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ONE MORE NIGHTMARE : Reggie Rogers, Haunted by the Past, Faces an Uncertain Future

Times Staff Writer

By now, it is the most infamous intersection in tiny downtown Pontiac, Mich.: University Drive and Wide Track Drive.

It’s the place, say local police, where you can still find shards of glass and bits and pieces of warped steel from a car crash that ended the lives of three teen-agers and began yet another nightmare for Reggie Rogers of the Detroit Lions.

This time the nightmare doesn’t include his brother Don, the former UCLA and Cleveland Browns star who died of a cocaine overdose in 1986. It doesn’t include sports agents, under-the-table payoffs, breach-of-contract suits--all of which have haunted Rogers in the past.

It also doesn’t include misdemeanor assault charges, anger-management classes, post-draft day accusations. And it doesn’t include an occasionally AWOL sister, a mother with a heart condition, a sometime father, a nervous breakdown.

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This is worse.

This is about 3 counts of involuntary manslaughter, felony charges that could bring a maximum penalty of 45 years in prison. And with the expected criminal proceedings--a preliminary hearing is scheduled Thursday--comes a separate civil suit brought against Rogers by the families of the three youths.

Once again, Rogers, 24, finds himself at odds with fate. Is he the spoiled athlete or the tragic figure? Dumb or simply naive? Blessed or cursed? With Rogers, these are ongoing questions.

One day he is a first-round pick of the Lions, the seventh player chosen in the 1987 National Football League draft. Nearly 21 months later, he is in jeopardy of losing it all--his job and worse yet, his freedom.

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But if nothing else, he is alive, surely a miracle of sorts, considering the crumpled vehicles on that night more than a month ago. Rogers was pulled from the wreckage, his neck broken, his right thumb nearly severed from his hand, teeth cracked, broken or altogether missing. His right ear and jaw still are sore from impact. He remembers little about the accident.

Of course, that could be the least of his problems. An Oakland County prosecutor, police report in hand, is waiting to refresh Rogers’ memory at the preliminary hearing.

Results of a blood-alcohol examination will be officially divulged. The matter of Rogers allegedly running a red light will be addressed. Reconstruction of the crash itself won’t be difficult, what with the local newspapers already printing detailed maps of the intersection and the chain of events. And what the prosecutor might forget, the attorney for the teen-agers’ families won’t.

So Rogers has done it this time. Innocent or guilty, he has emerged from the shadow of his famous brother. All it took was almost 2 1/2 years of controversy, from bloodlines to a bloody accident at the corner of University and Wide Track. He has carved a brief legacy, all right, and it is crammed with both triumph and heartache.

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Mostly heartache.

THE ACCIDENT

Thursday, Oct. 20, was about half an hour old when Rogers arrived at Big Art’s Paradise Lounge in Pontiac. Now, if someone only would explain why he was there.

Back at his Rochester Hills home was his fiancee, Sheila Dorsey, almost 8 months pregnant and expecting twins. And then there was Rogers’ reported weekly alcohol-abuse test, which was mandated by NFL policy and scheduled for Friday.

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But he was there.

Also at the bar that night was teammate Devon Mitchell. Months earlier, before season’s beginning, Mitchell had driven a drunken Rogers home--at Rogers’ request. This time, Mitchell later told reporters, Rogers didn’t appear intoxicated.

At about 1:30 a.m., Rogers, Mitchell and two women they had met at Big Art’s--Robin Reece and her stepsister, Kelly Bumpous--left the bar. Mitchell and Reece drove separate cars to Bumpous’ house, and Bumpous rode with Rogers. Once at the house, Bumpous went inside, and Reece joined Rogers in his Jeep Cherokee.

Mitchell, still in his own car, and Rogers drove to a convenience store and, according to store manager Sam Konja, bought soda, potato chips and several other items. “But no beer,” Konja said. "(Rogers) didn’t have no beer. And he wasn’t drunk. The police asked me that.”

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Rogers and Reece, 18, climbed back into the 4-wheel-drive vehicle. They headed west on University toward Wide Track Drive, an intersection that is well marked but has had a “fair amount of accidents,” according to a Pontiac police sergeant.

Heading north on Wide Track were Kenneth Willett, 19, of Waterford Township, and his cousins Kelley, 18, and Dale Ess, 17, of Versailles, Mo. The Esses were in Oakland County to visit their dying grandmother, Nina Harvey, 76, a patient at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak.

They had spent much of Wednesday morning and afternoon at Beaumont. That night, the Esses ate dinner at the Willetts’ before driving to a local video arcade at about 8:15. Later they visited friends.

At some point that evening, Willett had “a couple of drinks,” said family attorney Lawrence E. Gursten.

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“He was not drunk,” Gursten said. “There was nominal drinking. He was watching himself.”

Then it happened. At about 1:50 a.m., Rogers’ red Cherokee slammed into the passenger side of Willett’s black, 1987 Plymouth Horizon.

The Cherokee, more than half a ton heavier than Willett’s car, sent the Horizon, with Dale Ess in the front seat and Kelley Ess in the back right seat, spinning and careening toward a utility pole. It struck the pole and burst into flames. Smoke filled the morning air. Anyone standing near the fiery wreckage would not have realized that the temperature had dropped to 35 degrees.

Meanwhile, Rogers’ car, its front end mashed, engine parts falling off, tumbled down University, past the blazing Horizon, before finally settling on its side.

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Mitchell, who had driven ahead, doubled back and found Rogers dazed and disoriented. Reece, also in shock, her ring finger sliced off, ran to nearby Pontiac Osteopathic Hospital, about 2 blocks away.

It was a gruesome scene, this accident site, what with the smell of tires burning, broken glass strewn about the road. In no time at all, a quiet, 1-light intersection had become a gathering place for sirens and ambulances and death.

The county medical examiner pronounced Kelley Ess dead at 2:14 a.m. Several minutes later, Dale Ess died.

Willett was taken to the same hospital as Rogers, Osteopathic Hospital, and put on a life-support system. The teen-ager had suffered severe brain damage, but his parents chose the support system so his vital organs could be donated to area hospitals. At 12:30 p.m., Willett was pronounced brain dead.

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As for Rogers, doctors reattached his thumb shortly after the crash. That night, they performed 90 minutes of surgery on his neck and then put him in traction. They found no evidence of paralysis, but they did attach a metal brace, held steady by a set of screws inserted into the skull bone, to his head. The device stabilizes the neck and prevents movement.

Despite the painful injuries, Rogers can expect a complete recovery. He also has been assured that his injuries won’t prevent him from returning to football.

That same can’t be said about those involuntary manslaughter charges.

And as if there weren’t enough going on in Rogers’ life, he married Sheila in his hospital room Nov. 1. On Nov. 15, Reggie Jr. and Regina were born. Thursday, he will likely be bound over for criminal trial.

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The civil suits are less a concern right now. Gursten also sued Big Art’s Paradise Lounge and under the law, that action must be resolved before he can proceed with the Rogers case. Meanwhile, Rogers’ attorneys say they will let Rogers’ insurance company handle liability for the civil suits.

Not surprisingly, these are uncertain times for Rogers. According to prosecutor L. Brooks Patterson, Rogers is guilty of running a red light, driving at excessive speed and exceeding the state’s allowable blood-alcohol level. The legal limit is .10%.

Gursten said he has been told by investigators that Rogers tested at .15%.

But although Rogers’ blood-alcohol level might have been too high, so too, said Patterson, were the levels of Willett and the Esses.

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A Pontiac police department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the accident investigation concluded, however, that Rogers was responsible for the collision. “He’ll be assessed blame,” the official said.

Meanwhile, Rogers’ attorneys, who include Elbert Hatchett--"About as good as they come,” said the same police official--and Harold Curry argue that the information leaks may jeopardize their client’s chance for a fair trial. Hatchett said he is considering a request for a change of venue.

“That’s because he’s a celebrity,” Hatchett said. “He’s a football player, a football star. There’s interest.”

There is also community backlash of sorts. Sides have been drawn. It is the highly paid athlete vs. three teen-agers, as silly a division as there can be, Curry said.

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“It seems as though nothing short of Reggie getting killed is satisfactory to certain members of the public,” he said. “But the truth of the matter is that you have all losers. You can’t have any winners in this.”

Still, Rogers has his life, which tends to separate him from the three others. He also has enough problems to fill a dump truck, beginning with his court date and ending . . . well, you never seem to know with Rogers.

Rogers and his family, on the advice of Hatchett, declined to be interviewed for this story. But this much is known: When he was informed of the criminal charges against him, Rogers could ask but two questions.

“Why? What did I do?”

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It is a theme in his life, a byproduct of his immense athletic talent, of who his brother was, of who he seems destined to be: a puzzling, confounding person who can’t stay out of harm’s way.

In the wee hours of Oct. 20, it was a tragic automobile accident that singled out Rogers. A year ago, it was a 30-day absence from the Lion roster for emotional counseling. Before that, it was a problem involving his sister, Jackie, who disappeared for 4 days. Before that, it was criticism from teammates and coaches for his poor play as a rookie defensive end and his $1.775-million contract.

“You almost anticipate that some of the worst things in the world have to happen to him for some reason,” said Jim Lambright, who was Rogers’ defensive coordinator at the University of Washington. “He’s brought them on or had them brought on. He’s thrown himself in some situations that you certainly wouldn’t want on anyone.”

There is always something and don’t think Rogers doesn’t know it. Last September, reflecting on his harried life, he said this of a tumultuous 1987:

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“Is this Pick on Reggie Year, or something? I want this year to get the hell over with. A hell of a year.”

And now another one. Always, it seems, another one.

THE WONDER YEARS

Rogers left Norte Del Rio High School in Sacramento as a basketball, not football, star. He was big, well on his way to 6 feet 6 inches, 285 pounds. And he was intimidated by no one, except maybe his brother, Don, whom he idolized.

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Sometimes, when the mood struck him, Rogers could dominate a high school game. It was as if there were no opposition. Points and rebounds came with ease. It almost seemed a waste to put a defender on him.

Other times, during Rogers’ funk sessions, he survived on athletic talent and nothing else--no drive, no discipline.

But the University of Washington liked him. They liked his bulk and his potential. Sure, he was immature at times, but what high school senior isn’t on occasion?

“When we recruited him, I thought he was a boy in a man’s body, and I don’t think he’s changed,” said Marv Harshman, the legendary Washington basketball coach who has since retired.

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“I didn’t think he was suspicious of people, but unless people saw things his way, he thought they weren’t for him. I think he expected everybody to help him. He had never been denied anything.”

Rogers started his freshman year at Washington and averaged 8.4 points and 5.3 rebounds. By then, though, Harshman had decided that Rogers would be a role player, a reserve and nothing more. Rogers had ability, to be sure. But he lacked whatever it is that separates a basketball player from a football player who also plays basketball.

“We looked at him as a potential power forward,” Harshman said. “We never felt or indicated to him that he would be NBA potential. I don’t think his potential (in basketball) was near the degree that he had as a pro football player.”

Rogers resented the way he was treated by Harshman. And he never could understand Harshman’s nit-picky rules.

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One time, Rogers was late for a team meeting. So Harshman, as he always did in such instances, instructed team managers to clean out Rogers’ locker.

“Where’s my gear?” Rogers asked.

“You’re not part of the team today,” Harshman said.

“Can I sit in the stands?”

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“No.”

In his sophomore year, with the blessings of Harshman and the encouragement of his brother, Rogers joined the football team but continued to play basketball as well. By the end of his junior season, however, Rogers had decided to quit basketball and play only football. It is one of the few wise choices anyone can remember Rogers making.

“He was a delightful guy to have on the team,” Don James, the football coach, said. “But I had the feeling that he would not have maybe played football ever again had Don not encouraged him to give it a try.”

That was like the Don Rogers many remember--always looking out for Reggie, or his mother, or his sister, or his father, or anybody. Don Rogers apparently strapped the world on his shoulders and lugged it around as if it were a backpack.

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He bought a house for his mother and cars for the rest of his family. He helped Reggie with his apartment bills in Seattle and never thought twice about slipping his brother a few greenbacks.

“They were definitely more than brothers,” said Vestee Jackson, a former Washington teammate who now plays for the Chicago Bears. “Donnie definitely took care of (Reggie). There was the nice car and some money in your pocket. (Reggie) always seemed to have money.”

By the end of his junior season, Rogers was considered one of the best defensive linemen in the country. He was an All-Pacific 10 selection and Washington coaches couldn’t wait until Rogers returned for the 1986 season. At last, it seemed, all was fine with Rogers. No trouble. No controversy. No nothing.

Then, on June 27, Don died. With him, went a chunk of Reggie. It was the day Reggie lost his best buddy. It was also the day that he found himself strapping that same world on his own shoulders. And it was heavy.

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“Initially, it devastated him,” said Pat Healy, Rogers’ first agent. “Then it paralyzed him. Then he was reflective about it. That was his only friend. (Don) was not a brother, he was a best friend.

“After Don died, (Reggie’s) apartment was like a funeral parlor with the pictures of his brother. It wasn’t decorated with the accolades (Reggie) had received, but with the accolades his brother had received. There were (newspaper) clips from the funeral. He had not severed the relationship. I don’t know if he’s ever done that.”

Said former teammate Kevin Gogan: “I think that he handled (Don’s death) well. I know that it hurt (Reggie). I know he was confused with what was going on. I was a team captain with him. But it seemed like it was better to let it ride, to not really bring up (Don’s death) too often.”

Rogers dedicated his senior season to Don’s memory and it showed. He was named to numerous All-American teams and was considered a first-round draft choice if there ever was one.

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Or was he?

Opinion varied. Some pro scouts and coaches loved Rogers’ potential. Others thought him overrated.

“We thought that the best he would ever be was the kind of guy who could start, but in order for you to win, someone you would have to eventually replace in the lineup,” one NFL scout said. “When you really looked at him as a player, he just didn’t get a lot done.”

The Dallas Cowboys, in desperate need of defensive linemen, paid particular attention to Rogers before the 1987 draft.

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Said defensive coordinator Ernie Stautner: “He was sort of a hot and cold player. He did some pretty good things from what I saw. But he didn’t appear to me to be the ultimate type of pass rusher. He just appeared to be a good defensive end.”

There were other concerns, mainly his penchant for getting in trouble. Like some other athletes, Rogers thought that his on-field abilities transcended off-field rules.

“He was very confident in himself,” Vestee Jackson said. “What he wanted to do, he did. His brother was an All-American, an all-star athlete. (Reggie) was in the limelight. He more or less grew up around it. When you grow up in it, you tend to accept it. Now that his brother is gone, it’s kind of like, ‘Where is that guidance?’ ”

Rogers scored 6 on the Wonderlich test, an intelligence examination administered to prospective NFL rookies, said two team officials with access to test results. A score of 15 is considered the minimum.

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Nor did it help that Rogers became involved in a legal dispute with Healy and also Norby Walters, another agent. Rogers had accepted--and later repaid--loans from Walters while still at Washington. Rogers also signed a contract with Healy, but then switched to Steve Zucker while the previous agreement was in effect. So Healy and Walters sued Rogers. Rogers sued back.

As part of his original contract with Healy, Rogers instructed the agent that when matters of money were involved, the Rogers family was not to be involved.

“He told me he didn’t want to duplicate the errors his brother made,” Healy said. “I thought that was heads-up. I liked that.

“Don . . . he gave (to the family). Then he wouldn’t give and they would do the guilt trip on him. The family created a great pressure on (Don). Reggie saw that and he did not want that to start.”

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With the first pick of the draft, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers chose quarterback Vinny Testaverde. The Indianapolis Colts took linebacker Cornelius Bennett. The Houston Oilers selected running back Alonzo Highsmith.

Now it was the Green Bay Packers’ turn. Dick Modzelewski, their defensive coordinator at the time, lobbied for Rogers. Then-coach Forrest Gregg and Executive Vice President Tom Braatz wanted running back Brent Fullwood.

“I argued like hell,” Modzelewski said. “The night before, we held a mock draft. We needed a defensive lineman desperately, so I thought my argument was pretty damn good.”

Moments before the Packers’ turn, Braatz and Gregg said they were going to choose Fullwood.

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“Let me just say one more thing,” Modzelewski told them that day. “You should take Rogers.”

They didn’t. Two picks later, after the Cleveland Browns had taken linebacker Mike Junkin and the then-St. Louis Cardinals had picked quarterback Kelly Stouffer, Rogers was chosen by the Lions. It was the beginning of a troubled relationship.

REGGIE, WE HARDLY KNEW YA

Suffice to say that Rogers was a bust his rookie season. He missed meetings. He missed tackles. But he never missed a paycheck.

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Many Lion coaches and players considered him a wasted pick and most certainly a waste of $1.775 million. Rogers’ failed rookie year is also listed as a contributing reason in the Lions’ recent decision to fire Coach Darryl Rogers. The former coach, who wouldn’t return interview requests, didn’t hide his feelings when it came to Reggie’s on-field work. This from the Lion media guide:

“It’s obvious we did not get what we wanted out of (Reggie) last season. We weren’t satisfied with his performance and neither was Reggie.”

So guess who joined Rogers’ staff during the off-season as the new defensive line coach?

Dick Modzelewski.

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"(The Packers) are probably saying, ‘You wanted him, damn it, you got him now,’ ” Modzelewski said.

Before an ankle injury sidelined Rogers about 5 games into the season, Modzelewski considered him one of the Lions’ most improved players. The change was striking.

Against the Rams on Sept. 11, Rogers limped to the Lion bench after hurting his ankle. The Reggie of 1987 would have stayed there. The Reggie of 1988 limped back out. People noticed.

“Everything was against him,” Modzelewski said. “Everything was negative: the press, the fans, the people, even some of the players. Here he was, all by himself.

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“I’ll say this about him: From the minute a practice started to the minute it quit, he went all out. A lot of players mentioned that to me. They said, ‘Geez, he’s a lot different. He’s playing harder.’ Offensive linemen were even pulling for him.

“Reggie felt good about all that. He worked like hell. He wanted to prove he could be a damn good football player because of what happened his rookie year.”

Now he would settle for the words, insufficient evidence, or, if a criminal trial is necessary, a verdict of not guilty.

Tragedy and calamity always have felt comfortable around Rogers. He accommodates them as house guests. And look where it gets him: in court, in hospitals, in headlines, in trouble.

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Maybe he has learned a lesson from his tragedies. Or, frighteningly, maybe he hasn’t.


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