Twenty-seven years ago this month I went to Norte Del Rio High School in North Sacramento and interviewed a sprinter named Roy Mosley who’d just won two races at a large invitational meet. As a visiting correspondent I received lots of attention from kids wanting to learn what I was doing and some, after watching me shoot a few jump shots on an outdoor court, asked about basketball, too. At that point a young fellow my size – six-foot-one – came up, offered me his hand, and said, “Hi, I’m Donald Rogers. Keep an eye on me. I’m only a sophomore and I’m already dunking and I just averaged twenty-four points a game on the junior varsity.”
“That’s damn good,” I said. “I play a lot of ball. Here’s my phone number. Give me a call.”
The most surprising point here is that during the four years I covered high school sports, as well as some events at higher levels, that was the only time I gave my phone number to one of the athletes. It simply never occurred to me, except with Donald Rogers. He was a charming guy people instinctively liked and trusted. I really didn’t expect a phone call from even a confident kid a decade younger but I certainly attuned myself to the athletic exploits of Rogers. Over the next two autumns, he played quarterback, hurling the football seventy yards or running like a halfback, and as a defensive back he sped to break up passes and flatten ball carriers.
During basketball season Donald Rogers was indeed a dunker as well as an outside shooter and a driver and rebounder and defender. He was a winner. And he was exciting. The highlight of some two hundred basketball games I covered came in January 1980, Donald’s senior year. Right now I’m looking at the yellowing newspaper clip from that game. My lead announces: “The Rogers brothers were unleashed on Jesuit Tuesday night and the Marauders are probably still flinching.” At this point, they probably enjoy the memory of playing against two great athletes.
I’d arrived a little earlier than usual so I could watch a good chunk of the junior varsity game featuring Donald’s sophomore brother, six-foot-six Reggie. As I approached the scorer’s table, people shouted, “Hey, Reggie got twenty-four points in the first quarter, and he scored the team’s first thirty-three points.”
“All right,” I said.
Reggie Rogers cooled off a bit in the third quarter but poured in sixteen points in the final and finished with fifty-nine and a victory. Next, in the main event, Donald scored thirty-six. It was an exhilarating evening. But one thing troubled me: why wasn’t Reggie Rogers playing varsity, where he belonged? I asked the Norte coach and he said during preseason varsity practice Reggie had demanded to be sent down to the JVs. Something in his makeup compelled him to avoid the appropriate athletic challenges and, instead, dominate much smaller and weaker players.
Next came track season, and if you’re familiar with Olympic decathlon champions Jim Thorpe and Bruce Jenner and Dan O’Brien then you have a good image of what Donald Rogers was like. He could sprint, he could hurdle, from basketball you knew he could’ve high jumped and long jumped, and from his hard tackling in football it was clear he had the strength to put the shot and hurl the discuss and javelin.
“If Donald decided to dedicate himself to the decathlon, I guarantee you he’d be a gold medal contender,” I said to a guy I often played basketball with at Norte Del Rio during the summer.
“Have you ever seen Donald play baseball?” he asked.
“No, why, is he pretty good?”
“Oh, baseball’s by far his best sport. You should see him hit.”
I never got to see Donald swing a bat. After his senior year, in the summer of 1980, he was busy preparing for the sport he’d chosen – football. UCLA had only deemed one prep athlete in the Sacramento area capable of playing at its level, and that guy was Donald. They told him to start lifting weights; his strength had theretofore been natural. I called him a few times that summer and asked if he wanted to play some hoops at his alma mater. He always came.
At the time I was in my prime, worked out two hours a day, weighed one hundred ninety pounds, and usually held up pretty well on the court. Donald, at this stage, weighed about two hundred but the exact total isn’t nearly as important as the quality of the weight; his was the weight of a superior athlete. And as I battled him for rebounds I well remember thinking I’d never been on the court with a guy so strong and that I was lucky we weren’t playing football.
The sporting nation would soon learn about Donald Rogers. At UCLA he played safety a lot as a freshman and started as a sophomore and as a junior in the 1983 Rose Bowl he commanded attention when he leveled the University of Michigan quarterback and separated his shoulder. It was a clean hit. That was the only way Donald played, by the rules. His January 1984 Rose Bowl performance was supreme; he made plays all over the field and intercepted two passes and ran one back deep into opposition territory. There was no doubt: Donald Rogers, All American, was going to be a first round draft choice. The Cleveland Browns were the lucky team to get him, and he made the All Rookie defensive team in 1984 and performed even better the following season.
Every year I’d been planning to call Donald during the off season. I’d last done so in the summer of 1981 after his freshman year at UCLA. He’d greeted me enthusiastically, and we talked about how coaches push players hard, even when they’re recovering from injuries. He noted that his teammate, All American Kenny Easley, was one of the nicest people he’d ever met. And when I asked if he thought he could play in the NFL, he softly assessed some of the aforementioned physical and competitive attributes that made him confident of succeeding at the highest level. I wrote a feature article, one of my last as a newspaper correspondent. Confounded by stylistic restrictions in the trade, I tried some other things: loading trucks and delivering construction material, publishing a monthly tabloid, and doing a little public relations work. I also received a modest inheritance and began writing a biographical novel, “Hitler Here.”
In 1986, boosted by the patrimony, I was ready to build something I’d always wanted: a personal basketball gym. My neighborhood, like almost all neighborhoods in North Sacramento, was rundown. Paint peeled from numerous houses. Many lawns sat unmown. Junky cars rotted all around. But in bad neighborhoods prices are low and I’d paid thirty-nine grand the year before for a small two bedroom house on a big lot right down the street from Norte Del Rio High School. I collected bids for the foundation, walls, roof and myriad other things you need in construction, and for twenty grand I was going to be able to do it. I was going to have a half-court gym much larger than my house attached to it. As the walls went up, I thought: now it’s about time to call Donald Rogers; maybe he’ll get a kick out of this. I’ll wait just a little longer, though. I can’t invite a pro to play in an unfinished gym.
On this June day the workers had just gone home, and I’d stacked wood scraps and other refuse in the back yard, and come inside to guzzle water and watch some news. Flicking the TV on, I heard the end of a big story: “And Donald Rogers is dead at age twenty-three.”
What the hell do you mean, I shouted at the screen? This has got to be a mistake. I ran to the phone and called the old newspaper office and heard: “We’ve been reading some of your articles. Yeah, it’s true. They think it’s a cocaine overdose.”
That’s what it was. The night before, following his bachelor party, Donald and several friends visited some clubs and somewhere in there he was given a fatal wedding present: a large quantity of high grade cocaine. In the morning his mother was alarmed by his staying so long in the bathroom with the water running. Running water hides many things. Eventually, Donald was found unconscious and rushed by ambulance to a nearby emergency center then to a larger facility. Later, doctors said “his death had been assured.” If they or the police knew whether the cocaine had been snorted or smoked, they didn’t say. Ultimately, it didn’t matter.
The man was gone. A couple thousand people came to his funeral in the building where the Sacramento Kings played. I usually don’t attend funerals but I went, too. Two ladies were playing solemn spiritual music on pianos. Jesse Jackson delivered the eulogy. Donald’s college and pro coaches offered genuine tributes. His fiancé was inconsolable. College teammate Kenny Easley served as one of the pallbearers. Afterward, one of the ushers said to go on and walk by the casket. It was open. I didn’t go near it. I wanted to remember only the vibrant Donald Rogers.
Reggie Rogers was naturally devastated by the death of his older brother. We’ll never know how Reggie’s life would have unfolded if this hadn’t happened. We’re only sure he also chose football, and became an All American defensive end at the University of Washington, where he was arrested for drunk driving. In 1987 the Detroit Lions drafted him in the first round, and soon he was arrested for assaulting his girlfriend, sued by two former agents, and distraught because his sister disappeared for several days. Tragedy struck again in October 1988 when he drunkenly ran a red light and broadsided a car, killing three teenagers. He also broke his neck in the collision. Later he spent about a year in jail. Then his NFL comeback failed. In all, he’d played poorly for three teams and was considered a less than vigorous worker.
At first I thought it was bad news, at least for one writing an article, that there was no information on the Internet about Reggie since 1992. But I realize that’s probably a good sign. He must not be getting into trouble. I could go back into North Sac and find out what he’s doing. I’m in town a few times a year. But I’m going to leave the present alone. In this story I prefer the past, the days when Donald Rogers roamed the gridiron and dominated the hardwood and burned up the track. Those were the good days when he and others were alive and happy.