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Doctor Says Rogers Probably Died of a Drug Overdose : Preliminary Autopsy Results Revealed; Mother Is Stricken

Times Staff Writer

A physician who conducted an autopsy on former UCLA defensive back Don Rogers said Saturday that the 23-year-old football star appeared to have died on Friday from a drug overdose.

“A drug overdose is the most likely cause” of death, Dr. Joseph Pawlowski said.

Pawlowski, a pathologist under contract with the Sacramento coroner’s office, said: “The autopsy showed--in what is an otherwise healthy adult in good condition-- serious congestion of the body organs, especially the lungs.

“You see that in a young adult, (and) one of your first considerations has to be a drug overdose,” possibly from cocaine, Pawlowski said. But he cautioned that he “can’t say 100% it’s drugs” until toxicological tests are completed on Monday.

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The tragedy for the grief-stricken Rogers family was compounded Saturday when Rogers’ mother, Loretha, 43, complained of chest pains and suffered a heart attack. She was rushed to Community Hospital of Sacramento, the same hospital where her son was first taken on Friday.

Dr. James Turner, Mrs. Rogers’ physician, said late Saturday that his patient was in serious but stable condition in the hospital’s intensive care unit. He said it appeared that the stress brought on by her son’s death could have been “an aggravating factor” in the heart attack.

Rogers, who was a safety with the Cleveland Browns of the National Football League, was a standout high school athlete in Sacramento. On Thursday night, he attended a bachelor party in his honor, but on Friday morning he suffered a seizure and lapsed into a coma before being rushed to a local hospital. He died at 4:31 p.m., the day before he was to be married.

Rogers, who was 6-foot-1 and weighed 206 pounds, was born in Texarkana, Ark., and grew up in Sacramento, where he played quarterback at Norte Del Rio High School before going to UCLA. He moved over to defense and played safety for the Bruins, starring in the 1983 and ’84 Rose Bowls. He was the No. 1 choice of the Browns in the 1984 NFL draft.

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If Pawlowlski’s initial findings are confirmed, it would be the second time in eight days that a standout young athlete died in a drug-related case. On June 19, University of Maryland basketball All-American Len Bias died of cocaine intoxication.

On Saturday, Pawlowski conducted the autopsy on Rogers’ body for the Sacramento County coroner’s office. He reported finding “a tremendous collapse in the cardiovascular system. He (Rogers) has an accumulation of blood in various organs referred to as congestion,” Pawlowski said.

The doctor said that drugs are his “first consideration” because of the congestion “without any related natural disease” or signs of foul play.

Still, Pawlowski said, “there’s no indication” of needle marks that might suggest Rogers was a regular drug user.

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Before Pawlowski made the preliminary results public, Sacramento police Sgt. Bob Burns said that to his knowledge “there were no drugs determined this morning that were identifiable as the cause of death.”

Burns said that “foul play” had been ruled out and that police would not launch an investigation of Rogers’ death until further tests are completed on Monday.

At a news conference, Burns said: “We have not questioned anyone at the bachelor party to my knowledge. There’s no reason to question anyone at the bachelor party” until the laboratory results are finished.

Rogers lived part of the time at the suburban Sacramento home he reportedly purchased for his mother. Neighbors said he had been fixing up the house in preparation for his wedding.

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Glenn Main, owner of Executive Limousine, said that Rogers’ brother, Reggie, a star defensive tackle at the University of Washington, arranged for a limousine. Main said that at 8 p.m. Thursday, one of his cars went to the house to pick up members of the bachelor party. They were taken about 10 miles to Sacramento Metropolitan Airport to pick up another guest, and then at about 10 p.m. they were chauffeured to the Hilton Inn.

What happened next is unclear because none of those at the party has been available for comment.

But Paul Warfield, an official of the Cleveland Browns, contacted Rogers at 8:15 a.m. Friday. Warfield reported that Rogers was in good spirits and seemed excited about his impending marriage.

Then, around 10:30 a.m., fire trucks and an ambulance were called to the Rogers’ home, after the football star reportedly suffered seizures. Pawlowski said Rogers called out to his mother but then fell into a coma and “never regained consciousness.” Rogers was taken to Community Hospital and then was transferred to Mercy San Juan Hospital in suburban Carmichael, where he died.

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