Romanowski pushed his body to the limit

As a rookie linebacker with the San Francisco 49ers in 1988, Bill Romanowski was high on job anxieties and low on funds. He was headed to the Super Bowl, but his body, dragging from the long first year, needed a little push. So he decided to splurge on a massage.

The treatment did more than revitalize his body. It opened his eyes to alternative ways of getting it ready for the punishment of the NFL. In the Super Bowl, Romanowski played a great game. His muscles were as stimulated as his mind.

He continued massage treatments after his rookie season. Before long, they led to learning about nutrition. Eventually, he had purchased a hyperbaric chamber and hired some of the best and brightest body specialists in the world.

"The game is not good for you, it's not good for the human body," Romanowski said. "I wanted to offset as many of the bad side effects as possible. Not only did I want to be the best out on the field, but I wanted to be able to handle the kind of trauma the body endures."

Through hard work and harder study – and admittedly pushing the envelope when it came to the NFL's drug policy – Romanowski's 6-foot-4, 245-pound body survived 16 seasons in the league. To do so, he trained harder every year. The more he learned, the more he invested in his body. He hired massage therapists, chiropractors and weight trainers, and the list goes on and on.

By his final season in 2003, he had more than 10 specialists on his payroll, which grew to around $250,000 a year, a figure Romanowski didn't flinch at paying. Why? Because it worked. He started 243 consecutive games, played in four Super Bowls and eight conference championship games.

"I would have been out of the league probably by my sixth year to my eighth year had I not done what I did," Romanowski said. "Injuries would have caught up with me. What happens is, your body is an amazing compensator. But if you don't address things, eventually you would break down."

Romanowski is currently available for interviews because of his acting role in "The Longest Yard," which opened Friday. In the big-budget Adam Sandler movie, Romanowski plays Guard Lambert, a guard who plays on the prison football team.

In the fall, his long-awaited book will be published. It will detail his career and how he survived 16 seasons through nutrition and alternative therapy. At the moment, the book is untitled. An early, working title was "My Jekyll and Hyde Life," but Romanowski didn't think that headline grabber accurately described his body of work in the NFL. Eventually, he says the title will deal with dreams and dragons, the good and bad of what he did to keep his body in condition to play in the NFL.

Much has been made of his links to BALCO, the laboratory that produced so-called designer steroids, and more recently, his comments to the Rocky Mountain News in which he admitted to staying one step ahead of the NFL's drug testing policy. "As soon as they found out that something could be tested for, I stopped taking it," he told the paper. "I didn't want that embarrassment, but I pushed that envelope ethically and morally, because if I could take something that would help me perform better, and it wasn't on the list, I was going to take it."

But so much more would be lost in the translation by dwelling just on this one quote.

His life story will detail the crisis every NFL player goes through every day. No 245-pound body is prepared for the kind of collisions a linebacker absorbs 60 to 70 times a game. The difference with Romanowski was his willingness to try new things to keep his body in play.

In 1995, after moving to Philadelphia and playing one season with the Eagles, Romanowski started training with track athletes. Injuries from six years in the league were starting to catch up to him. "That's when my knowledge started to increase," Romanowski said. "For a track athlete, a split second is the difference in winning a gold medal or not even placing."

He became more detailed in his training and eating. Even the massages became more detailed, dealing with the deep tissue of the muscles. It was in Philadelphia that Romanowski became a scientist of the body.

"I used to put myself through really intense workouts throughout the offseason just to prepare my body to handle the pounding during the season," Romanowski said. "In that process, you are tearing the body down during the offseason. I used to put 600 pounds on my back and squat it for reps. On the track, I was pushing myself to a point where I could break down on any given sprint."

Professional athletes work off fear. They fear injury, and they tolerate pain. Romanowski admits he did what he did in part because of insecurity, but his attention to detail was without peer.

And the results can't be denied. In 1996, at the age of 30, he signed with the Broncos. When his body was supposed to be in decline, he was taking his game to a higher level. He went to two Pro Bowls in his first three years in Denver.

At that point, he was training six to eight hours a day for six days a week.

"Once, while I was in Denver and we were playing San Diego, as the game ended in the last series, I suffered an ankle injury," Romanowski said. "In the locker room after the game, I made calls to have two therapists flown in, one from Utah, another from Canada, to address the injury so I could practice on Wednesday. What's important is knowing how to apply what therapy when it's needed."

Romanowski practiced that Wednesday, and he didn't miss the next game.

In fact, it's amazing Romanowski survived his first season with the Broncos. During one of his intense offseason training sessions, he partially tore a patellar tendon jumping over a hurdle. He went to a biomechanics specialist who opened Romanowski's eyes to ways of recovering from that injury, which he did. He later searched for the best acupuncturist. Eventually, he hired a personal trainer, Mike Adams, who learned from all of Romanowski's specialists and could troubleshoot if anything went wrong.

With Adams, Romanowski pushed himself even harder.

"It was knowing my body to such a high degree that I was trying to recover from what I was doing," he said. "I was getting myself ready for the next workout the next day. In the long run, I was getting myself ready for the abuse I was going to get in the regular season and in training camp. As a professional athlete, what I did was because I was addicted to success. I was obsessed with pushing myself and couldn't stop."

The NFL body is in a constant state of pain. When the muscles are injured, they swell, and trainers hand out pills to lessen the inflammation. Even though Romanowski had to succumb to taking standard, over-the-counter anti-inflammatories at times, his study of the body took him beyond those simple solutions.

Enzymes worked better for him in reducing swelling, and he took massive amounts of them. "I had to be in really bad shape to take an anti-inflammatory," Romanowski said. To sleep better, he took magnesium. Romanowski said professional athletes don't get the proper amounts of sleep. To survive, they need eight to 10 hours a night plus a nap during the day.

"You need magnesium to allow your body to relax properly," he said. "It helps oxygenate the blood and helps you relax properly to let you sleep."

Romanowski was worried not only about his survival in the NFL but also about what his life would be like after he left the game.

"I think ultimately your biggest fear is your mortality," Romanowski said. "If teams would start adopting really intense programs for training and nutrition, it would help. If they adopt alternative therapies to protect players, they will be much better off. It will get to that eventually."

Several of the specialists who have worked for Romanowski now work for NFL teams, giving him hope other players will learn how to take care of their bodies. He's also coming out with his own line of nutritional products and hopes his forthcoming book will help.

During his final two seasons with the Raiders, with his science of preparing his body at its most refined, Romanowski might have pushed his body too far. He was into intravenous therapy. Nutritionally, he ate proper carbohydrates or proteins every two hours to give his body enough fuel for the daily demands. He lifted weights more and more. He trained harder and harder.

Ultimately, his undoing was not his body but his head. Concussions forced him to retire, and he still has some complications.

"The last three years were brutal as far as the concussions," Romanowski said. "I had to overcompensate and push myself to a new level, but I was actually doing more harm than good."

To this day, Romanowski experiences headaches if he pushes himself too hard. His senses for taste and smell are deadened. But, he escaped as he had hoped: His dream of playing football lasted 16 years, and he has a good quality of life after playing the game.

Compared with what he dealt with on a daily basis to play, the inconveniences are minor.

"It's a lot of work to stay on top of things," Romanowski said. "It was a full-time job. It seemed like every minute of every day, I was addressing an issue, nutritionally, structurally or emotionally. There are a lot of guys who would get worn down from that and get tired."

Not Romanowski. It was his passion.

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.