Cruisin’ to Disaster

Times Staff Writer

John Matuszak vowed to keep his Oakland Raider teammates in line.

Instead, he kept them out all night.

That was during the 1981 Super Bowl week in New Orleans, when Matuszak’s capacity for alcohol and Quaaludes was as enormous as his 6-foot-8, 280-pound body. He basically drank Bourbon Street dry, the Raiders wound up beating Philadelphia for their second Super Bowl title, and fans to this day delight in recounting stories of the wild-eyed defensive lineman they called Tooz.

In the week leading up to last Sunday’s Super Bowl, a Raider player went on a Tooz-like drinking spree, disappeared from the team hotel, and, according to various reports, downed shot after shot of tequila, lost his wallet, missed a team meeting, sat in a Pacific Beach bar and tearfully spoke of killing himself, then showed up at the hotel disoriented the night before the game. He was told to go home, banished from even attending the biggest game of his career -- a game the Raiders lost to Tampa Bay, 48-21. He was to play in his first Pro Bowl today, but he was replaced on the roster.

Twenty years from now, nobody will be laughing about the Barret Robbins story.

There is a fundamental difference between Matuszak and Robbins: Matuszak played in the game. Robbins, an All-Pro center, fractured an unspoken tenet among players, even though it wasn’t his decision to skip the game. No matter how much you’re hurting -- physically, mentally or emotionally -- come Sunday, you’re ready to play in the game. The Raiders’ two starting cornerbacks were playing on recently broken legs that were held together by metal plates, yet Robbins couldn’t play because he got too drunk in the days leading up to the game?


The only other instance of a high-profile player missing the Super Bowl under similar circumstances came in 1989, when Cincinnati Bengal fullback Stanley Wilson went on a cocaine binge and was found on game day incoherent in his hotel room.

In the case of Robbins, 29, the reactions of some of his teammates were immediate and unambiguous.

“He messed up his career, not ours,” said Frank Middleton, the offensive guard who plays to his left.

“Whatever rock he came up from, he can stay there, as far as I’m concerned,” said Mo Collins, the guard who plays to his right.

But reactions softened as the week wore on and more information trickled out about Robbins, who apparently has been battling personal demons for years.

He reportedly has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and has been taking depression medication throughout his career; he may have stopped taking that medication recently; the Raiders said they sent him home before the game but he wound up in an undisclosed San Diego hospital where he was placed on suicide watch; and some of his problems had surfaced earlier in the season, when coaches considered benching him even though he’s one of the NFL’s premier centers.


Bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depressive illness, is a brain disorder that causes unusual shifts in a person’s mood, energy and ability to function. More drastic than the normal ups and downs mentally healthy people encounter, bipolar disorder is a long-term illness that can lead to damaged relationships, poor job performance, even suicide.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, more than two million American adults -- or about 1% of the population age 18 and older -- have bipolar disorder. The ailment is treated with medications known as “mood stabilizers,” frequently lithium.

“There are a lot of extremely successful people in society who suffer from bipolar disorder,” said Dr. Marvin Southard, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health. “I have personally known successful attorneys, judges and physicians who have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, some in the later stages of their careers. They have received treatment, been stabilized, and continue to lead productive lives.”

Southard, who pointed out he is not familiar with the Robbins case, said it’s not uncommon for patients to stop taking their medication because, whereas it might reduce the intensity of the lows, it also can dampen the euphoria of the highs.

“Nobody misses the low end,” he said, “but some people might miss the high end.”

Raider quarterback Rich Gannon, the league’s most valuable player, said late this week his thoughts were with Robbins.

“I would love to see him back,” Gannon told Associated Press. “But most importantly, I want to see him feel better, and I think that’s what everyone’s point of emphasis should be. Not worrying so much [about] Barret the football player but worrying about him and his family.”

Michael Josephson, a sports ethicist and founder of the Pursuing Victory with Honor campaign, said initial feelings of anger were to be expected when people first learned of Robbins’ missing the Super Bowl.

“My first response was anger too,” Josephson said. “I thought, ‘Good, they sent him home.’ Anger is an appropriate response when you think somebody who is in rational control makes a really bad or selfish judgment. But once we overcome the first impulse, which is to be angry because of how it affects us -- you changed the game, you weren’t there, we needed you -- then decent people stop to think about why. And that makes a difference.

“Now compassion has to become part of this. We have used these people as gladiators and entertainers. And some of them aren’t strong enough.”

There were hints this could happen. Six years ago, Robbins missed the final two games of the regular season under mysterious circumstances. The night before a Dec. 15, 1996, game at Denver, he was spotted wandering trancelike through the halls of the team hotel, and startled a Bay Area reporter by following him back to his room in a wordless stupor. He didn’t play in the game the next day and the Raiders initially said he was suffering from flu. When the team returned to Oakland and Robbins stayed in a Denver hospital, however, the team physician released a vague written statement saying Robbins was ailing from both flu and an adverse reaction to medication related to a medical disorder he suffered in college.

Reporters didn’t see Robbins again until training camp in Napa the following summer. He talked then about his struggles with depression, and a mystery from a season before was tied up neatly by a spate of one-day feature stories. In the years that followed, Robbins built a reputation as one of football’s best blockers but otherwise was essentially anonymous, as most offensive linemen are in a game that celebrates quarterbacks, running backs, receivers and defensive stars.

The Super Bowl episode raises questions about how much the Raiders knew about Robbins, how much they should have known, whether there was a system in place to give him emotional help when he needed it most, and, in general, if NFL teams pay as much attention to an athlete’s mental health as they do to his physical health.

“We expect people of good character to resist temptations,” Josephson said. “At the same time, people who are under tremendous pain take morphine. While we can be critical of that, we have to understand there is a breaking point in people’s psyches where things become irresistible. Darryl Strawberry, Steve Howe are examples. We know of instances where guys, against their best interests, cannot overcome whatever their needs were.

“People always think of drugs as if you’re taking it to be happy, to be euphoric. But in adults, most drug use is not to get the high as much as it is to remove the suffering or the pain or the anxiety.”

The Raiders have long cultivated their renegade reputation, the notion that they win with players who might not fit in with other teams. From Ken “Snake” Stabler to Ted “Mad Stork” Hendricks, from Jack “The Assassin” Tatum to Henry “Killer” Lawrence, team history is replete with colorful characters who lived life as hard as they played.

In his 1987 book “Cruisin’ With the Tooz,” Matuszak wrote about taking control of the curfew at Super Bowl XV in New Orleans. His big drinking day was Wednesday -- he called it Tooz-day -- and the night was just getting started at 2 a.m.

“I stopped by a bar called the Absinthe House for a couple of drinks,” he wrote. “Then I had a few dances. Then I hit a couple of other clubs. Before I knew it, I was officially, successfully and irrevocably unwound.

“I’d love to give you a blow-by-blow account of the evening, but the rest of the night is basically a blur. In fact, my next recollection is waking up in the bedroom -- fully clothed, thank you -- of a woman I had met the evening before. As I wiped the sleep from my eyes and avoided any unnecessary movements of the head, we had a brief conversation.

“ ‘Morning,’ I said. ‘Any idea what time it is?’

“ ‘It’s 9:35.’

“ ‘Ahhh! ... I gotta go!’

“I was 10 miles from the hotel, and one of the biggest press conferences of the year had started at 9. My head felt like Walter Payton had run a sweep over it, but it was clear enough to know that I had screwed things up pretty good.”

Two decades later, Robbins is faced with the difficult task of putting his life back together. He’s married with two young daughters and had made a remarkable comeback from a knee injury that sidelined him for most of last season. Coach Bill Callahan said Wednesday there is a “viable” chance Robbins will play again for the silver and black. When asked if Robbins is still a Raider, Callahan said: “Absolutely.”

Matuszak will always be a Raider, even though he spent part of his career with the Kansas City Chiefs and Houston Oilers. Oakland fans still wear his No. 72 jersey, and he’s forever woven into the fabric of NFL lore. Matuszak died June 17, 1989, of an accidental overdose of Darvocet, a prescription painkiller. He was 38, was pursuing a career as a Hollywood tough guy, and had just arrived home from Germany, where he was promoting his movie, “One Man Force.”