Even those who cursed his name in the 1970s would empathize with Conrad Dobler in his current plight.
The man Sports Illustrated once dubbed “pro football’s dirtiest player” -- on its cover, no less -- Dobler lives a life of not-so-quiet desperation, “a never-ending series of setbacks and worst-case scenarios,” as one writer aptly described it.
Not quite 60 years old, his body ravaged by a decade in the NFL trenches, the three-time Pro Bowl offensive guard estimates that he has endured more than 30 knee operations and, because of staph infections, as many as 10 knee replacements.
Probably the best option to relieve the pain in his right leg, doctors tell him, would be to amputate it.
Dobler has resisted in part because he is the primary caregiver for his wife, Joy, who has been a quadriplegic since July 4, 2001, when she fell out of a hammock during a backyard barbeque, landed on her head and suffered a broken neck.
The high cost of her care forced him to move into a more affordable home and sell off assets. All the while, the recession has wreaked havoc on his business, Superior Healthcare Staffing, which supplies medical staff to Kansas City-area hospitals.
“My kids say I’m mentally unstable,” the outspoken Dobler says from his office in Overland, Kan., “but I have six kids and a wife in a wheelchair. I think anyone would be.”
After a recent battery of psychological tests, Dobler says, doctors warned him that he was in danger of losing control.
“They said I seemed to be very depressed and suicidal,” he says. “I said, ‘If you had to go through what I’ve had to go through in the last eight or nine years -- with my health problems, my wife’s health problems, our business and the economy -- if you weren’t suicidal, if you weren’t depressed, you’re not human.’”
Dobler, never one to filter his thoughts, says these things with his typical bombast, leaving the impression he’ll be OK.
Five years ago, after HBO’s “Real Sports” aired a segment detailing his wife’s injury and the couple’s financial woes, Dobler got some good news when he took a call from a man identifying himself as Glenn Cohen, Phil Mickelson’s lawyer.
The golfer, Cohen said, had seen the segment and offered to put Dobler’s two youngest children through college.
“I thought it might be a scam,” Dobler says. “I said, ‘Why is Mr. Mickelson doing this?’ And he said, ‘Because he can.’ All I could say was thank you, but that never really felt like it was enough.”
Dobler’s youngest daughter, Holli, graduated with honors from Miami of Ohio and plans to attend law school.
Dobler, whose new autobiography is titled “Pride and Perseverance,” says Mickelson’s generosity humbled him. (Mickelson has never commented on his largesse.)
“It has made me a little better man,” Dobler says. “The theme of my book is, paying it forward. I don’t have a lot to do that with, but when people ask me for my time and stuff like that, I have a responsibility to do that because people certainly have come forward to help me and my family.”
While playing for the St. Louis Cardinals, New Orleans Saints and Buffalo Bills from 1972 to 1981, Dobler never seemed to care much about anything other than his own interests.
“When I hit a guy, I’ll hit him in the throat,” Dobler once said. “He doesn’t have any pads on his throat.”
Blurring the line between fierce competitor and unrepentant brawler, the former Twentynine Palms High and Wyoming standout wasn’t averse to eye-gouging, leg-whipping, gut-punching or, on one occasion, even biting opponents. His style drew the ire of even mild-mannered adversaries such as Merlin Olsen.
Dobler showed off the “antisocial instincts of a treed gorilla,” Jim Murray once wrote, the late Times columnist also noting that, “Conrad didn’t play football, he waged it.”
Dobler says the myth eventually eclipsed the reality.
“My reputation probably did more damage to me than help me,” says Dobler, who nevertheless cashed in on his notoriety, most famously in beer commercials and an earlier autobiography titled “They Call Me Dirty.” “I kind of lived in a fishbowl. In Buffalo, the offensive tackle next to me pulled a guy’s jersey over his head and they called me for holding.”
Such memories bring laughter.
The pain in his knees does not.
The NFL retirement board, he says, has repeatedly rejected his application for disability benefits.
“I’ve always been a team player,” Dobler says. “I always thought that if you busted your ass for the team, you’d be rewarded in the end. But they don’t reward you; they try to beat you down. …
“They get you motivated, they train you mentally to go out there and play. You’ve heard the old saying: ‘Can’t make the club in the tub.’ You’ve got to play through the pain.”
Dobler’s knees are shot, one writer noting that they resembled “misshapen melons in a discount supermarket bin.”
So he gobbles pain medicine.
A leg amputation is not a matter of if, he says, but when.
He has tried walking with a cane, “but because my shoulder is so screwed up, I can hardly use the cane anymore.”
His shoulder needs replacing.
But he’s got no insurance.
How does he survive?
“Through perseverance, I guess,” Dobler says. “I just hate to lose -- no matter how difficult things are.”