OAKLAND, Calif. — The call was long distance, it began with a question
— “Did you hear about Reggie?” — and I knew the sad truth before the words were even spoken.
It’s our nightmare now. Blood has been spilled. It was late at night, somebody ran a red light, and this morning three teenagers are dead, while Reggie Rogers, the Lions defensive lineman, who was allegedly driving drunk, lies in a hospital, his neck fractured, his right thumb sewn back on his hand. Police are expected to charge him today in connection with three deaths. And we awake this morning to a funeral song that will not go away, not tomorrow, not next week, not for a long time.
Our nightmare now. For in certain ways, we knew this was coming. Didn’t we?
We live in a time where life goes so fast, where having fun is so important, that warnings and cautions get a shrug and a quick goodby kiss, and then the next thing you know, somebody’s dead.
It has happened. We saw it elsewhere — with Bruce Kimball, charged with killing two teenagers in a drunken-driving incident this summer. And with David Croudip, of the Atlanta Falcons — one of Rogers’ peers — who sat down after a game two weeks ago, mixed a cocaine cocktail, and killed himself. Were there no warnings about drunken driving before Kimball? Was cocaine introduced the day Croudip died?
Of course not. And around the country Reggie Rogers will be a small headline today, people will shrug and say “another pro athlete who couldn’t handle it” and go on.
We do not have that luxury in Detroit.
It’s our nightmare now. Horrible and awful and real. Rogers gave us warning signs. He had been troubled almost from the day he arrived in Detroit.
He missed practices. He disappeared unexplainably. He suffered from depression, his performance was poor, he was benched. The Lions gave him more chances, because pro athletes, especially the good ones, always get more chances. And yet anyone who knew Rogers, a likable guy, would not use the word “stable” to describe his personality.
Tragedy already had sat upon his doorstep. His older brother Don, a defensive back with the Cleveland Browns, died from cocaine in the summer of 1986. I remember the day Reggie came to the Lions offices for the first time, draft day 1987, and how uncomfortable we were asking him about his brother.
“That’s behind me,” he said, claiming to have learned a lesson and asking that the subject be dropped. We agreed, not wanting to rehash painful memories. After all, you would think his brother’s death would have made him smarter. Unfortunately, living with trouble doesn’t always mean you learn from it.
Sometimes it only means you are doomed to its shadow.
Which is what we must consider now. This is not fun and games. This is not a subject for debate. These are someone’s children who died. They will be listed in the newspaper, not in the sports pages, but the obituaries. And those of us who are tired of hearing about the dangers of drunken driving are going to hear about them again, because families are weeping this morning, and at the very least, they deserve that much.
Did a siren go off when you heard this news? Drunken driving? Sports stars? Anyone who has read the papers recently knows the ongoing trouble the Red Wings have had with star players Bob Probert, an alcoholic, and Petr Klima, a more-than-social drinker. Each has been arrested on a drunken driving charge, each has been, at some point, suspended, lectured, fined, punished. They keep getting into trouble — until fans begin to grow weary. Some grow weary of the players; some grow weary of the lectures.
“Leave ’em alone and let ’em play hockey,” people cry. “They’re just having a few beers with the boys. Give it a rest.”
No. You cannot give it a rest. How many times have people said, “God forbid Probert or Klima gets on the road and kills somebody”? There is no satisfaction this morning in saying, “See? Told you.” But it has happened, Detroit has been bitten, tragedy has cut our flesh. And anyone who turns his head at warning signals can no longer be forgiven.
Listen to Red Wing coach Jacques Demers, when he learned of the Rogers tragedy: “Every time something has happened to one of our players, and I’ve gotten a call at one or two in the morning, the first thing I think is hopefully it’s not a drinking incident. And that nobody got hurt.
“When I got the call about Probert, the first thing I asked was, ‘Was anybody hurt?’ That’s my No. 1 priority. That somebody will get hurt — especially innocent people.”
This is not a police officer talking — this is a hockey coach. Here is what our sports world has come to. The phone rings, and the coach prays nobody died.
Reggie Rogers, who is a troubled young man, deserves both our sympathy and
— if indeed he was drunk and still driving — our scorn. But what he deserves is less important than what is owed to the three teenagers who will not be coming home, ever again.
Whatever happened to games, you ask? Whatever happened to sports that were just runs and hits and touchdowns? They are played by men, and men are human, and humans die when you crash into them with a car.
It’s our nightmare now. We can do nothing but grieve for it, learn from it, and please, please, listen — so that it does not happen again.