After both deaths, the same first response came from family, teammates, coaches and close friends: "No, it could never be drugs. He didn't take drugs, wouldn't take drugs, never took drugs. Never, never...."
After both deaths, nearly the same second response came from people who never knew either man, medical examiners a continent apart: "Cocaine poisoning, cocaine in a lethal dose...."
And after both deaths, the next response that came from just about everybody else was also the same—shock, anger, grief, a sense of resignation. Cocaine had put another talented and young athlete in his grave.
Two weeks ago in College Park, Md., it was Len Bias, 22, the All-America from Maryland who had been selected in the NBA draft by the champion Boston Celtics. Last week in Sacramento it was Don Rogers, 23, the starting free safety for the Cleveland Browns, who was an All-America at UCLA in 1983 and the AFC defensive Rookie of the Year in 1984.
Besides the classic cruel irony of dying in full bloom of youth, both also died within a day or so of events full of promise and great joy. Bias's first-round selection by the Celtics 40 hours before he died fulfilled, in his words, "my greatest dream." Rogers' death occurred about 24 hours before he was due to marry his college sweetheart, Leslie Nelson, 22, at the Evergreen Baptist Church in Oakland. His former UCLA teammate and roommate, Kenny Easley, now a Seattle Sea-hawks defensive back, put the ghastly turn of fortune into grim words: "I was supposed to be a groomsman in his wedding on Saturday. Now I will be a pallbearer at his funeral Thursday."
Last Thursday night, Rogers attended a bachelor party with approximately 30 people at the Sacramento Hilton Inn. He was escorted to the party by a few members of the wedding, including his brother Reggie, 22, a star defensive tackle at the University of Washington. They had a long white limousine waiting. In it were a case of beer and some whiskey and champagne. The limo took them to the hotel and they partied in a $375 suite until shortly after midnight, then adjourned to a nightclub called Confetti, where they continued to party until about 2 a.m. They returned to the hotel suite, where Rogers stayed for less than an hour.
Shortly before 3 a.m., according to Ted Chappelle, the Browns' security director, Rogers arrived at the $100,000 split-level home Don had purchased for his mother in an upper-middle-class section of Sacramento, far from the depressed area of the city where he had grown up.
From then on, events can only be pieced together from a variety of sources. Ference Lang, 23, who said he was a boyhood friend of Rogers's, said he drove Don home from the hotel. He put the time of arrival there at 3:30 a.m. Lang said Rogers had not been drinking, a fact supported by the toxicology report, which found no alcohol in his system. According to Rogers's agent, Steve Arnold, Rogers awoke about 8 a.m., showered, put on a sweat suit and took a long-distance phone call at 8:15 from Paul Warfield, the director of player relations for the Browns. The phone call was completed about 8:30. Warfield said Rogers sounded animated and happy.
According to Chappelle, who arrived after Rogers's death and talked to the family, Rogers had stretched out on a couch in the living room and talked with family members about the last-minute wedding details and about the two-hour drive to Oakland. Suddenly, according to Chappelle, Rogers complained of chills. Then he cried out that there was a painful tightening sensation in his chest. The pain was increasing rapidly. Someone in the house phoned the city's 911 emergency number.
Paramedics found Rogers in bed in an upstairs room, still dressed in his sweat suit. He was, according to Steve McCabe, chief medic, "unconscious and unresponsive," though he was still alive. He was taken first to Community Hospital and admitted at 11:15 a.m., then transferred to Mercy San Juan Hospital, arriving at 1:30 p.m. At 4:31 p.m. he was pronounced dead. He had never regained full consciousness.
When his mother, Loretha Rogers, 43, learned of his death, she was so overcome with grief that she fled into the street from her house, screaming, "My son is dead! My son is dead!" She and Don were very close and she had once called him "the most sensitive of all my children." The day after he died, she suffered a stress-induced heart attack and was hospitalized in critical condition. By Monday afternoon, her condition had improved; she was listed as serious.
And what had happened to kill her son? His reputation was not that of a man who used drugs. Calvin Hill, 39, a former Cleveland running back who had been active in the Browns' private drug rehabilitation group called the Inner Circle, said of Rogers, "To my knowledge, he was not a drug user. He was not in the Inner Circle."
An autopsy on the tough young safety indicated that cocaine had killed him. His lungs and other organs were so congested with blood that he had, in essence, died of asphyxiation.
When did Rogers take the fatal drug? Dr. James Beede, a toxicologist who examined Rogers's blood, said it was not likely that he died from anything he ingested during his bachelor party. Beede added that he believed the fatal dosage had been taken within a couple of hours of the heart attack. He said he would not speculate about how Rogers had ingested the cocaine.
As police launched an investigation Monday—they had not questioned family members or Rogers's friends before that—the only thing everyone knew for sure was that the pattern in California was the same as it had been in Maryland.
Names and places had changed, but the grief was the same. At 11:45 a.m. Monday, Chappelle read a statement from the family. It said, in part, "We...are devastated and saddened by the death.... We are even more devastated by the coroner's office findings as we cannot conceive or fathom this. We are only certain of this: Donny's love for his family, the Browns organization and all the youth of America...."