They Called Him Dirty: Conrad Dobler

(Editor’s Note: Former St. Louis Post Dispatch columnist and Cards beat writer Jeff Meyers wrote this story a few years ago on Big Red guard Conrad Dobler and has been kind enough to share it here in the Big Red Zone)

As his autobiography “They Call Me Dirty” suggests, Conrad Dobler inflicted a world of hurt during his 10 years as a leg-whipping, eye-gouging, gut-punching, head-slapping and  — famously — finger-biting offensive lineman in the brutal world of professional football.

Dobler dished it out but also took his share of hits. Knee and shoulder injuries put him on the operating table and broken fingers mangled his hands. Perpetual pain became part of his job description. Pain management was assigned to the coach. Playing with pain was the order of the day.

“Coaches get you motivated, they train you mentally to go out there and play through the pain,” the former All-Pro guard said. “It starts in training camp when you have to practice with injuries, You’ve heard the old saying: ‘Can’t make the club in the tub.’ The goal of the coaches is to get us in ‘playing shape,’ which means to reach a higher threshold of pain. You learn to live with it and say ‘it is what it is.’ ”

Conrad Dobler was named “Pro Football’s Dirtiest Player” by Sports Illustrated in 1977.

When he retired in 1982, Dobler expected to take his memories with him, not the pain. Once football stopped, he assumed his body would heal. But today, chronic pain is a constant presence, worse than ever, requiring lifestyle changes and four Vicodin a day. Since retiring, he has undergone some 30 knee surgeries and nine knee replacements, one of which resulted in a staph infection that put him in a wheelchair for several months. He has hinges in both knees where cartilage once was. It’s likely that his right leg will have to be amputated.

“My last operation the surgeon said, ‘Why not cut it off now,” and I said, “Why not go screw yourself,’ “ Dobler said with typical bombast.

What’s it like getting up in the morning with wrecked knees? “Not pleasant,” he said. But it is what it is. “If something drops under the bed, I’d just as soon leave it there. You adjust. I never go up any stairs that don’t have a handrail. I don’t go dancing. I don’t play horsey with the grandkids. If my knee gives out, I find myself on the floor.”

His toughness and bravado as football player give him the strength to handle physical pain. But he can’t block mental anguish. His and his family’s life was turned upside down in 2001 by a tragic accident at a July 4 barbecue in the backyard of their spacious new dream home in Kansas City. His wife Joy fell off the hammock and landed on her head, breaking her neck and making her a quadriplegic.

Aside from the emotional devastation, the accident brought an avalanche of medical bills. And since Joy, a nurse, was his partner in their company, Superior Healthcare Staffing, which supplies doctors and nurses to hospitals and emergency rooms, their business was decimated. Dobler found himself $2.5 million in debt, forcing him to sell their house. Joy’s in-home care was costly and so was their medical insurance policy: $3,800 a month. He eventually had to give up his part of the policy to continue paying hers and is not insured.

Even though he’s 93 percent disabled, the NFL keeps rejecting his disability claims. So he’s angry at the NFL for its apathy toward old retired players with serious health problems and angry toward today’s players for their callous lack of concern for the old vets when it comes to giving up a bigger slice of the pie during labor negotiations.

“They vote for their best interests, not for their brothers,” said Dobler, who picketed during the 1974 players’ strike and today is active on behalf of the old vets.

Dobler has experienced owner indifference to the price players paid. When Hall of Fame offensive tackle Dan Dierdorf was being inducted into the Arizona Cardinals’ Ring of Honor in 1996, he asked his former linemate to introduce him at the halftime ceremony.

“Dan and I were watching the game from the owner’s box and one of [the owner’s] kids comes up to us right before the half,” Dobler recalled. “We were both using canes, and the kid says, ‘Do you have to go down there with your canes?’ And I said, ‘Yes, we do, and we’re like this because of the freakin’ game we played!’ I would have kicked his ass if I had two good legs.”

Conrad Dobler, Bill Bidwill, and Dan Dierdorf before a game at Busch Stadium in 1981.

Dobler manages to maintain his sense of humor, but his soul aches. He went to see a psychologist a few years ago.

“He told me I seemed depressed and suicidal,” Dobler said. “I told him, ‘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, six kids — if you weren’t suicidal, if you weren’t depressed, you’re not human.’ “

There may be many sports fans who don’t shed a tear for Dobler, perhaps feeling that he got his due for being “pro football’s dirtiest player,” as the headline described him on a 1977 Sports Illustrated cover.  Among his dirty deeds: He once made a player cry. He pioneered the chop block and the head slap, both now outlawed. He bit the finger of the Vikings’ Doug Sutherland.

“He put his fingers through my face mask, and I don’t think they were there to stroke my mustache,” Dobler said. “So I bite one finger in my life, and I don’t even chew on it. The legend grew from there. It’s almost like I’m worse than Jeffrey Dahmer.”

Dobler’s most notorious encounter pitted him against Merlin Olsen, the Rams’ mild-mannered Mormon defensive tackle and beloved TV star. Olsen called Dobler out for allegedly kicking him in the head – Dobler claims he tripped over Olsen’s head, which happened to be on the ground, placed there by a Dobler block.

When they played on the same NFC team at the 1975 Pro Bowl, Dobler says, Olsen announced in front of other players at practice, “If I get the chance, I’m going to hit him square in the nuts.”

Dobler has quite a few Olsen stories in his arsenal. “After a game,” Dobler recounted, “Olsen says, ‘One of these days, someone’s going to break Dobler’s neck, and I’m not going to send any flowers.’ What happens? He gets the $500,000 FTD commercial, and I don’t get shit.

“When he was doing ‘Father Murphy’ on NBC, he had a graveyard scene. One of the tombs said: ‘Conrad Dobler. Gone, But Not Forgiven.’ It’s been years since I played him, and I’m still on his mind. And I like that. I got under his skin. Why? Because I beat the shit out of him.”

Merlin Olsen on the set of “Father Murphy” in the 1980s.

Dobler, a fifth-round draft pick from Wyoming who endeared himself to reporters with his caustic wit and righteous indignation, still appears as sharp as ever, even as his body fails him. He uses his bad boy reputation and clever one-liners to generate much needed cash by appearing in commercials, speaking at charity events and writing books. The follow-up to his autobiography is titled “Pride and Perseverance” and was published in 2010.

Lately, it’s been all about the money. In the summer of 2011, he drove from Kansas City to Houston with his 6-5, 22-year-old son and a U-Haul trailer to pick up furniture and equipment from a branch office he’s been forced to close. The roundtrip was 1,500 miles, hard miles for a self-described cripple. Wouldn’t it have been easier to hire a mover in Houston to load a truck and drive it up to KC?

“I’m not making a million a year,” Dobler said. “I saved 500 dollars.” It is what is.

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