Thirty years later, the emotions are hard to fight off whenever members of the 1986 Browns reminisce about Don Rogers. [
The young safety was coming off his second season with the Browns, and expectations were at an all-time high from the hard hitter out of UCLA. His interception of Dan Marino was a highlight in Cleveland's loss to the Dolphins in a 1985 AFC Divisional Playoff game. He was once again expected to be a major piece of a Browns secondary that featured top cornerbacks Frank Minnifield and Hanford Dixon.
"Don Rogers was one of the most magnificent players that God's created," quarterback Bernie Kosar said. "No disrespect to Ronnie Lott or anybody else, (Rogers) was in that league … He was big, he was strong, he was fast, he was a fantastic person.
"It was a personal and professional tragedy."
About a month before training camp was set to begin for the 1986 season, Rogers died of a cocaine overdose on the night before his wedding. He was 23, passing away eight days after basketball star Len Bias suffered a similar fate from a drug overdose.
As players from the 1986 team reflected on the memorable season in recent interviews, they spoke softly at the mention of Rogers' name. It was an exasperating blow that hung with the team throughout the most successful regular season in team history and left many to wonder what could have been for the promising defensive back.
"Everybody tried to look out for each other to do the right thing," running back Kevin Mack said. "And to hear that the night before his wedding was devastating, not just for our team but for his family and future wife."
Cody Risien was one of the last Browns to see Rogers before his death, as the two worked out together in California. One of the final conversations he had with the Sacramento native sticks with him still today.
"He seemed troubled to me. And I, I always think, you know, wow, I wish I'd had said more or wish I'd have dug more," Risien said. "You know, who knows, maybe I could have made a difference, but I always just feel sad that he seemed troubled and I wish I'd have picked up on it. He was such a talented young man and a talented player and well-liked."
Dan Fike played on the opposite side of the ball as Rogers at left guard, but the two grew close during their one and only season together in Cleveland. Fike's locker was right next to Rogers' and they talked every day.
Fike learned of the news while he was out to dinner with fellow Browns offensive lineman Mike Baab. He looked up at a television and saw a news report.
"I had the chills thinking about what happened," Fike said. "I just saw him, you know? He was a guy that I sat next two that whole first year in the locker room. And, he was missed. He was always being missed, just 'cause he was that kind of guy. What a player, what a talent.
"Who knows how far we could've continued to go if he'd still been on the team?"
The way Minnifield sees it, Rogers would have changed the entire complexion of a Browns defense that featured four players who would eventually make the Pro Bowl. As Sam McManis of the Los Angeles Times wrote in August 1986, "Mr. Rogers' neighborhood ... was not a friendly place for opposing wide receivers."
"Don Rogers allowed us to do something that really would have changed probably the history of the Cleveland Browns as far as the Super Bowl is concerned," Minnifield said. "He allowed me and Hanford to play man-to-man. He could play the tight end 1-on-1 by himself. And that would have allowed us to add one extra person to the blitz package. But instead when we lost Don Rogers that meant we had to continue to double-team the slot and the tight end, basically never getting that opportunity to add that extra man to the blitz package."
The Browns, of course, had no choice but to press forward in what became a season to remember. They lost two of their first three games of the season but fell just twice more the rest of the way en route to a 12-4 record and another AFC Central crown.
"The team already had a strong nucleus, we just came together," Baab said. "You're only in football for a little bit, and if you worry about it too much, and you start thinking about other things, you'll be out of it real fast. You just have to absolutely focus on what you're doing, and make what you're doing in front of you work."