcotics officer, and he has a regular routine about drugs that he uses to lecture players with. Nobody seems to take him seriously, but you listen because he's entertaining. I suppose the league office thinks he identifies because he's black, but it boils down mainly to appearances. He makes an appearance, and nobody sees or hears from him again for a year or so.

I knew Jackson from before. He called me one of his "special" people because of my Miami troubles. He came to me in the locker room and said, "Hey, baby, what's happening?" and slapped my hands. "You all right?"

"Yeah, I'm all right," I said. I was messed up as I could be.

"You staying clean?"

"Yeah, I'm clean." I was dirty as I could be.

"O.K., man, anytime you have any problems, anything at all, you just give me a call."

I said O.K.

He gave me his card. I already had one.

Despite everything, we thought we were going to have a good season in 1980. But we got upset by the 49ers opening day, and then we lost again, and the rout was on. When we got to 0 and 4, I realized we needed help. The players were in the streets at night, going from house to house, getting stuff. I got out Jackson's card. I called his number in New York and his secretary said he wasn't available at the moment, "but he'll call you right back."

He never did.

And I didn't call him back, either. I was too frustrated and too discouraged. I felt like I was in the water with a bunch of drowning men. But instead of doing something positive, I did something foolish. I told Tom Pratt, the Saints' defensive line coach, that I didn't want to start anymore. I said I was hurt—my right knee was bothering me—and I didn't want the pressure as long as I couldn't contribute. He and Nolan agreed to play Tommy Hart in my place, but each week they'd only leave Hart in for about a quarter, then I'd go in.

We lost 12 straight, and right after a Monday night game with the Rams, the Saints fired Nolan. We had stunk up the joint against the Rams, losing 27-7. I especially hated that because it's embarrassing to lose on Monday night with all those people watching on television. At our next practice I blew up. Actually, blew up is an understatement.

I'd hurt my knee in the game, and I was standing on the sidelines talking to one of the writers when Pratt saw me and ordered me to "come over here." I didn't care much for his tone, and I took my time walking over. As I passed some of the other players, I made a comment—"You sorry bastards," or words to that effect—and [Defensive Tackle] Derland Moore said, "You're the one who quit, not us." I knew then that they'd been looking to me for leadership, and I hadn't provided it. And I went blank.

I jumped Moore, and we fought. And when they tried to pull us apart, I fought everybody in sight. They had to gang up on me to hold me down. And when they let me up, I fought all the way to the dressing room. I was hysterical. I couldn't stop fighting. I wanted to stop, but I couldn't. I don't know what I did or who I did it to, but when we got inside I jumped Moore again. At that moment I hated him. I wanted to kill him. It was my messed-up mind doing it, because I actually liked Derland Moore.

Dick Stanfel, the interim Saints coach, suspended me for the last four games of the season. But now I knew how far gone I was. I went to Fred Williams, Mr. Mecom's righthand man. I told him a little of what was going on, mainly about my own problems. He said he would get Mr. Mecom to agree not to advance me any more of my deferred money until I was satisfied I was straightened out. He said, "Hang in there." And that's all. He didn't tell Mr. Mecom. Mr. Mecom knows now, but he didn't know then.

In June of 1981, Bum Phillips, the new Saints coach, told me they had put me on waivers. He said they were "going with younger players." My heart sank. But a few days later, he called and said San Diego had picked me up.

I was elated, to say the least. Muncie had been traded to San Diego during the 1980 season, and I knew enough about the Chargers to think there might be a Super Bowl in my future after all. I wasn't sure why they wanted me, but I had sacked Dan Fouts three times in 1979, and I figured the memory was there. But there was no Super Bowl in San Diego for Don Reese. There was no future at all. Not even a season's worth. I was about to make my final flame-out.

The only difference between the drug abuse in San Diego and the drug abuse in New Orleans was that in San Diego more and bigger names were involved, including Chuck Muncie, and the action was a lot more cautious. Chuck and I took the same flight out of New Orleans to training camp. We were picked up at the San Diego airport and taken directly to the University of California at San Diego, where the Chargers train. Before nightfall, I was freebasing again.

One of the Charger wide receivers met me at the college almost the minute we arrived. He was riding a bicycle, and we got to talking about coke and how to cook it, like housewives discussing recipes. My nerve endings began to jangle.

We were due to take the team physical the next morning, but when my mind got on freebasing, nothing else mattered. I pressed him. He said, "Let me make a few calls."

A little later he came to our room and said, "Let's go."

I tried to get Chuck to join us, but he said no. We had gotten an eighth of coke for $275, a good price, and we went over to a girl's room and cooked until two in the morning. When we ran out, we called somebody else and got some more, and we smoked until eight, right there on campus.

Then we went to the training room and took our physicals. And I passed. I said, "Oh man, this is ridiculous. All this crap in me, and I still pass a physical?"

I had a two-year guaranteed contract with the Chargers, for $185,000 the first year and $210,000 the second. But I had suffered an injury and couldn't play after the fourth game. They kept shooting it with novocaine and playing me, but I finally had to have surgery. They waived me with two games left in the season.

I went back to New Orleans and wallowed in as much pity as I could find for myself. Paulette tried to carry the load, teaching school. Our debts piled up. What little money I had I used for drugs, and what I couldn't pay for I charged. I had already run up a big debt with dealers, and one of them was of a type you don't run up debts on. I'd escaped to San Diego right after writing him two worthless $1,000 checks. He called my wife a few times while I was on the coast, telling her she "better get in touch with Don." I finally called him back. "Can't you wait?"

"Yeah," he said, "we can wait."

When I showed up in New Orleans, he was waiting. Only instead of cutting me off, he got me to use even more, and my debt and my habit got heavier and heavier. One night he got me up in his apartment in the inner city. With five of his guys surrounding us, he pulled out his magnum and put a pipe in front of me and made me freebase. He said, "You know you like this s——, smoke it." I said, "Hey man, I don't want it under this kind of pressure."

He said, "Smoke the s——, nigger," and jammed the gun against my neck.

He did that to me twice. Each time he added the cost of the coke to my bill. Finally he came to my house and demanded payment, and took out his gun to convince me. He was no stranger there. He had often brought stuff to me late at night, and even joined me a few times in my kitchen, cooking it up. Eventually he started coming earlier, and I had to make Paulette and the kids go in the back. By that time, Paulette was a basket case. It didn't help her frame of mind any the day when he fired a bullet, trying to scare me.

I was scared, all right. But not just of him. My whole world was coming apart. When it was either kill myself or run, I ran. With nothing but the clothes on my back, I sneaked out of New Orleans like a thief in the night. And for once I did the right thing. I checked into a hospital and finally got the help I needed. I know I wanted to be helped, and they told me that's the first big step.

I'm out now, after a stay of almost five weeks, but I don't see my life getting better quickly. I know I've got to work at it. But I want to change, to be productive, to be a good person and a good father. I want to be...O.K. I'll tell you exactly what I want to be. I want to be like my wife. With her morals, and her sense of responsibility. To Paulette, marriage meant giving herself to me and the family, in every way. She had kids just because I wanted them. I'm the one who hasn't lived up to the bargain.

Paulette's a unique individual. Very deep. She always makes the right decision, always does the right thing. I think sometimes her standards are too high, but since I know mine are too low, I'm hardly the one to judge. She told me she didn't want me back until I straightened out. It's a goal worth striving for, because I have no doubt she'll be there if I make it.

As for what is happening in the NFL with drugs, I don't see it changing until enough people who care are made aware of how bad the situation is. How destructive it is for the game. Sending comedians around to tell stories about drugs won't turn the problem around. And the Players Association loves to quibble over salary percentages and television cuts, and while it bargains for the membership, the membership is being eaten alive by a cancer. As for the owners, while they enjoy the high life, their most valuable asset—the players—is wasting away.

But I don't have any illusions. Rather than reform, what is more likely to happen is that the NFL will say I've exaggerated everything here. That you shouldn't pay attention to a guy who admits he took drugs, and dealt drugs, and did all the wrong and stupid things I've done. And it will try to discredit the diagnosis instead of curing the patient. And the players who don't deny it completely will say it's not nearly as bad as I've made it out.

But I know better. And what I've had to say is something that needed to be said.

The sad part is that it wasn't said a lot sooner.

ILLUSTRATIONWALT SPITZMILLERReese admits he snorted coke in the New Orleans locker room in 1980 before games and during halftime. ILLUSTRATIONWALT SPITZMILLERMuncie, Reese says, did cocaine on two NFL teams. ILLUSTRATIONWALT SPITZMILLERA coke dealer threatened to pull the trigger if Reese didn't pay his bill. ILLUSTRATIONWALT SPITZMILLERMiami police busied Reese and Dolphin teammate Crowder when they tried to make a quick score on cocaine. ILLUSTRATIONWALT SPITZMILLERDrug peddlers prowl the sidelines and talk to players at some NFL practices. ILLUSTRATIONWALT SPITZMILLERTo obtain coke, Reese went to Miami's Little Havana and a dealer named Juan. ILLUSTRATIONWALT SPITZMILLERWith his flashy new car and his football celebrity, Reese was a BMOC while at Jackson State. ILLUSTRATIONWALT SPITZMILLERThe game over, Reese would gel himself strung out on cocaine on the charter flight home. ILLUSTRATIONWALT SPITZMILLERReese and Muncie regularly cooked up a freebasing storm. ILLUSTRATIONWALT SPITZMILLERJudge Durant put Reese away for one year... ILLUSTRATIONWALT SPITZMILLER...but even when he was in the stockade, he was able to get his hands on drugs. ILLUSTRATIONWALTSPITZMILLERHis life threatened, his drug debt hitting $30,000, Reese often contemplated suicide.