"I always tried to play it fair," he says.
He knows perfectly well how any mention of fairness or honor might sound, coming from someone who made his reputation as the maestro of a nasty little karate kick technique called the leg whip, coming from a man best known for using his helmet, his feet, his knees, his fingers, a plaster cast, and perhaps most famously his teeth as lethal weapons. This is, after all, the same Conrad Dobler whom Sports Illustrated anointed on its cover in 1977 as "Pro Football's Dirtiest Player," the same Conrad Dobler who titled his own autobiography "They Call Me Dirty." This is the Conrad Dobler who gouged eyes and twisted facemasks and worked hard to irritate everyone from Pete Rozelle to John Madden to a mild-mannered Mormon defensive lineman named Merlin Olsen.
And this is the Conrad Dobler who, with a few well-placed fists to the solar plexus, once made an opponent actually break down, right there on the football field, and start to cry. "Only time I've seen that," says his former linemate Tom Banks.
But then, all of that seems a bit quaint, now that Dobler is fast approaching his 57th birthday, now that his hair is the color of a winter's morning and his children are grown up and his wife is in a wheelchair and his existence is punctuated by one real-life headache after another. What does it all mean, really? What did people expect? He was an offensive lineman in the National Football League, for Christ's sake, a fifth-round draft pick out of the University of Wyoming in a league that chews up virile young men and spits them out as cripples. He had tried to play by the rules and been cut from the St. Louis Cardinals in 1972, before he played a single NFL game. He did not plan on getting cut again when the Cardinals brought him back a few weeks later.
It was then that he stumbled across what he considers the key to professional football. He realized that you do not play it, you survive it. So in the interest of survival, he created a monster, the Conrad Dobler who took on quasi-human properties, the Conrad Dobler who punched and kneed and (on special occasions) gnawed on defensive linemen until they became petrified by his mere presence on the field.
And it worked, didn't it, this nasty little pact he made with himself, even if this nasty little pact left him doped up on painkillers and halfway crippled? He played 10 seasons in all, for the Cardinals, Saints and Bills a solid NFL career. He made three straight Pro Bowls as the right guard on a St. Louis offensive line that, with Banks as the center and Dan Dierdorf as the right tackle, was one of the best of its era.
"That's how he got his publicity," Merlin Olsen says from his home in Utah. "That's how he got himself established. I've always said that Conrad was really one of those people who adapted to the game. He was not a great football player. He was a great brawler."
But here is where the irony lies, and while "irony" is a term overused and often misused, it is impossible to speak to Dobler without observing the numerous ironies inherent in his existence. Despite his history, he would like to think of himself as a good man, as a fair man, as an honorable man. And he would like to think that, in recent years, as his day-to-day life has unraveled, as he continues to lament the unrelenting stupidity of the common man, he has had a philosophical awakening of sorts, a vision of how to make the world more humane.
And this is how he finds himself in the unlikeliest of positions: an outspoken advocate for many of the same men he once attempted to dismember, retired pro football players, in their quest to receive more benefits, more disability claims and more general respect from their own union, the NFL Players Association.
He is, of course, not the only former lineman to suffer from bad knees. "But this is not just for me," he says. Call his friends, call his enemies, and they will evoke a litany of their own miseries hip replacements, shoulder surgery, fused ankles, not to mention those with burgeoning dementia. It is nothing new. It has always been a brutal and unforgiving game and it always will be but in recent months, the ethical quandary has reemerged. Retired NFL players have been publicly questioning the veracity and the stinginess and the intractability of their own union. All they asked for, they say, in return for this faustian bargain they made, this faustian bargain every professional football player makes, is that they would be taken care of, that they would be respected, in their twilight years.
And this is why Conrad Dobler serves as such a striking representative of the whole: Because he bought into that bargain completely. And he gave away so much of his self to satisfy it that he seems to have lost track of who he really is.
In fact, it was his own dubious ethical reputation that brought Dobler to live in Kansas City in the first place. Several years ago, a radio show producer in town called Dobler and asked him to fly in from his home in Colorado for an interview. "Listen," Dobler told him. "I can do an interview over the phone, dammit."
But the producer wasn't talking about that kind of interview. The producer, in fact, wanted to hire Dobler as the host of his own show. The station wanted Conrad Dobler, the public persona, the hard-living lunatic, but Dobler was never much of a sports fan, to be honest. He took the job, but as he would listen to these losers calling in and whining about the Royals' pitching staff like it actually caused them physical pain, it was all he could do to keep from spitting the f-word all over the airwaves. Eventually, he says, he angered the wrong people. His contract wasn't renewed, and he and his wife, a former nurse, started the business he runs now, Superior Healthcare Staffing Inc., offering health care personnel services in the Kansas City area.
"People expect you to be this hardcore guy, and sometimes you get lost," Dobler says. "It's like how stars get typecast in certain movies as criminals, and people think of them as bad guys and tough guys. So you find yourself acting out the part, more so than not because you have to do it so much. I don't really want to be that way, but what way am I supposed to be? It kind of consumes you. You have to fight yourself, saying, 'Who am I, really?'"
He gazes out the window of his office and furrows his mustache. It has been raining for two straight days in Kansas City, and the phone on his desk is ringing again. The phone on his desk rings constantly.
"I hate incompetence," he says. "I'm prejudiced against anyone that wants something for nothing. You try to get anyone to work based on performance anymore, you're just pissing up a rope. It's basically the "me" generation. It's all about them."
This morning, for instance, there is the ex-employee who has decided to spread unfounded rumors about his company, and there is the current employee who calls in after leaving early, for no apparent reason, during his hospital shift. When it rains, it pours or as Dobler might put it, much more eloquently, When a dog gets hit by a car, you can see every other dog chewing on its ass.
He has a thousand little turns of phrase like these. Where most of them originated, he cannot say, but they pour out of him, all these Doblerisms, these little R-rated or X-rated folk sayings that convey his exasperation with the world. The color of law is green. Pride's hard to swallow, but it'll go down. Never get in a pissing contest with a skunk. Positive thinking without any skill isn't worth a s---. It's like the dialogue in an off-color Peanuts cartoon, and there are times, quite often, when you cannot tell whether Dobler is exaggerating for effect or if he truly believes what he is saying.
"Close that door," he says to a visitor. "I'm cursing too much."
This is true: He curses too much. It is the last vice he has left, now that the '70s are a bygone era, now that he's quit all the habits he picked up back then: caffeine, smoking, drinking and womanizing. And he worries about his language delivered, as it is, in a basso profundo saloonkeeper's voice hacking off his employees, the secretaries who work on the other side of the door.
But then, the dogs have been gnawing on his posterior quite a bit these past few years, so maybe he's entitled to a few well-placed swears.
For instance, Dobler would like nothing more than to close that door himself. But he chooses his movements carefully these days because he is in possession of a pair of knees that resemble misshapen melons in a discount supermarket bin. When he was 26, he told Sports Illustrated he had "the bones of a 65-year-old man." So behold him now, 30 years later, with a right knee that has been subject to seven surgeries in the past year stemming from a staph infection that refused to abate, and nearly cost him his leg, and a left knee that needs a third replacement. Dobler says he can hear it "popping around in there."
Now just rising and walking is a dubious proposition, requiring the assistance of a cane and the balm of prescription medication. He has, in fact, become a virtual connoisseur of prescription pain medication.
He's tried Percocet, and he's tried OxyContin (which he says he quit cold turkey), but eventually he settled on Vicodin. For Dobler, Vicodin which typically has a sedative effect works like speed. It hypes him up, and it renders him even more talkative than usual, which is why he can't take it before he goes to bed at night. Instead, he spreads out four large doses throughout the course of his day, and if it leaves him a little befuddled at times, so be it. He keeps the bottle on his desk, next to his nicotine gum, his keys, various pens and pencils, checkbooks and unpaid bills.
It's the Vicodin that frees him to creak up and down the three concrete steps from the curb to his office door, which he does these days by shifting his body sideways and hobbling up one by one, using his glossy black cane for leverage. And it's the Vicodin that helps him sail through all the crap he has to deal with as a small-business man in America. The days that begin at 5:30 a.m. and end 11 or 12 hours later, often seven days a week. The afternoons conducting fruitless phone conversations while tracking down wayward staffers and those lost souls among them who have no grasp of their own responsibilities, who lead him to hunch over his desk and clutch his forehead and lament his existence.
At times, when people won't stop hounding him, if they won't shut up about getting paid for hours they didn't actually work, or about how their alarm clock broke and their child is ill and their spouse is distraught and that this is the reason for their tardiness or absenteeism, Dobler will tell his story. He won't tell them about that time he cheap-shotted the Cowboys' Charlie Waters, or when he deliberately hyperextended the elbow of the Saints' Mike Fultz. Those things, in Dobler's mind, took place in a separate moral universe.
Instead, he will remind them of all the crap he's been through these past few years, all the piss-poor luck he's had, the surgeries, the maxed-out credit cards most notably, about that day in 2001 when his wife, Joy, fell a couple of feet out of a hammock and somehow wound up a quadriplegic. He figures maybe it will help them realize what he is trying to say. Which is that this is a cold, hard world, and there is nothing people could care less about than someone else's problems.
For years, that's all Dobler felt like his football career consisted of: He took punch after punch, and yes, he fought back, and maybe he bent the rules in doing it. Although he insists he never technically broke the rules and that he bit only one guy, Doug Sutherland of the Vikings, and much of the rest is based in hype and media fabrication. "I did my part to make the game safer," he says. It is meant partly as a joke. But Dobler follows it with a smug grin because he knows this truth: Certain of the techniques he pioneered, such as the leg whip and the head slap, have since been outlawed.
And go ahead and get him started on the modern-day NFL, on squat and slow offensive linemen built like kitchen appliances, on wide receivers with their diamond earrings and Escalades, on so-called "men" like Pacman Jones because it dovetails nicely with this whole "me" generation thing, doesn't it? Here, again, is one of those guiding ironies in the Tao of Dobler: That a man who never saw an unprotected solar plexus he didn't believe was a fair target retaliation! survival! now sees football as a game being played mostly by idiots and felons.
A few reporters called him when Albert Haynesworth, the Tennessee Titans lineman, struck another player with his helmet, as if Dobler could relate to such an act, as if he might even sympathize. But Dobler says what Haynesworth did was "as dumb as bringing a knife to a gunfight," and the act of an "imbecile" and a "criminal."
"I was a big enough a--hole making $17,000 a year," Dobler says. "I guess they think they're pretty important now. But are the girls f---ing what they do or who they are?"
Dobler put everything he had into playing football. He sacrificed his body. He even sacrificed his first marriage. He kicked and scratched and clawed on the field Sutherland says he eventually learned to wear soccer shin pads when he went up against Dobler and when he wasn't playing, he did not live a life of chastity or great self-examination. He ate heartily and drank prolifically and popped a few greenies and smoked a few thousand cigarettes and slept around ("I didn't catch their names, half of them," he says, though he claims, in his autobiography, to have given a TWA stewardess a collapsed lung after a particularly rowdy night), and then he drank some more.
"He could drink with the best of them, and play with the best of them, and swear with the best of them," says his friend Phil Villapiano, a linebacker who played with Dobler in Buffalo. "For some guys, it was like partying led them to an upper level on the field they were a little crazy off the field, and they were a little crazy on it. Conrad was a tough, rotten, nasty guy."
And this is his friend talking.
Of course, Dobler didn't exactly shrug off the attention this reputation gave him. He fueled disputes with straight-laced men like Olsen, who is now in the Hall of Fame, prompting columnist Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times to describe Dobler as "troglodytic." Victim-precipitated violence, Dobler called it then, the type of thing that he insists is completely defensible in a court of law. "A whole lot of crazy," Sutherland calls it now. "The ref would blow the whistle, and he'd come sailing over top of the pile and nearly kill you."
For the record, Dobler claims he never hit after the whistle. Olsen would later use a gravestone with Dobler's name as a prop in an episode of "Father Murphy" a family-friendly television show in which Olsen played the patriarch at an orphanage but says he has long since let his grudge fall away. Yet Dobler hyperbolically insists Olsen needs to "get over it." And he asserts that every defensive lineman he's ever met, without exception, has the IQ of a lizard. Which would appear to be another example of Dobler's speaking for effect, rather than speaking with absolute honesty.
Here is yet another instance:
"I played a rough, tough game the way it was supposed to be played," he says. "The whole dirty thing came from my opponents. And why did my opponents do that? Because I kicked their f---ing ass."
Not long after he retired, Dobler filmed a Miller Lite commercial, endearing him to a new generation of fans. He still gives speeches and he still shows up at charity events, and people still regard him with a certain wary fascination, as if he is on loan from the Kansas City Zoo, as if they are fully aware that they are witnessing the last of a breed.
Conrad: "It wasn't dead. It was just a little old."
Years later, Joy and Conrad started their business together, but he has other monetary interests, as well. Whatever it takes to stay afloat. The day before, he stopped at a warehouse he owns he rents out most of it, and recently allowed a cell-phone tower to be built on the land surrounding it to search for some paperwork regarding a former employee. Today, he's meeting up with a friend, Michael Garozzo, who owns an Italian restaurant, to try to broker a deal with a distributor involving Garozzo's spaghetti sauce.
How he got in the middle of this one, he has no idea his executive style is not exactly patterned after the principles in "7 Habits of Highly Effective People" but he figures he can always use a little extra cash. It's not like the bills are going to stop coming: surgeries and prescriptions for him, surgeries and prescriptions and therapists for Joy. It's forced them to downsize the business, and forced Conrad to sell off some of his assets. Together, the Doblers figure, even with their insurance, they must support the entire American health-care infrastructure.
What Conrad saw in Joy is readily apparent upon meeting her; even in a wheelchair, she is a beacon of positive energy, the antidote to Conrad's fatalistic nature, the only thing in his life that doesn't seem twisted in some ironic spiral. Spinal-cord injuries are most often the province of young men in speeding automobiles, not middle-aged women in backyard hammocks, and so when Joy went into rehab, she became a sort of mother figure, and in the years since, she has become both a counselor for the newly disabled and an outspoken activist for stem-cell research, which she is convinced will afford her an opportunity to walk again.
"I am so grateful that this happened not to one of my children, or not to Conrad, but to me," she says. "I knew I could handle it."
And handle it she has, even as the Doblers have spent nearly all of their savings on medical care (such as a therapist to come help Joy stretch out her body in the morning), even as they've been forced to put their house, Joy's dream house, on the market in search of something smaller, even as day after day goes by and the Doblers' own debts escalate and any bills proposing federal funding for stem-cell research fail to gain a veto-proof majority in Congress. Even as she watches her own husband become a prisoner of his own body, as well, unable to rise from a church pew without the help of his mother and her septuagenarian friends, she continues to believe this story will end happily.
"Because," she says, "I am an optimist."
"It's almost like he's a born-again Christian," Villapiano says.
Almost being the operative word.
However, here is something you may not know about the NFL's dirtiest player: He enjoys cooking. He enjoys it so much that he has offered his services at charity auctions. He recently spent a week in Texas cooking for a friend whose wife has bone cancer, and he is not ashamed to admit that it made him feel good inside. He has even gotten to know the man who works the fish counter at his local supermarket, so that one night, when he stops in to buy some fillets, they have a rather heartfelt discussion about the death of a family cat.
But it isn't always easy to be hopeful. There are times when Dobler regrets the surprising softness of his own heart, when he simply cannot get over the way people act, the way they demand things with no justification, they way they make excuses for their performance. And this is when the monster rears its head. What's that a friend calls the idiots he encounters? PADFs. As in, People Are Dumb
It's a funny thing. He always told himself he wouldn't be one of those guys, one of those sentimental bastards lamenting the past, but he can't help himself. When Dobler played, as unethical as he was, he always presumed he was working within a code: By calling attention to himself, by milking his reputation and growling at the appropriate times and striking fear into the hearts of his opponents, he was performing a sacrifice. (Or at least this is the illusion he was under.)
And that, Dobler seems to be insisting, is what is missing in football today, and in the world today, for that matter: that moral code. That, he seems be implying, is why no one in the NFL today plays like he did, and why perhaps no one ever will again, and why no one seems to care. That is why he is oblivious to the inherent ironies in his worldview, and in his own stance as an advocate for men he once leg whipped without once considering the moral implications.
"Oh, I think he's still crazy," Villapiano says. "Just in a different way."
Much of the problem with the NFLPA, Dobler says, can be blamed on modern-day players, the voting members of the union, who simply aren't willing to share a tiny percentage of the income they generate to care for their predecessors, who simply can't be convinced of any obligation, of any reason to sacrifice a portion of their paycheck. So in recent months, Dobler has partnered with a lawyer named Ron Katz, who has filed a class-action suit against the NFLPA the plaintiffs are a pair of former players, Bernie Parrish and Herb Adderley and has become a board member of a related group called Retired Professional Football Players for Justice.
Although the suit revolves around licensing opportunities for retired players, Katz admits that the goal is to get the NFLPA and its executive director, Gene Upshaw, to open the books, to explain where its considerable profits are being allocated, and to explain why when an entire generation of NFL players has wound up with bum knees and artificial hips pensions remain comparatively meager and disability claims are usually denied.
It is a typically vexing stance from Dobler, a man who admits he was never much of a football fan, and who has a distinct libertarian streak, and is, in fact, so concerned about being a burden to others as he ages and his body deteriorates that he has even hinted he would take his own life if it would lessen the burden. "Conrad loves himself a lot, so it would take a lot to get him to do that," Villapiano says. "But I think he's serious. When you hurt every day, sometimes you say, 'F--- this.'"
But then, Conrad Dobler is an unusual sort of human, with an unusual sense of morality and honor and fair play. On his issues with the players' association, even his old friend Tom Banks who lives in Alabama, and draws his own disability checks from the government after having his hip and knee replaced argues with Dobler, insisting that lawsuits are a dead end. And Dobler argues right back. "Good for his blood pressure," Banks figures.
"I'm a believer that right is right and wrong is wrong," Dobler says. He is driving his SUV now, after meeting his friend Garozzo, and he is high on Vicodin and nicotine gum and pumped full of indignation.
"What people don't know is that sometimes you've got to do the right thing," he says. "I made a commitment. It's not really what I want to do, but it's the right thing to do.
"You're judged on Judgment Day. Were you a good person or were you a total jerk-off? I must have done a few things right. Or I'd like to believe I have."
That made clear, Conrad Dobler, arbiter of justice and fair play, champion of all that is righteous and compassionate, the last of a rare and vicious breed, makes a left turn onto a downtown Kansas City street, then a right, then another left, and then he realizes that the freeway entrance is closed for construction. His way back home has been blocked. A string of innovative cursing commences as, once again, he realizes he is headed in an entirely unfamiliar direction.
Michael Weinreb is a freelance writer and the author of "The Kings of New York: A Year Among the Geeks, Oddballs and Geniuses Who Make Up America's Top High School Chess Team," published by Gotham Books. He can be reached at michaelweinreb.com.
Join the "Dobler" conversation.