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When Rights Go Wrong : Before June 27 Drug Death, Don Rogers Was Troubled; Maybe He Cared Too Much

Times Staff Writer

In his short but eventful life, Don Rogers almost always did what most people would consider the right thing.

On the football field, the former UCLA and Cleveland Browns safety could be counted on to serve and protect Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood. It was not a friendly place for opposing wide receivers.

And in Rogers’ real neighborhood in suburban Sacramento, he was a one-man support group to his troubled family.

But on the morning of June 27, just hours after his bachelor party and a day before his scheduled wedding to Leslie Nelson, his college girlfriend, Don Rogers did not do the right thing.

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He walked into a bedroom of a house he had bought for his mother two years ago, closed the door and ingested a lethal dose of cocaine.

Moments later, he lapsed into a coma. He died that afternoon.

A Sacramento coroner later said that the amount of cocaine Rogers had consumed probably was enough to kill an elephant, let alone a 6-foot 1-inch, 210-pound football player.

Nobody, of course, knows what Rogers was thinking or feeling that morning. But those closest to him say that, because of recent and increasing stress, he had grown tired of carrying his family’s burdens.

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On May 12, the day after Mother’s Day, Rogers came home and found his mother, Loretha, lying face down in the garden. A victim of clogged arteries, she had suffered a minor heart attack and had to be hospitalized.

Then, as his wedding approached, Rogers confided to his mother that he was having “serious second thoughts” about getting married.

Don also had helped his father, Joe Henry Rogers, get a temporary release from the Sacramento County Jail so he could attend the wedding. Joe Rogers was serving 120 days for his third drunken-driving conviction in two years.

Financially, Rogers had obligations that most 23-year-olds, even ones with lucrative NFL contracts, would probably find overwhelming.

After turning pro, Rogers bought the new house for his family, furnished it, and bought expensive new cars for himself and the immediate family.

He also occasionally gave money to Roscoe Riley, a Los Angeles man who claims that he, not Joe Rogers, is Don’s real father.

Rogers also was supporting a 4-year-old son, Don Jr., whom he had with a woman he met between his freshman and sophomore years in college.

Most recently, Don had helped his brother, Reggie, out of a financial bind in Seattle, where Reggie plays football for the University of Washington.

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“He was under unbelievable pressure that last week, and he always carried the family burden on his shoulders,” said Steve Arnold, an agent who represented Rogers and helped handle his finances. “I don’t know, of course, but maybe he was looking for a way to escape for a while.”

If cocaine was, indeed, meant to be an escape from reality for Rogers, it seems to be one he did not often pursue.

Two of Rogers’ former UCLA teammates, who asked not to be identified, told The Times that Rogers and a few other Bruin players had used cocaine and marijuana during Rogers’ junior and senior years. But several of Rogers’ close friends on UCLA’s football team said they never saw Rogers use drugs and that they never heard talk about it. UCLA Coach Terry Donahue has been on vacation and could not be reached.

The autopsy report from the Sacramento County Coroner’s office showed that, although cocaine intoxication was the cause of death, Rogers’ body showed no signs of long-term use.

What is known, unquestionably, is that Rogers used cocaine at least once. It was once too often.

“I don’t know why people use drugs, but, of course, the pressure (on Don) might have had something to do with it,” his fiancee, Leslie Nelson, said. “He’s had responsibilities ever since Day 1 . . . but I honestly believe if he had made it through Saturday, everything would have been all right.”

What was to have been a Saturday wedding turned into a funeral the next Thursday, though, and the traumatic effects of such a stark turnabout on those who knew Rogers well have only recently subsided.

For the first time since Rogers’ death, his family and friends have talked at length about Don.

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MAMA’S

‘LITTLE GENTLEMAN’

It was a typically hot mid-June day in Sacramento, and Don Rogers was glistening with sweat as he walked into the house after a morning run. But Loretha Rogers noticed that her son’s eyes were red and that maybe those were tears, not sweat, streaming down his face.

“What’s the matter, Donald?” Loretha asked.

“I stopped by the grocery store and someone told me Len Bias, the basketball player, died,” Don said. “Mama, I’m praying so hard that it isn’t drug-related. That would just be terrible for his family if it was.”

Loretha Rogers was holding back her own tears as she recalled that exchange with her son. Don’s own death by cocaine overdose occurred just eight days after Bias’ eerily similar death.

And now, the oldest of the three Rogers children, the one who often had said that his mother taught him to always be a little gentleman and do right by people, will be forever linked with Bias as publicized examples of healthy, All-American athletes whose promising careers and lives were ended abruptly by drugs.

Loretha Rogers was so shocked and grief-stricken at her son’s death that she suffered another heart attack. A week later, after being discharged from the hospital, she still refused to acknowledge that her son had died of a drug overdose, despite the findings of the county coroner and a toxicologist.

Only recently has she accepted it. But she also says the truth is that, no matter what the cause of death, Don was as fine a son as a mother could want.

“I feel it was a blessing that God let me carry (him) for nine months and raise him for 23 years,” she said. “You couldn’t have a better child. I’m not just saying that because he was mine. I have two other children, you know. Something about Donald was special.”

Ask almost anyone in the Sacramento area who knew the Rogers family--longtime friends and neighbors, former coaches and teachers--and the response is usually the same. As long as they can remember, they say it was Don, as much as his mother, who held the family together

Because Joe Rogers was seldom around when the family lived in Del Paso Heights, a rundown area in North Sacramento, Don sometimes assumed the role of father figure to little brother Reggie and little sister Jackie. When Joe and Loretha were divorced in 1980, Don’s duties in that area increased.

After Don had earned All-American honors his senior year at UCLA and later signed a reported four-year, $2.5-million contract with the Browns, the first thing he did was buy his mother a new house for $100,000 in South Natomas, an upscale area only two miles from the old neighborhood.

There were gifts, too, even though family members say that they never asked for anything. There were the new cars--a white Cadillac for Loretha, a BMW for Reggie, a compact for Jackie. There even was a fancy pickup truck for Joe, who was still family in Don’s mind, even if he no longer lived at home.

For himself, Don bought a Porsche and a condominium in Cleveland to live in during the football season.

Said Leslie Nelson: “Don never complained about helping his family. Never. But recently, he seemed worried about them. When you grow up and you never had anything and then you have the opportunity to give something to your family, that’s what you’re going to do. You do it regardless of whether you spend every penny in your pocket.”

Another source close to the family said: “Quite frankly, he wanted to get away from Sacramento. There were so many things he wanted to get away from and start a new life.”

According to Arnold, Rogers was not in serious financial trouble at the time of his death, but he had not saved much money. On the night in 1984 that Rogers signed with the Browns, the first thing he asked Arnold to do was help in purchasing the house.

“You’d have to make Donald do something for himself,” Loretha Rogers said. “I’d tell him all the time, ‘Do things for yourself.’ But then the trucks kept rolling into the house, delivering furniture; the cars just appeared in the driveway, the bills would be paid.

“Donald would tell me, ‘I have at least eight more years left in pro football to take care for myself.’ Then, he’d say, ‘It makes me feel good to watch you walk down those stairs in fine-looking clothes and get into that car. You struggled to raise us. You deserve it.’ ”

Because of a bad back, Loretha Rogers has been unable to work in recent years and collects Social Security. But she said that during the time she worked as a teacher’s aide, she made sure her children knew the proper values.

“I let all my kids know when Don was in the ninth grade that I couldn’t afford to put them in college, so they’d have to work to get there,” she said. “I knew they were all good in sports and they could use that to get scholarships, if they worked hard in school.

“Donald took it most serious. He took all the right classes and worked hard. And all my children got scholarships for sports (Don to UCLA, Reggie to Washington for basketball first, and then football, and Jackie to Oregon State for basketball).”

Carl Youngstrom, Rogers’ basketball coach at Norte Del Rio High School, said that Loretha Rogers attended every school sporting event involving her children. Don, in fact, could usually be found sitting next to his mother before and after football or basketball games.

Said Homer Mascarro, Rogers’ high-school football coach: “Joe wasn’t (always) around . . . so you could see Loretha look to Don to take over. One thing you could say about his mother: She always backed her kids.

“There were times when I knew something was bothering this kid, but he liked to keep a distance. He never wanted anyone to know anything was troubling him.”

For most of Rogers’ life, his mother was the only person in whom he confided. Joe Rogers said that Don always paid more attention to his mother, even when Joe lived with the family, simply because she needed it.

Said Bruce Colston, Rogers’ boyhood friend: “Don just accepted the fact he’d have to take over. Even when he left high school and went to college, he carried the responsibility with him. He’d always keep track of his mother.”

These days, when Loretha Rogers finds herself thinking of Don, she winds up either laughing or crying.

“I open my eyes sometimes and he’s still there,” she said. “I’m still trying to accept that he’s gone. When I came home from the hospital, I had to get all the flowers out of the house. People would write and say they were sorry for my loss, but I don’t really think I lost him. To me, he’ll always be here.

“I find myself listening for the phone to ring. He called every day (from UCLA and later Cleveland) and I’d answer it and hear him say, ‘Hey, baby.’ He never called me mama when he got older. Always baby.

“I’d be upstairs taking a shower and Don would always sneak just inside the bathroom and turn out the light on me just for fun. I miss that.

“There’s a hole in my heart now that will never close. My doctor said: ‘Loretha, there’s nothing wrong with your mind. So, try to get on with your life.’ That’s what I’m going to do. I don’t plan anything for tomorrow. I just wake up and try to make it through the day.”

For the first time in 23 years, she is trying to make it without her little gentleman.

BROTHERLY LOVE

Years ago, at a junior high school awards dinner, one of Don Rogers’ teachers thought she was paying Don a compliment when she said: “You’ve certainly left a hard road for your brother to follow.”

A worried expression crossed Rogers’ face, and he quickly sought out his mother in the crowd.

“Mama, have I left too hard a road for Reggie?” he asked.

Reggie Rogers, two years younger, didn’t take the same road as his brother. Don’s path was straight and mostly smooth. Reggie’s has been twisting and rocky. Still, it appears that he, too, might become a promising professional football player.

If Reggie is a high draft choice as a defensive end after his senior season, he says he can credit his brother for pointing him in the right direction.

“Don changed me,” said the 6-7 Reggie. “Sports always came real easy to me and I never really worked hard at it. Even when I first got to Washington, I never worked out or nothing. Then, Don told me that I’d never be as good as I could be unless I worked out and worked on my attitude.”

It was Don, in fact, who encouraged Reggie to turn to football at Washington. Reggie had quit the basketball team after his sophomore year in a dispute over playing time with Coach Marv Harshman. At the time, Reggie also was reportedly threatened with expulsion from school because of poor grades.

“After that run-in with Harshman, I was ready to go home and go to work,” Reggie said. “Don wouldn’t let me. He said, ‘At least stay up there in school. Mama sent you there to get educated.’ Well, the next day, Don calls back and said, ‘Why not play football?’ And here I am.”

Youngstrom, who coached both Don and Reggie in basketball, said the contrast in personalities was striking.

“Don was always the hardest worker on the team, kind of a coach on the floor,” he said. “Sometimes, it was hard to get Reggie to run. Don would always take time to talk to sophomores or anyone who needed help. Let’s just say Reggie’s attitude wasn’t good.”

Many people from Norte Del Rio High School, which is closed now, remember Don most as a quarterback leading the team to two touchdowns and a two-point conversion in the last two minutes to beat Yuba City.

Some remember Reggie for being involved in a racial fight on the field after a game at predominantly white Winters High in a neighboring farming community. Reggie suffered injuries to his arm and back after being hit with a yard-line marker, but the Sacramento Bee’s account of the fight said that witnesses also saw Reggie swinging a yard-line marker.

“Not a whole lot of colleges were still interested in Reggie after that,” Mascarro, the coach, said.

Arnold said it was almost as if Don was Reggie’s father. “He was always getting him out of something,” he said.

Loretha Rogers said that Don was a positive influence on Reggie.

“They were inseparable,” she said. “Donald carried him. For a long time, Reggie wasn’t into sports. But Donald would always pick Reggie first (in neighborhood games) when he was captain. It’s going to take Reggie a long time to get over this.”

In a few days, Reggie Rogers will drive back to Seattle for school in Don’s Porsche, leaving his BMW behind for sister Jackie. This year, though, Don won’t be paying rent on Reggie’s apartment in Seattle.

“He’d pay my rent, pay my car. pay everything,” Reggie said, softly. “He told me I still wasn’t living good enough. He said he wanted me to have as good a senior year as he did. He was going to get me a new apartment and everything. I never asked for it. He wanted the best for me.”

TALE OF TWO FATHERS

Two men claim to be Don Rogers’ father. Neither played a major role in Don’s upbringing, but each said he had grown closer to Don in recent years. Each also has been helped financially in the two years that Don was a pro football player.

No one disputes that Joe Rogers is the father of Reggie and Jackie. And legally, Joe is listed as Don’s father.

But in the days immediately after Don’s death, Roscoe Riley arrived at the Rogers house and joined grieving family members. Before entering, he told several reporters outside that he was Don’s father. For the next two days, he was interviewed on local television.

Loretha Rogers said there is no mystery. She said Joe Henry Rogers is the father of all her children. She said Riley is just a man she knew long ago. But why, then, would Don support Riley in the same manner as Joe Rogers?

“Everyone’s talking about this, but Don knew who his real father was,” Loretha said. “I’d never keep that from him. I don’t feel I owe anyone an explanation.”

Said a source close to the family: “When Don’s mother was pregnant, she was not married to Joe. He was in the service. They got married after Don’s birth. How Roscoe got into the picture was that Loretha wanted to go home to Texarkana (Tex.) to have the baby, but in those days you weren’t supposed to go home pregnant unless you had a husband. Evidently, Roscoe went with Loretha to Texas.”

Joe Rogers, who last month was released from Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center in nearby Elk Grove after completing his drunken-driving sentence, said that his relationship with Don was closer than father and son.

“We were like buddies,” he said. “Every time he’d come home after football season, he’d come see me. We’d walk and talk and ride around in his car. We had a good time. This kid was perfect. He made you feel like you were somebody.

“Donald did a lot of things for me. He got me out of some home-life jams. He’d always help you out. I never asked for anything. I don’t think we ever did have a father-son thing. I’m only 42, and we kind of grew up together. We were closer than the two front teeth in your mouth.”

And what did Joe Rogers know about Roscoe Riley?

“He’s an impostor,” Joe said. “All I can say is that some people wanted to know Don for his money.”

When Rogers arrived at UCLA, friends and teammates noticed that an older man often waited for Don after games.

“Don always called Roscoe just Roscoe, not his father,” Leslie Nelson said. “But I’d be standing next to (Roscoe) outside the locker room and he’d say, ‘I’m waiting for my son.’ ”

Steve Arnold said he and Riley met at the 1984 Rose Bowl game when they sat next to each other.

“He introduced himself as Don Rogers’ father,” Arnold said. “I’ve never heard Don deny it.”

Riley, who holds two jobs, said there is nothing to deny.

“I’m Don’s real father,” he said. “I don’t know where they got that birth certificate with Joe Rogers on it. Don knew it was me, he held back saying so for the sake of his mother. I’ve always tried to be in Don’s life. When he was a kid, I’d send him things like a guitar.”

After Don started making money of his own, he gave some to Roscoe.

“I work for my living, but, yes, a few times he’d given me checks. I never asked. Just recently, he said he was going to send me one because he said I shouldn’t have to work two jobs.”

Joe Rogers and Roscoe Riley agree, however, that Don was not the type to abuse drugs.

“I still don’t believe he did this on his own,” Riley said. “There are a lot of things I don’t understand. I talked to about 15 junkies I know, and they say it’s impossible to smoke that much coke in that short a time (2 1/2 hours). I just don’t know.”

Joe Rogers said: “This has made us all a little bit wiser. You gotta watch who you run with. There are people out there who want to put their finger on you and keep you down. I never thought they’d get Donald.”

THE FIANCEE AND THE UNWED MOTHER

Besides his mother, the women who figured most prominently in Rogers’ life were Nelson, his fiancee, and Ajuanta Ballard, the mother of his son.

The women do not know each other and have little in common except that both loved Don, wanted to marry him and were denied.

Barbed wire tops the fences of many houses in the South Sacramento neighborhood where Ajuanta Ballard lives. In front of her house, however, there is a white picket fence with several boards missing.

On a hot July afternoon, little Don lies sleeping on the floor just inside the front door, a blanket covering all but his face. Music softly playing from a transistor radio serves as a lullaby.

The mother of Donald Lavert Rogers II steps over her son, sits on a sofa and reluctantly recalls her relationship with Donald Lavert Rogers I in the summer of 1981, the summer after Rogers’ freshman year at UCLA.

“We both had summer jobs at the Christian center (in the old neighborhood) and we started seeing each other,” Ballard said. “When we went out, we never knew anything about drugs. We liked to have fun.”

When Ballard became pregnant, Don had to decide whether to stay in Sacramento and work to support her and the baby, take them to UCLA with him or return to UCLA by himself.

He left for UCLA alone at the end of that summer.

“We talked about marriage, but I didn’t want to interfere (with his career),” Ballard said. “His life would have been ruined. I didn’t want to get married just then because he never would have finished school.”

Loretha Rogers stayed in close contact with Ballard throughout the pregnancy and has helped care for little Don. Ballard said she had not seen Rogers for two years before his death. “But he helped me as much as he could,” she said.

Don was at UCLA on March 18, 1982, when his son was born at Sacramento Community Hospital. Loretha said he called her at the hospital many times that day. Finally, she passed along the good news.

“What is it?” Don asked his mother.

“It’s you,” Loretha said. “It looks just like you.”

“What am I going to do now?” a frantic Don asked.

“I’ll help out,” Loretha said.

Ajuanta Ballard says now that she wanted Don, not his mother, to care for the child. She lowers her voice so as not to wake her sleeping child and says: “I’m not exactly happy about the way it turned out. I thought maybe after a year we could get married.”

Marriage to Don Rogers was a day away from Leslie Nelson when the call from Sacramento came to her parents’ home in Oakland.

“That poor girl,” Loretha Rogers said. “To her, it’s still like June 28 hasn’t come. She’s still waiting for her wedding day.”

Lately, Leslie Nelson spends most of her days around her parents’ home while her parents, twin sister and two younger brothers are off working. She hadn’t planned to be there this late in the summer. She was supposed to be in Cleveland.

“I’ve decided to start applying for jobs,” she said. Nelson graduated from UCLA on June 22 with a degree in economics. “Staying here all day just gives me too much time to think,” she said.

Kevin Nelson, a UCLA tailback and no relation to Leslie, introduced her to Don at UCLA. She was a freshman, he a junior. What Leslie remembers most about the meeting is that she kept confusing Rogers and Blanchard Montgomery, another UCLA player and Rogers’ roommate, even though the two did not look alike.

Once she settled on which one was Rogers, they started seeing each other, and their relationship became serious the summer of 1983 when they returned to their Northern California homes.

“They were a good couple,” said Tracy Nelson, Kevin Nelson’s wife. “They were both bubbly and always upbeat. They lit up a room when they walked in.”

After a courtship in which Don regularly brought flowers not only to Leslie but also to her twin sister, Lisa, and her mother, Gloria, Don and Leslie were engaged on July 12, 1985.

“We had talked about it a year before that, but we were waiting for me to graduate,” Nelson said. “I’m sure Don also figured that, by that time, he would be starting his third year (in pro football) and would have his family taken care of. If you look, Don didn’t have a lot. He bought himself a car and a condo. He had to live somewhere during the season.”

Like most everyone else close to Rogers, Nelson said that he was very giving, and not just to his family.

“One time back in his condo in Cleveland, downstairs in the parking garage, there was a guy that washes cars and got tips from all his customers,” she said. “He always washed Don’s car. I guess one week, the guy was having a bad week, and Don paid him enough for the whole week. He just wanted to share with everybody.”

But according to Rogers’ mother and other close friends, Don was having more than standard pre-nuptial anxiety about sharing his life with a wife.

“The last day or so, he wasn’t sure he wanted to go through with it,” said Kevin Nelson, who was to have been in the wedding party but instead served as a pallbearer. “He was real quiet at the (bachelor) party. Every time I tried to ask him about it, he wouldn’t talk about it.”

But Don apparently talked to his mother.

“I didn’t think that he didn’t love Leslie, but he looked at his dad and me and our divorce, and also the way his son was being shuttled back and forth between his mother and my house, and he worried about his marriage,” Loretha Rogers said. “I told him, ‘Each marriage is different, and it takes two to make it.’ He was still planning to get married.”

DON AND DRUGS

It’s usually easier to do the right thing if you stay away from the wrong crowd. That was not always easy, even for Don Rogers.

When the Rev. Jesse Jackson held an anti-drug rally at Grant High School in the old neighborhood the same day as Rogers’ funeral, more than 600 people attended. Jackson asked how many loved ones they had lost to drugs. More than a few hands were raised. Throughout his adolescence in Sacramento, though, Rogers seemingly just said no to drugs. Everyone from Rogers’ former high school coaches and teammates to people in his old neighborhood said that Don never used drugs in high school.

So where was Rogers introduced to drugs? At UCLA? In Cleveland? In Sacramento the night of his bachelor party?

A former UCLA player, who knew Rogers for four years, said: “I hate to use the term recreational, but he was one of those type of guys. Just once or twice a month at parties. Everyone on the team knew. The coaches didn’t. . . . There wasn’t a drug problem on the team. Some guys had beer at parties after games, some had other stuff.”

Kevin Nelson, Rogers’ roommate all four years at UCLA, said he never knew of Rogers using drugs.

“I’m stunned and hurt by his death, especially because it was drugs,” Nelson said. “I never saw Don take drugs. He had too many plans for his football career.”

Said lineman Duval Love, a year behind Rogers at UCLA: “You mention Don Rogers and you don’t think of drugs at all. . . . (Drugs) are available anywhere--UCLA or the streets. There was no more pressure to take drugs at UCLA than anywhere else. UCLA is just like any other college. People do drugs. You can’t hide from that. I’ve been to parties and you see that stuff, but you got to be man enough to walk away from it.”

Somewhere along the cocaine line, though, Rogers did not walk away.

Sam Rutigliano, former coach of the Cleveland Browns, recently told the Sacramento Bee that he is certain Rogers was introduced to cocaine when he joined the Browns in 1984.

Rutigliano said that Rogers passed a pre-draft drug screening and was not a member of the Inner Circle, a drug counseling program that was formed by the Browns in 1982 to help players with problems.

“He didn’t just wake up and start on cocaine that morning (of his death),” Rutigliano said. “But a guy who knows what he’s doing doesn’t do what Don did.”

Family and longtime friends of Rogers are shocked that people are saying he had used cocaine.

“I never believed it was drugs until (the coroner) confirmed it,” said Bruce Colston, who had known Rogers since the second grade. “He seemed to care too much about his body to do that. I used to see him out running during the hottest part of the afternoon, and I’d go up and tell him, ‘You’re going to kill yourself.’ He’d laugh.”

Three weeks ago, in Loretha Rogers’ only other interview since Don’s death, she told a UPI reporter that the coroner had to be wrong, that drugs couldn’t have been involved. But last week, when she was interviewed by The Times, she had accepted the truth.

“You just can’t look out of one eye and close the other one,” she said. “You got to keep both open, even if you don’t want to see what’s going on. Maybe Donald just didn’t know what he was getting involved in.”

Others say that Rogers was naive, and that his naivete killed him.

Roscoe Riley said: “Donald was basically a square. He was hip to some things, but not to a lot of things. There were a lot of things his brother told him that he should’ve known himself.”

Leslie Nelson said: “I thought he just wasn’t that type of person, but who knows? He’s not here now to ask.”

CHEERS AND TEARS

Many will remember Don Rogers more for the way he died than the way he lived. He was, after all, only beginning to achieve stardom in pro football.

“He felt this was his year,” Leslie Nelson said. “He felt as if the coaches had structured the defense for him. He used to complain that they wouldn’t ‘free him up,’ as he called it. He used to say, ‘They gotta let me play ball.’ ”

Rogers had done well, though, despite whatever tethers the Browns’ coaches had him on. He was voted the NFL’s defensive rookie of the year in 1984 and was an alternate for the Pro Bowl last season.

“I have no doubt Don was going to be the best,” said Michael Young, a wide receiver with the Rams and a teammate of Rogers at UCLA. “He was possesed about being the best. He picked up things other people can’t see, and he hit harder than anyone. He was intimidating on the field.”

More than anything, Rogers is remembered as a competitor, a leader, a friend and, sometimes, a clown.

“The thing I remember most is when we were in (owner) Art Modell’s office negotiating Don’s first contract,” Arnold said. “Don was sitting there and I thought he was listening to the negotiations. The conversation was getting really heavy and, finally, I’m just about ready to turn and ask Don his opinion, when I notice out of the corner of my eye that he’s reading the newspaper--upside down.”

Duval Love said: “I remember him most for his senior year, during practice before the Rose Bowl. It was two days before Christmas and we cut practice short. Don brought us all together and we sang Christmas carols before going into the locker room. The whole team, all the players, singing. That’s the kind of person he was.”

Many players on that team planned to gather again at Rogers’ wedding. Instead, they went for the funeral. Nearly 2,000 mourners at Sacramento’s Arco Arena listened to one of Don’s favorite songs, “The Greatest Love of All,” which says a lot about his life:

Everybody’s searching for a hero People need someone to look up to I never found anyone who fulfilled my needs A lonely place to be So I learned to depend on me . Times staff writer Tracy Dodds contributed to this story.


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