The similarities between the deaths of Len Bias and Don Rogers have been compelling, but never more so than yesterday when a toxicologist confirmed that Rogers' death was caused by cocaine.
"Yes, there was cocaine found in the body," coroner's toxicologist James Beede said yesterday in Sacramento, Calif. "Obviously, it was a lethal dose." Official test results will be announced at a news conference today.
Strong and healthy, Rogers and Bias were in the early stages of athletic careers that seemed to hold such promise. Each was in the middle of a happy occasion and was with friends and family. Each was a good person and free of trouble, their friends keep saying.
"It's a recurrent nightmare," said former NFL running back Calvin Hill, who lives in the Washington area and knew Rogers from his work with the Cleveland Browns, for whom Rogers played the last two years. "Donnie was 23, Len Bias was 22. Both were on top of the world, physically."
But both are dead. Eight days and 3,000 miles apart, the causes are chillingly alike.
Bias died June 19 of cocaine-induced cardiac arrest, two days after the champion Boston Celtics made him the second pick in the National Basketball Association draft.
Rogers died Friday, one day before he was to be married to his college sweetheart. The pathologist who performed the autopsy had said the likely cause of Rogers' cardiac arrest was drugs, "with cocaine at the top of the list."
"There are many parallels between the two cases," said Dr. Joseph Pawlowski, a pathologist for the Sacramento County coroner.
Rogers' agent, Steve Arnold, has said Rogers returned to his mother's house at about 3 a.m. Friday after attending his bachelor party and going to a nightclub with some friends. Rogers awoke about 8 a.m. About 8:15, he received a telephone call from Paul Warfield, the Browns' director of player relations, to tell him that wide receiver Ricky Feacher would represent the Browns' front office at Rogers' wedding Saturday.
Warfield described it as a "very normal conversation," said Browns public relations director Kevin Byrne.
According to reports, Arnold said that, soon after the phone call, Rogers told his mother Loretha that he didn't feel well and that she should get help.
She called an ambulance, Arnold said, but by the time it arrived, Rogers was in a coma. He died about eight hours later at Community Hospital.
Loretha Rogers, 43, who suffered a heart attack Saturday while being consoled by family and friends, was listed in serious condition in the intensive care unit of the same hospital last night. "She's resting relatively comfortably," said nursing supervisor Cathy Faringer.
This would have been Don Rogers' third season as a defensive back with the Browns; he won the American Football Conference rookie of the year award in 1984. Before being picked in the first round of the '84 draft, he was a second-team all-America safety at UCLA. Friends said Rogers, who was 6 feet 1 and 206 pounds, modeled himself after Kenny Easley, a three-time all-America, who roomed with Rogers during Rogers' freshman year.
"He was such a physical specimen, a vibrant kind of guy," Hill said of Rogers. "He was a real leader. He wasn't flamboyant, but his style made people gravitate to him. He was a hitter and he played with a great deal of enthusiasm . . . . He was a guy on the verge of a fine, fine football career."
Rogers had made his mark in the AFC, but this past weekend was to have been a highlight of his personal life.
He and Leslie Nelson, 22, were to have been married Saturday, surrounded by friends and family at Evergreen Baptist Church in Oakland.
"Paul said he was talking about going on his honeymoon," Byrne said.
"He was a guy who I thought had moved from being a single, debonair guy to one who was taking on more responsiblity," Hill said. "It's a terrible tragedy for his family and fiance . . . It's terribly cruel."
Ted Chappelle, the Browns' director of security who has been with the Rogers family most of the weekend and will handle funeral arrangements, had told United Press International before the toxicologist's report that he doubted drugs were the cause of Rogers' death. "It wasn't his style," Chappelle said. The same had been said of Bias.
Chappelle and Hill said that Rogers was not a member of the Inner Circle, a group formed in 1982 to allow Browns players to discuss drug and alcohol problems confidentially and try to solve them.
"We like to put things in categories so we can predict where it will strike and who it will strike," said Hill, who helped organize Inner Circle. "But it affects black and white, rich and poor. It's an insidious disease and an insidious epidemic. But the most frightening thing is its unpredictability."