It has been years since Conrad Dobler terrorized pro football, but his plan for last Sunday was like that of most Americans: He would be a hostage to Super Bowl XLI, although with somewhat divided loyalties. During a career when he was billed as "the dirtiest player in the NFL," Dobler once toiled with the New Orleans Saints, whose quarterback was Archie Manning. "A great guy, and of course, his son Peyton is the man with the Indianapolis Colts," Dobler said last week. "So it's hard not to pull for Peyton. Then again, I was born in Chicago. I don't have that problem in golf. When there's a tournament on TV, you know who I'm rooting for."
Indeed, whenever Phil Mickelson is out there doing his job, the Dobler family is watching closely, from a distance. "Never even met Phil, never even talked to him, although I would like to, for obvious reasons," said Dobler, who at one time assumed Mickelson's job was merely to hit a little white ball into a hole with a stick, then jump onto his private jet and count his money. But that changed the day the phone rang at Dobler's home in Leawood, Kan. It was Mickelson's lawyer, Glenn Cohen. "He told me Phil had become aware of our situation," Dobler said. "Phil wanted to pay for our daughter Holli's college education. A random act of kindness is the only way to describe it. Holli's a sophomore at Miami of Ohio, the school of her choice, because of one person: Phil Mickelson."
The Doblers were enjoying a Fourth of July in 2001 when life changed for Conrad, wife Joy and their six children. Friends were coming over to the house, and he was cooking when Joy fell out of a hammock. "She said she couldn't feel anything," Conrad said. "We phoned 911. She's been a quadriplegic ever since. We've had to downsize. The business we have, providing temporary medical help to hospitals, used to be a lot larger than it is now. I've had to sell a lot of assets, [it's] everything I can possibly do to make it financially. Holli's tuition would have been a big ticket." Because the NFL treats former players like pieces of furniture, Dobler's benefits from the country's richest league are meager. "Judging by our disability payments, we're America's safest industry," he said. "The greeters at Wal-Mart are taken better care of. Pretty ironic that a guy from another sport does more for us than the sport I played 10 years."
Dobler has endured multiple surgeries on both knees, but a lot of retired linemen are physical wrecks, and they don't have his expenses. The most he ever earned was $125,000 with the Buffalo Bills. He has put four times that toward Joy's rehabilitation. "That's why Phil's generosity is so unbelievable," he said. "When Glenn told me what was going on, I asked him, 'Why is Phil doing this for a complete stranger?' Glenn's answer was, 'Because he can.' Like I said, I've never even talked to Phil to thank him, but he's made me a better person. I've become accustomed to saying 'I'm sorry' for some of the things I've done. But if I ever hit the lottery, my first impulse would be to give a bunch of it away. That's what he's all about. I have a feeling he does a lot of this sort of thing. But he doesn't even want to talk about it."
Mickelson has gone public with his contributions of $100 per birdie and $500 per eagle to Birdies for the Brave, which funnels money to Homes for Our Troops and Special Operations Warrior Foundation -- organizations that support wounded soldiers and families who lose a member in combat. The more he promotes those causes, the more corporate cash comes in. But the Dobler case is different, and when asked about it last week in Scottsdale, Ariz., where he was playing in the FBR Open, Mickelson politely declined comment. He does communicate with Holli, who waits tables at school when she isn't cracking the books. She has a 3.8 GPA with a heavy course load. And she isn't studying sportswriting.
"Our daughter is forever grateful to Phil," Joy said. "I'll tell you how involved he is. Since he made his first donation of $20,000, he's made sure to include a cost-of-living increase each year. This year, his check was for $22,000. Next year, he's promised $24,000. If there's anything he's missing in his life, it's a set of wings. He's an angel. And if I can when I see him for the first time, I'm going to go up and give him a big hug. I have therapy five hours a day, seven days a week. I'm getting there. Parts of me that didn't move after the accident are moving again, sensations I didn't feel, I feel. I don't plan on being in this wheelchair forever."
Quietly, Mickelson has invited the Doblers to the Memorial tournament in late May. At last, Conrad and Joy will be able to give thanks in person. "I'd do anything for Phil," he said. "If I could get up and down a ladder, I'd paint his house."
Also, this is good news for Jack Nicklaus, because Mickelson is obviously planning to play golf that week.
Bob Verdi is a senior writer for Golf World magazine.