I’m sad and reflective, although not surprised, that former University of Washington defensive end and part-time basketball player Reggie Rogers was found dead, at 49, early Thursday afternoon at a Central District home in Seattle. This day could be seen coming 30 years ago when Rogers, one of the most gifted athletes recruited by the late Don James, arrived on campus, a tragedy waiting to happen.
A Sacramento native, Rogers arrived at UW as a two-sport athlete, launching his Husky career as a backup forward on head coach Marv Harshman’s 1983-84 basketball team. Although 6-foot-6, more than 250 pounds, and a superb physical specimen, Reggie wasn’t much of a hoopster — think Austin Seferian-Jenkins — but he could bang, rebound and muscle inside, and made one unforgettable contribution to Huskies lore.
On March 18, 1984, in an NCAA sub-regional tourney contest in Pullman, Rogers hit two free throws late (two seconds to play) that enabled the Huskies to upset 14th-ranked Duke 80-78 and advance to the NCAA regionals opposite Dayton. But that was as good as it got for Rogers in basketball. The following fall he switched full-time to his best sport, football.
Rogers arrived in the James program, then in its heyday, as an individual who had been scarred, a product of a broken, violence-ridden home rampant with physical abuse. He was the victim of a severe gang beating during his senior year in high school, in which two thugs tried to remove his ears with a pair of shears.
I first met him in 1983, shortly after his arrival on campus, for an interview at Hec Edmundson Pavilion. When I asked Reggie about the various beatings he’d absorbed, he cavalierly brushed them off.
“Done and over,” he announced, not the least bit of pain on his face. “Time to move on. I’m good. Time to show the University of Washington and the world who Reggie Rogers is.”
I thought Reggie didn’t take those teenage bashings seriously enough. But he proved to have a fun personality, was loquacious and charming, and usually sported a wide smile. Let him, and I did, he’d talk your socks off. He seemed, at least for a while, to have shaken a horrific background.
After about a year’s worth of exposure, though, I came to understand something disturbing: Reggie didn’t comprehend the meaning of the words “responsibility” or “accountability.” If he did, they didn’t apply to him. He got into numerous minor scrapes — fist fight, fraternity skirmishes — on the UW campus, but they, according to him, were never his fault.
One evening, before a Husky basketball game against Stanford, I heard he wanted to see me in the locker room. I arrived. Reggie explained he had a problem. He’d racked up a couple of hundred parking tickets, more than a thousand dollars worth, on the UW campus. He wanted me to write a story painting him as a victim of discrimination.
“Can you write anything that will get me out of this?” Reggie asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t think so. I don’t have any sway with UW parking enforcement.”
“I’d appreciate it if you can do what you can do,” he said, his tone sincere. “Reggie doesn’t deserve this.”
When I asked Reggie to provide details of the tickets he’d been issued, he said he’d received them for parking his vehicle directly in front of UW buildings where his classes were held, in locations where parking was not permitted. It apparently never occurred to Reggie that he had to park, as did all students, in designated areas with an appropriate sticker, near the buildings, not directly in front of them.
“Did you know you couldn’t park there?” I asked.
“But I was attending class, and I should get a lot of credit for that,” he replied. “And I am Reggie Rogers.”
Rogers was an immediate hit with the Washington football team. On Sept. 13, 1986, he made a play I never forgot. The Huskies opened the season at home against Ohio State and he punctuated a 40-7 victory by flattening the Buckeyes quarterback with the most awesome pancake sack I’ve ever seen, college or pro. Rogers planted the quarterback’s body so deep in the Husky Stadium end zone the construction workers could not have found it during the facility’s recent renovation.
“Reggie sees, Reggie does,” Reggie boasted after that game, immensely proud of himself.
Rogers never said much during his UW football career about the death of his older brother, Don, a Cleveland Browns safety who died of a cocaine overdose June 27, 1986. I asked him about it once or twice, and he always had a stock answer: “Now it’s Reggie time,” blowing off my question, almost as if Don hadn’t existed.
In more than 30 years of visiting locker rooms, I have seen two perfect athletic bodies: Thoroughbred jockey Laffit Pincay, who came to Seattle several times to compete in the Longacres Mile, and Reggie Rogers. I’d swear both were sculpted by Michelangelo if the Renaissance genius hadn’t perished in the 15th century. That the Detroit Lions made Rogers the No. 7 overall pick in 1987 NFL draft made absolute sense to me.
I saw Rogers for the first time a pro Aug. 28, 1987 in the Kingdome, when the Lions came to Seattle for an exhibition game. Reggie looked every bit the future All-Pro, if not a future Hall of Famer — tall, muscled, fast, ferocious, attuned — but his career derailed quickly.
On Oct. 20, 1988, Reggie went imbibing in Pontiac, MI., drove his car though an intersection and killed three teenagers. He broke his neck, and was found guilty of negligent homicide and served 16 months in prison.
Upon his release, he didn’t apologize or explain, simply saying, “It was one of those things.”
Severely injured in that accident with a mangled arm, and also missing most of a thumb, Rogers attempted a comeback with Buffalo in 1991, but the Bills released him after he made one sack in two games. He tried Tampa Bay in 1992, but the Buccaneers cut him after two games. That was it.
Reggie returned to Seattle and set upon a life that was largely adrift. He had a number of construction jobs, each interrupted clashes with the law, all cocaine and alcohol related. Between 1990 and 2011, he was nailed six times for DUI and spent more than five years in prison. His fifth one in 2008 was memorable for his response.
The local TV stations carried his arraignment, in which Reggie, clad in an orange jump suit, was asked by a judge why he should receive the leniency he’d requested through his attorney. I sat riveted as he answered.
“Because I’m Reggie Rogers,” he said. “In case you don’t remember, I once carried the entire state of Washington on my back.”
The last time I saw him was in 2008. Sitting at my desk in the old Seattle Post-Intelligencer offices, I heard a noise directly over my head and looked up. Several workers were laying new fiber-optic cables. Rogers was a member of the crew.
After he descended, I went up him. After an exchange of pleasantries, he asked me why I thought he hadn’t been inducted into the Husky Hall of Fame.
“Nobody ever did more for that program than I did,” said Reggie. “I should have been in that Hall of Fame a long time ago.”
I couldn’t bring myself to tell him that, although his athletic achievements had been laudable, UW was not about to honor a serial felon. Instead, I shook hands goodbye. I hadn’t heard anything else about Reggie until today, when the cops found him dead. The King County medical examiner is withholding details.
It’s hard to know what to think. I liked him. He never really had a clue. As a kid, he never caught a break. He didn’t know how to deal with reality. He lived a life filled with delusions. Now he’s dead. Bye, Reggie.