Don Reese, NFL’s Drug Buster, Back in Football With USFL
Don Reese, the former pro football defensive lineman whose admissions of cocaine use in a 1982 Sports Illustrated cover story caused an uproar in the National Football League, is playing again in the U.S. Football League.
Reese, now 33 and four years removed from an NFL career that featured stops in the defensive lines of Miami, New Orleans and San Diego, is a first-team defensive end for the Birmingham Stallions, who open their season Feb. 24 at home against Doug Flutie and the New Jersey Generals.
“It’s me against Flutie,” Reese said with a laugh during a telephone interview. “I’m gonna get him.”
Two years ago, Reese was in jail for the second time in his life. When he got out on June 21, 1983, after serving five months for violating his probation on a drug sentence, he went home to his wife and two sons in Atlanta.
He started working as a sales representative for Time Inc., “a job for life” arranged when he coauthored his controversial magazine story that appeared June 14, 1982. He warned groups of local kids about the dangers of drug use. He went back to college--on Time Inc.--to work on a management degree. He wanted to lead a normal life.
But, about a year ago, Reese’s son, Paul, now 10, started asking his father about pro football.
“It got me to thinking,” Reese said. “I ran out of good things to say. I found out that most of the things I had to say were negative.”
So he called the Stallions, a two-hour drive from home, and asked them if he could come back and play.
They told him to call the USFL in New York, which he did last spring. The league, concerned about its image, told him he would have to have a hearing.
“I could understand,” Reese said. “Nobody will let me forget about what I did. It was a part of my life.”
Reese met with then-USFL Commissioner Chet Simmons and Peter Hadhazy, director of operations, last fall.
“Obviously, there were a few questions and some assurances the league wanted (concerning drug use),” said Jim Byrne, USFL director of communications. “When the league received those assurances, it gave him permission to play. There was no reason to deprive the man of the right to earn a living.”
Reese decided to contact Birmingham because it was close to home. “If I was going to play again,” he said, “this was where I wanted to play. I’m very impressed with the USFL. They have treated me just like a man. They have given me a clean slate.”
He has not asked the NFL to take him back. “I haven’t talked to anyone in the NFL since I got out (of prison),” Reese said. “It’s possible I might try to return, but my goal now is to win the USFL championship.”
Actually, Reese still has to officially make the team. Although he is listed at the top of the depth chart at right defensive end, 18 players must be cut from the 58-man training camp squad by Monday. Two other defensive ends recently went out with injuries, leaving depth at the position thin, but Reese refuses to take anything for granted.
“I’ll play against Flutie if I make the team,” Reese said. “All athletes use that word.”
Stallions Coach Rollie Dotsch is cautiously optimistic about his 6-foot-7, 264-pound “recruit.”
“He’s making very good progress for someone who has been away four seasons,” Dotsch told the Birmingham News and Birmingham Post-Herald. “He is working hard and trying to get back into the swing of professional football. He has a good chance to make the ball club.”
Reese: “Coach Dotsch has been wonderful from point-blank. He hasn’t asked me once about my past. It’s a class act here.”
When Reese arrived in camp, he was third string. “The first week, everything was like Greek,” he said. “They would run plays and I would just trip out over them.”
He weighs a bit more he did in 1981 when he played for the Chargers, his last NFL team, yet it was hard for him to get used to the grueling pace of two-a-day practices.
“A few times, I thought about giving it up,” said Reese, the Miami Dolphins’ No. 1 draft choice in 1974 out of Jackson State. “The hardest part for me is getting ready for practice each day. It’s hard for me to get up out of bed, knowing I have to practice. Once I’m out there, I’m fine.
“But it has come back to me, piece by piece.”
So has his life, he said. In the Sports Illustrated article, he wrote that cocaine use was widespread in the NFL (“Cocaine can be found in quantity throughout the NFL. It’s pushed on players, often from the edge of the practice field”). He also said he had used marijuana and cocaine in 1980 and 1981 while on probation for selling cocaine to an undercover agent in 1977.
The story caused the NFL to take action on drug abuse by its players. It also put Reese back in jail.
He spent five months in the Lawtey (Fla.) Correctional Institute, “the worst five months of my life.” When the article appeared, Reese had 21 days left on his probation, he said. Because the article detailed how he violated probation, he went back to jail.
“I’d rather not talk about what happened,” he said. “At first, I was really, really down, but a lot of things I said proved out to be right, and I feel good about that.”
He doesn’t take drugs now, he said. He has not spoken with running back Chuck Muncie, whom he mentioned prominently in the story he coauthored with John Underwood. In fact, he speaks to very few people in the game.
“I don’t care what they think,” he said. “When I realized I had a problem with drugs, I kicked it. I feel I’m doing the right thing now.”