When they first told him three people were dead, that it was a crime, that when he was finally released from the Pontiac hospital where he now lay, immobile, his head in a brace, his thumb sewn to his hand, he would be charged with manslaughter, this is what Reggie Rogers said: “Why? What did I do?” He was, for that moment, a child again, the same child who bullied kids for their lunches, then turned around and played ball with them; the same child who once shook hands with high school football rivals, and wound up in a racial brawl; the same child who fell in love, and was charged with assaulting his girlfriend. Why? What did I do? Trouble would swarm around Reggie Rogers his whole life, and he would swat as if it were a friendly fly, and he would go on.
This is the story of a little boy in a man’s body. It is hard to find anyone who doesn’t blame Reggie Rogers for what happened that cold Thursday morning 10 days ago, when he ran a red light, allegedly under the influence of alcohol, and plowed his Jeep Cherokee into the side of a Dodge Omni, snuffing out three teenage lives. And yet it is hard to find anyone who doesn’t like him. “He is not a bad person,” they all insist. He is simply a person to whom things happen.
“When I first came to the hospital he said, ‘Mama, I don’t understand . .
. what does God want from me?’ ” says Loretha Rogers, his mother, who sits with him each day in Pontiac Osteopathic, holding his hand, praying for forgiveness. “I told him, I don’t know, son. But God has a plan for us. We don’t know what it is, but God has a plan.”
It is a sad sentence, saddest because, in the end, it may not be true, there may be no plan. Reggie Rogers, like countless athletes in this land of athletic worship, has lived his life ricocheting from one near-miss to another, someone always there to catch him, excuse him, forgive him. Until one night, at a barren intersection, in the early morning cold of autumn, when two vehicles collided, a car burst into flames, and the innocence was over. For everybody.
“I could beat up the other kids because I was bigger. But I never had to. They just gave me what I wanted.”
— Reggie Rogers on his childhood, during a 1987 interview
He was the middle child of an athletic family — his brother, Don, was one year older, his sister, Jackie, exactly one year younger — but he was always the biggest, and he loped around the neighborhood in Sacramento, laughing, entertaining, and getting what he wanted. Reggie would take, and smile, and take some more. Toys. Books. He had a penchant for pulling apart radios to see what was inside, or for grabbing his classmates’ food or pencils. It was never malicious or mean. It was just Reggie. Big Reggie. No one argued.
It became a pattern. Get what you want. No one will mind. Once, as an eighth grader, he scored 49 points in a basketball game. The next day, in English class, the teacher asked for his homework. He was taken aback. He scored 49 points — why should he do homework? “I don’t care if you ever pick up another basketball, Reggie,” the teacher had scolded, “when you get out of this class, you will know English.”
Loretha Rogers claims that made a big impression on her son. But so, apparently, did the fact that other teachers were willing to overlook his transgressions. Throughout high school and college, Rogers would barely squeak past the standards. “He was not the best of students,” admits Don James, his football coach at the University of Washington.
Nor was he the most coachable of athletes. Lateness was a regular occurrence. Missed practices were common, beginning in high school — the moment he discovered how talented he was. Rogers was recruited to play basketball at the University of Washington. Early in his freshman year, he was late for a 3 p.m. meeting. Coach Marv Harshman had his uniform and shoes removed from his locker.
“Hey coach, where’s my gear?” Reggie asked, when he finally showed up.
“You’re late,” said Harshman. “You’re not practicing today.”
Once again, the athlete was taken aback. Why? What did I do? He asked to stay and watch practice from the stands. Harshman said no. “I don’t know if he always resented that,” say Harshman, now retired, “but he didn’t do it again. Reggie is Reggie. He had a hard time growing up and facing reality. Like so many athletes, things came too easily for him. And like a lot of athletes who are talented, he would challenge authority because he thought he was indispensable.”
By his junior year, Rogers had quit the basketball team and said goodby to Harshman (who was benching him anyhow). He had taken up football, where he quickly became a star lineman. This was more like it. He had been second-string on the hardwood; but in football, he could rush the line and tackle the quarterback and it was him, Reggie, he would hear them chanting his name and he was back on top, center of attention. He was All-Pac-10. He led his team with 112 tackles as a junior. Football. He had found his sport.
Besides, it was Don’s idea. Don, his brother, his hero, had been a football star at UCLA, and now he was the starting free safety for the Cleveland Browns. Don gave him a new car. Don bought the family a house. It was Don’s idea. “Reggie, go out for football.”
And whatever Don did was always good, right?
“MY SON IS DEAD! MY SON IS DEAD!”
— Loretha Rogers as she ran into the street upon learning her son, Don, had died of a cocaine overdose, June 27, 1986
He began to die on the living room couch. That’s how crazy it was. They had been out the night before at his bachelor party, the friends, the relatives, they had come home, gone to sleep, and now, on a bright, sunny morning, Don Rogers was talking to his family about the upcoming wedding. Suddenly his body began to convulse in chills. Pain gnawed at his chest, tightening around him, causing him to scream in agony. “It sounded like someone was banging on the walls and floors and somebody was screaming ‘Help me!’ at the top of his lungs,” a neighbor told The Sacramento Bee. Paramedics rushed him to the hospital.
He never regained consciousness.
To this day, people shake their head at the death of Don Rogers. Cocaine? A lethal dose? The day before his wedding? Why? He had everything going for him. He was never known as a cocaine user. Where did he get it? When did he ingest it? His death occurred just eight days after the similar death of basketball star Len Bias, and America erupted in a disgusted roar against drugs.
Reggie Rogers heard none of it. Reality had just chomped into his world with a bloody bite. Don was dead, the brother he had idolized, the one stable force in his life. The next day, Loretha Rogers collapsed in Reggie’s arms — a heart attack — and had to be rushed to the hospital. His whole world was crumbling. Why? What did I do?
It is unlikely Reggie Rogers has ever truly recovered from that tragedy. Talk to 50 people about him, and 50 people will tell you he was never been the same.
Chris Chandler, a former Huskies quarterback and now a starter with the Indianapolis Colts: “He was definitely different after that. Before he was always the center of attention, really funny, cracking everybody up. He was more quiet after Don died, at least at first.”
Kevin Gogan, a former Huskies lineman, now with the Dallas Cowboys:
“Reggie was definitely quieter after Don’s death. He didn’t know if he was going to play football anymore.”
Loretha Rogers: “It was a year before I saw Reggie cry over Donald. That bothered me. He felt like he had to be strong for everybody else. . . .
“One day we went to the graveyard just before the draft. He started to cry and then he looked at me and he tried to take it back. I said, ‘Cry, son, cry. It’s all right. You’ll still be a man. Get it out.’ “
Crying, however, did not make it go away. The cynicism of a drug death shadowed Rogers upon his return to Washington for his senior year. Wherever he went, people grilled him. People assumed he, too, was associated with cocaine. He volunteered to take drug tests throughout the season. But it didn’t make things easier.
For a long while, Rogers would tune in and out of conversations, thinking
about Don. He would dream about his dead sibling, hear him talking, conduct private conversations. In a better world, he would have received counseling then and there, because the hurt was obviously seeping into him and it needed to be cured. But there were games to be played and a pro career to think about and money suddenly became critical, because Don’s death had caused financial problems. So when people asked, “Reggie, are you OK?” the big kid inside him would eventually say “Yeah,” and the happy-go-lucky face would return, and people figured great, he’s OK.
This is how it goes with star athletes. And yet there were signs that Reggie, as was often the case, was OK on the outside but mixed up on the inside. Once, during a pre-season meeting of the captains, coach James spoke of the dangers of substance abuse: drugs, marijuana and alcohol.
Reggie raised his hand.
“Coach,” he said, earnestly, “I understand about cocaine and the drugs. But what’s so bad about alcohol?”
“I’m not saying drafting Reggie Rogers has made us the best team in the NFL, but it’ll help.”
— Wayne Fontes, Lions defensive coordinator, on draft day, 1987
In April 1987, Rogers, now 6-feet-6, 272 pounds, was taken by Detroit in the first round of the NFL draft, the seventh pick overall — which ensured him several million dollars. But from the moment he became a Lion, there was trouble.
He slept through his first meeting with the team; a missed wake-up call, he claimed. Next he was charged with assault by his former girlfriend, Alicia Wright of Seattle. Then, on the last day of mini-camp, he was served papers for a $1 million lawsuit brought against him by sports agents Norby Waters and Lloyd Bloom. Right on the sidelines. He walked off the field, took the papers, and disappeared into the locker room.
All of that took place during a single week. And yet the Lions — as others had done before them — maintained these were manageable affairs, and that the young man would straighten them out.
In fact, had they checked more carefully, they might have recognized a behavior pattern that had haunted Rogers for years:
1) The missed practices were commonplace; they went back to high school.
2) The agent problems were predictable; Rogers, at one point, had signed with three different lawyers. (Pat Healy, a Tacoma-based attorney who handled Rogers for several months prior to the draft, claims “Not long after he signed with me, for a fee of four percent, Reggie meets Steve Zucker (a well- known sports agent) who says he’ll take Reggie for three percent and only a one-time fee. Reggie comes back to me and says ‘This guy will do it for three.’ So I say, ‘OK, I’ll do it for three.’ He says, ‘OK, I’ll stay with you.’ Then two months later, I get a letter from Zucker saying my services are no longer required.” Zucker did not return several phone calls for this article.)
3) Reggie’s girlfriend woes were nothing new. He had fathered a child with a woman named Shannon Williams in 1985. According to several sources, Rogers’ problems with Wright — which led to the fight that led to the assault
charge — stemmed from the fact that he wanted her with him when he visited the child, a baby girl named Brittany Elizabeth Ann.
Rogers saw no real wrong in all this. Why? What did I do? A year and half later, on the tragic morning that would end the lives of three teenagers, Rogers — who is expecting twins next month with his current girlfriend, Sheila Dorsey — was riding with 18-year-old Robin Reece. She escaped the crash with a severed finger and bruises.
“When he awoke in the hospital, he asked if Robin was dead,” recalls Loretha Rogers. “I told him no. He said, ‘Thank God.’ “
“Did Reggie tell you who Robin Reece was to him?” the mother was asked.
“He said she was friend. That’s all.”