A NEW START FOR . . . DREW PEARSON : He's Trying to Pick Up the Pieces After World Crashed In on Him

Times Staff Writer

The night of March 21, 1984 was a cold one in Texas. Some of the Dallas Cowboys were returning to Dallas from Colgate, Okla., where they played an exhibition basketball game.

In a poker game in the back of the bus, Drew Pearson, the National Football League team's all-time leading receiver, was cleaning up on his teammates. A few rows to the front, Pearson's younger brother, Carey, slept. He had gone along to help with the equipment.

An hour later, on a Dallas freeway, Carey Mark Pearson lost his life, and Drew Pearson lost his football career.

While driving Carey to a third brother's home, Drew ran his sports car into the rear of a tractor-trailer rig. Carey, 27, was dead at the scene. Drew, an 11-year NFL veteran, suffered internal injuries, among them a torn liver.

Pearson says now that he remembers little about the crash. "I remember getting on the freeway. That's all. I didn't hear or feel anything. I was stunned when I woke up. My brother's head was on my shoulder. I tried to wake him up, but I couldn't."

Before he was taken to a hospital, he was told that his brother was dead. "I was shocked," Pearson said. "I wondered, 'What the heck happened here?' "

Police said that Pearson had been driving at an "unsafe speed." His blood-alcohol level was .053, only slightly more than half the level of .10 that is classified as legally intoxicated.

Said Pearson the other day at the Cowboys' training camp here: "I don't understand how I could just fall out like that. I'd had just two beers on the bus. I was winning too much money in the card game.

"I was tired, but not sleepy. Maybe I got on the freeway and did nod. It's the only explanation. But Moose (Pearson's brother) wasn't asleep.

"I can't piece anything else together. I've racked my head trying to remember, but I can't."

Although Pearson's liver healed after surgery, the scar tissue that remains makes it risky for him to play football. He attempted a comeback before the 1984 season, but doctors told him he would risk possible life-threatening injury if he played.

He retired.

It was a sad end to an NFL career during which Pearson rose from the obscurity of a free agent from the University of Tulsa in 1973 to one of the league's all-time leading receivers.

Pearson was best known for making big plays.

There was an 83-yard bomb from Roger Staubach that beat the Rams in 1973. In 1974, there was a 50-yard touchdown reception that beat the Washington Redskins on Thanksgiving Day, 24-23.

In 1975, Pearson caught a 50-yard scoring pass, the original Hail Mary pass, from Staubach in the last 20 seconds, beating the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC playoffs, 17-14. In 1981, Pearson scored twice in the last four minutes, knocking the Atlanta Falcons out of the playoffs, 30-27.

With all of that came NFL fame and glory. Staubach called Pearson the finest receiver in pro football. Coach Tom Landry once said he knew of nobody in the league who could outperform his receiver.

Said Pearson: "I had average speed, but I could stop on a dime. I had good acceleration out of the break. I had good explosion off the line of scrimmage. I had good hands. I had a lot of confidence."

He also had, by his own admission, a big mouth.

"On the field, I talked a lot," he said. "A lot of guys didn't like me. But it's the way I had to do it to play. I'd talk, then have to back it up."

Away from football, Pearson was shy and introverted, a family man with a wife and two daughters. In some of his spare time, he worked with underprivileged children. He tried to build a clean image.

His life appeared as good as any NFL star could hope for.

Then Pearson reached a crossroads in both his professional and personal lives.

Said Billy Joe DuPree, a former Cowboy teammate: "At one point in time, everything Drew Pearson touched turned to gold, but lately things have taken a turn."

Besides the accident, Pearson has had to live with the death of his father, a divorce, financial strain, unsuccessful comeback attempts and the ups and downs of a new career in television.

After being advised not to play in 1984, Pearson was hired by CBS as a football analyst. He was released by the network, however, after his first season.

"I did eight games with CBS last year," Pearson said. "Most of my reviews were positive. I thought it was just a matter of working out a contract.

"Then, Terry O'Neill (executive producer of NFL Football for CBS) called and told me my contract wouldn't be renewed. He told me I didn't have the potential to be exciting.

"They have their own style they want. It's the John Madden style. I'm as funny as the next guy, but it's not that yuk-yuk type of thing.

"He even said my coming out of the Dallas system--a conservative one, under Landry--was the reason I wasn't excitable enough. He said Staubach had the same problem."

Said O'Neill: "We only have eight analyst jobs. He was caught in a numbers game in a very competitive business."

Pearson's reviews were mixed.

Rudy Martzke, a sports TV columnist for USA Today, rated Pearson as the top newcomer in his midseason rankings of football commentators.

"I thought he was good," Martzke said. "But later in the season, I didn't think he was as effective. He leveled off."

Cathy Harasta, a sports TV-radio columnist at the Dallas Morning News, said Pearson's style was low-key at a time when Madden's style is trendy. "He was very composed, but composure isn't in at CBS. But I liked his work.

"He's articulate, personable and he has a lot of credibility."

All of which landed Pearson a place in the unemployment line.

Making that harder to take was that in the midst of last season, after Dallas had lost to the Redskins, Cowboy President Tex Schramm tried to talk Pearson out of the CBS booth back onto the playing field.

Pearson, thinking he had found a home at the network, told Schramm he'd prefer to stay in broadcasting. When CBS dumped him, however, he considered trying another comeback this season.

"They wouldn't let me talk about the game, so I wanted to give them something to talk about," he said.

Realistically, though, the prospects of a 34-year-old receiver with a scarred liver returning to action were slim. Some Dallas insiders, in fact, believed that the comeback bid was merely an attempt by Pearson's advisers to gain publicity for his struggling TV career.

He maintains that he really wanted to play. He did some running and weightlifting, and even ran some patterns for quarterbacks Danny White and Gary Hogeboom. But it didn't matter. When he went to his doctor for tests last month, he was told that contact could split his liver and cause massive bleeding.

He retired again.

Last week, while reporting on the Cowboys training camp for a television station in San Antonio, Pearson spent time at practices instructing rookie receivers.

"I couldn't hold back," he said. "I saw them making mistakes and I couldn't keep quiet. I eased myself out on the field. Pretty soon, players were coming to me, asking questions."

A few days later, Pearson was given a temporary coaching position by the Cowboys.

Said Landry: "It was his idea. He indicated an interest, and we thought he could help our young receivers. But, at this point, it's just an interest thing."

Pearson will stay with the team through the exhibition season. Then he will decide whether he wants to pursue coaching further, or resume his broadcasting career, which he views now as a failure.

"I'm looking forward to coaching," Pearson said. "Landry has never told me that I don't have the potential to be exciting."

Pearson doesn't hide his interest in eventually moving into the Cowboys' front office. He wants to be a general manager--a job he believes would bring him stability and security he has never had.

Admittedly, Pearson is hanging on to football. Through the touchdowns and the tragedies, it has been one of two constants in his life. His family is the other.

In fact, Pearson's mother, Minnie, who still lives in South River, N.J., where Drew grew up, said her son owes his football career to her.

He inherited her athletic ability, including her good hands, she said.

Pearson was the third of seven children, born to Minnie and Sam Pearson. Although the family was tightly knit, he was particularly close to his father.

"My dad tolerated no nonsense," Pearson said. "We respected him so much, we were afraid of him.

"If we flunked a class in school, we'd be scared to come home. It was like going to Coach Landry after dropping a game-winning touchdown pass."

Sam Pearson died of cancer in November, 1980.

That was the first of the series of tragic events Drew Pearson had to face.

Last year, after his brother's death, while he recuperated in a Dallas hospital, he said he couldn't sleep. When he did, he had nightmares.

Even now, Pearson says he asks himself the same questions. "Why are things the way they are? Why did I wake up? Why don't I remember any of it? Why did it happen?

"It feels like a mystery and nobody told me the ending. I can't get an ending to the story.

"Eventually, I think I'll know. I feel I'll be together with my dad and my brother again. Then I'll get the answers to these questions in my mind." DREW PEARSON'S STATISTICS RECEIVING

YEAR NO. YDS AVG. LONG TD 1973 22 388 17.6 40 2 1974 62 1087 17.5 50 2 1975 46 822 17.9 46 8 1976 58 806 13.9 40 6 1977 48 870 18.1 67 2 1978 44 714 16.2 53 3 1979 55 1026 18.7 56 8 1980 43 568 13.2 30 6 1981 38 614 13.2 42 3 1982 26 382 14.7 48 3 1983 47 545 11.6 32 5 11 Years 489* 7822* 16.0 67 48 Playoffs 67* 1105* 16.5 83 8*

* Dallas Cowboy record. Playoff figures compiled in 22 games.

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