When The Cheers Turned To Tears

That cocaine could cripple an athlete's career was well established. Then came sudden, shocking proof that it can kill, too—even the young and strong. Don Rogers, a Cleveland Browns defensive back, was buried last Thursday—another cocaine casualty in sports, just eight days after basketball star Len Bias took a fatal dose of the same drug. Here are one man's reflections on those events.
July 13, 1986

The last time I saw Danny, he was on his knees.

We had been cruising in my old '65 Volvo, the one with the floorboards rusted through, watching the pavement rush under our feet and laughing the way young guys with no bills to pay will laugh. Danny had been a farmhand, a small-town high school football star, a rodeo cowboy and, when I knew him, a brassy reporter. He was charming and comical and terrifically addicted to cocaine.

That night he got a nosebleed. I pulled over and found some Kleenex, but it kept bleeding and it wouldn't stop. Then he started to cry. Young, tough, steely guy like that crying for no reason at all. I asked him what was wrong, but he couldn't stop crying, so I took him home. As I got him out of the car, he fell on his knees: Danny on his knees in my arms in his own driveway under an unsympathetic streetlamp, both of us soaked in blood and tears and an impossible, relentless helplessness.

Maybe sporting America feels some of that helplessness lately. In the last three weeks, two athletes have died young at the end of the cocaine line, and everybody keeps trying to talk us through it, pointing fingers this way and that, bleating and blathering but having not the vaguest notion of what to do about it. When Maryland basketball star Len Bias died, Rev. Jesse Jackson said, "On a day the children mourn, I hope they learn," but eight days later Cleveland Browns safety Don Rogers, a man who didn't learn, put the same pistol to his head and pulled the trigger.

As if that wasn't enough to kick our Pollyanna drug attitudes in the teeth, Willie Smith, a 1986 draft choice of the Browns, was arrested on cocaine and weapons charges three days later. Lessons learned? Not according to the police. This was a guy who would have been Rogers's teammate. All of which teaches us that drug users don't die for anybody else's sake, and just because somebody's talking smart in the paper doesn't mean anybody's listening.

You want to learn a lesson, learn this: The Big Lie is over. Sports can't bury its head in the sand anymore; there are too many bodies buried there. Good young men are stacking up, and we're stumbling over them. For a long time we've had more than ample evidence that cocaine can ruin lives and careers; now, suddenly, the stakes have been raised. Now it's killing people without warning. An NBA star with a sinus problem no longer gets his name in a headline and a 30-day vacation at the Betty Ford Center. Now he runs the risk of joining the six-foot-under leagues. This is not a party anymore. Somebody just called the paramedics.

"We're close to genocide of our young people," L.A. Raiders owner Al Davis said the other day, and if the situation is not quite that ominous, it's frightening enough. It is estimated by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) that there are now between five and six million regular cocaine users in the U.S., consuming more than 45 metric tons of the drug annually. Because of a seemingly limitless supply—total worldwide production in the mid-'60s was 500 kilograms per year, which is an average planeload today—the purity of cocaine on the streets is increasing, while the price, the average age and the average income of the user are going down. In L.A., $10 will now buy enough crack (cocaine melted down to its purest form and smoked) to blow your haircut off and start you on an almost instantaneous cycle of addiction. In south-central L.A., one high school football player told Diane Shah of the Herald Examiner, "You know how many people you run into who are dealing drugs? The ice cream truck comes by, I go out to buy a Popsicle and the driver says, 'I got a little more than ice cream here.' " Indeed, in Columbia, S.C., an entire fleet of ice cream trucks was busted for selling more than snow cones.

There is no hard and certain body count from the cocaine front, but this much is clear: More and more people are getting in trouble with the drug and more of them are dying. The number of emergency-room admissions due to cocaine has increased 500% over the past three years. In the same period the number of deaths by cocaine intoxication has tripled in the U.S.—there were at least 700 last year—and, according to Dr. Michael Walsh of NIDA, even that may be a drastic underestimate. The numbers don't tell the whole story because many coke deaths go unreported, and many more are undoubtedly attributed to other causes. The sudden death of Miami Dolphins linebacker Larry Gordon in 1983, for instance, may have been cocaine-related. Gordon's former teammate, Thomas (Hollywood) Henderson, told SI's Armen Keteyian last fall that he had free-based cocaine with Gordon the night before Gordon died of a heart attack during a run in the desert near Phoenix, Ariz. Had Bias and Rogers not been highly visible athletes whose deaths attracted special attention, they might simply have become heart attack statistics, too.

Cocaine evidently is becoming harder and harder to avoid. "I try to keep away from it," says Dexter Nickelsen, an 18-year-old basketball hound in L.A.'s Watts district. "But I got a good friend on drugs, and it's messed him up bad. He's losing weight all the time. He steals little stuff and sells it—you know, car batteries and stuff. But he tells me, 'Don't you mess with it. It'll screw you up.' "

Nancy Reagan would tell Dexter, in all sincerity, "Just say no," but that's much easier said than done. Dexter has finished high school, and though he's good enough to play at a major college, his grades may not be good enough to get him a scholarship anywhere. Then what? Ken Curry, who helps run the Watts Magicians basketball program, knows what. "Some of the best kids I've coached end up selling," he says. "The other day I saw a kid sitting in this gym counting out what must have been ten thousand dollars in a bag." In Brooklyn's Brownsville section, the playground home of Billy Cunningham and World B. Free, the lesson kids took from the Bias case was startling. "If he'd been doing coke, he should've done it years ago, so he was used to it," a street player told The New York Times. "He'd've known how to handle it."

The Big Lie is over and the truth hurts. The lessons are so obvious, but so hard to learn. Who wasn't at first skeptical that two good kids like Rogers and Bias could be into coke? And when it was proved they had used it, who wasn't positive they had been badgered or coerced? And if young, imposing physical specimens like these can be pressured into it, can anybody just say no?

Bias and Rogers define a line of demarcation for sports, a clanging wake-up call for a culture that idolizes its athletes, a call that came at least two lives too late.

"Bias and Rogers are the first wave of the drug-culture generation," says University of California professor Harry Edwards, 43. "These are kids who grew up inside drugs. When I was growing up, I knew if I picked up a joint, I had crossed the line. I knew I was doing something my parents would say was wrong. But this generation of kids doesn't even see the line. They grew up smoking with their brothers and sisters, maybe even getting into mommy and daddy's stash." Indeed, Rogers's childhood hero was Dallas Cowboy star Bob Hayes, who in 1979 was convicted on two counts of selling cocaine. Isn't this where we came in?

The danger is numbness. Who can keep up with the cocaine box scores? From Mercury Morris to Mike Norris; from Parker (Dave) to Porter (Darrell) to Pryor (Aaron) to Peters (Tony); from Steve Howe to the Pittsburgh cocaine trial to the Tulane coke-for-points scam; are we too shell-shocked to feel anymore? Not that drug abuse is anything new in sports; it has just picked up a terrible new momentum. Twenty-three years ago Big Daddy Lipscomb died of a heroin overdose. Sixteen years ago, Dock Ellis pitched a no-hitter on LSD. Six years ago the Atlanta Hawks' Terry Furlow crashed his car and died—with cocaine in his system. Four years ago the Montreal Expos' Tim Raines took to sliding headfirst in order not to break bottles of cocaine in his back pocket. Last winter former Tennessee quarterback Tony Robinson was indicted for cocaine dealing. This past NBA season, Micheal Ray Richardson, John Lucas and Quintin Dailey all fell afoul of cocaine. Right now, some players on the Virginia football team are under investigation for selling cocaine. Tomorrow somebody will snort up the hash marks and no one will blink.

Drastic problem. Drastic steps? "A drug-prevention program in collegiate sports right now," says Edwards, "would make as much sense as a crime prevention program in San Quentin."

So how do we make the helplessness go away?

Maybe we can't. But at least we can try. First, no more Big Lie. Drug hypocrisy is everywhere. We should be just as outraged when a Pelle Lindbergh kills himself with alcohol as when a Len Bias does so with cocaine. And sports administrators need to be more consistent. On Monday the NFL announced its intention to test players for cocaine and other drugs, including alcohol, but the league continued to drag its feet on testing for anabolic steroids, even though 30% of NFL players use steroids, according to a league executive. A fullback is helped off the field in the first half, takes a hypodermic at halftime and plays the second half. How big a jump is it for him to numb his own nose that night?

Baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth gets a brainstorm to have the military seal off the U.S. borders and coastline to beat drugs, a notion almost as befuddling as his declaration last April that "drugs are over in baseball" and that this season would be "virtually drug-free." Meanwhile, NBC sportscaster Tony Kubek, who knows the players far better than the commissioner does, tells USA Today that the use of amphetamines—or greenies—has never been higher. In his expressions of concern about drug use, Ueberroth glosses over the subject of greenies.

It's high time that pro leagues and big-time college programs prove they are willing to pay the price—in personnel and possible embarrassment—that would be exacted if drug abuse is really curbed. And no more cracking down on drugs so selectively.

Second, we have to recognize and make an effort to ease the pressures on athletes. The modern jock star is different from everybody else. He is starkly unprepared to be Captain America, and to carry all the baggage that comes with that role, from the inflated expectations to the seamy acquaintances to the undying adulation. "In the neighborhood," says an ex-USC basketball star Larry Friend, "guys look at you and give you drugs. They know you're in the spotlight and they want to get recognized." It's a long, circuitous path just to stay straight. Boston Celtics G.M. Red Auerbach wrote recently, "Drug people aren't stupid. They know that if they can addict a superstar...they can link themselves to his name, to his fame. Then they can get other people to fall in line a little easier."

Both Bias and Rogers had made some dubious acquaintances. Bias ran with Brian Tribble, who was considered by some of Bias's friends to be a bad influence on him and was with him the night he died. Rogers was "disturbed" about the number of "people he didn't know" at his bachelor party the night before his death, according to his boyhood friend, Ference Lang. Somebody even had a white stretch limousine, loaded with whiskey and champagne, hired to pick Rogers up. A week later Rogers rode in another kind of limo, followed by most of his teammates. Some lousy road trip, huh, fellas?

If, like Tom Sawyer, Bias and Rogers could have witnessed their own funerals, would they have known any better who genuinely cared for them? The Rogers funeral last Thursday was moved from his high school gym to Arco Arena in Sacramento, where more than 2,000 "family and friends" mourned. Does anybody have 2,000 family and friends? How many of those cared more for him than for his strength and speed? Bias had been flunking his entire course load at Maryland this spring, and few seemed to care. Could he sense that? "Pressure builds from the inside," says Carolyn Thomas, a sports psychologist at the University of Buffalo. "The athlete thinks, 'This has become a very central part of who I am—this skill, this power, this status. And I don't know who else I am.' "

If athletes are ever going to find out, we must listen to them. Every pro team and college team has a muscle coach, but how many have an emotion coach? Insist that teams hire full-time sports psychologists, or counselors, accountable to no one in any athletic department.

For their part, athletes have to awaken from past stupidity. If you're fast, run from it. If you're strong, outmuscle it. Don't "just say no." Do what All-America linebacker Brian Bosworth of Oklahoma does. One night a dealer asked him if he needed drugs. Bosworth said no. The dealer asked again. Bosworth coldcocked him. Hasn't had much of a problem since.

Third, no more drug tests without teaching first. Nobody ever takes a test without going to a class first, right? Drug education should begin before it's too late, in elementary school. Teach athletes USC coach George Raveling's four R's: "Readin', writin', 'rithmetic and reasoning." Make every collegiate freshman athlete take Real Life 101. Give him the first year off from sports to find out where the library is and then teach him how to write a check, conduct an interview, use the right fork, fend off dealers, make friends, eschew agents and like himself. Insist on progress toward a degree. Abolish athletic dorms that keep him isolated and typecast and targeted.

Then test. The civil liberties objections to testing are serious, and it's worth pointing out that tests taken by Bias—he passed several in the weeks before his death—were obviously ineffective. But rigorous random testing of the kind proposed by the NFL—and likely to be challenged by the NFL Players Association—figures to be at least a partial deterrent to cocaine use. And with lives at stake, a partial deterrent is better than no deterrent at all. Testing should be tied to rehabilitation programs, but it should also have teeth. If a college kid fails a test once, for instance, his season is over—not his scholarship, his season—and into rehab he goes. If one member of a team fails a test at a championship event, the team's season is over. That might get a few coaches' attention.

What was it Dylan Thomas wrote? "Rage, rage against the dying of the light." It's getting dark. This may be our last chance. Anything is possible. Ask Danny. I did when we talked on the phone not along ago.

Danny is charming and comical and off cocaine these days. He got help and never went back.

A lot of guys have died between that night I last saw Danny under the streetlight and now, but none of them died for Danny's sake. There were lessons to be learned, but Danny had to teach himself.

Len Bias and Don Rogers didn't learn in time. Let's hope others do.

PHOTOMICKEY PFLEGERWhile Rogers's family and friends mourned him at his funeral in Sacramento, the terrible truth took hold: It was cocaine that killed him. PHOTOANDREW POPPERDavis warned of "a genocide" of our youth. PHOTOMICKEY PFLEGERJackson offered two eulogies—and a plea. PHOTOANDY HAYTNickelsen (center) says he has seen the damage coke can do. PHOTOFOCUS ON SPORTSThe roster of athletes who have been derailed by cocaine lists Howe (above), Henderson (right) and Richardson (below). PHOTOMARVIN E. NEWMAN[See caption above.] PHOTOJERRY WACHTER[See caption above.] PHOTOJ. CLARK/LIFELipscomb's heroin OD in '63 set a sad precedent. PHOTO

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