THE BROKEN WARRIOR
PUEBLO, Colo., -- His battle scars are blatant. Whether it’s the elbows, shoulders, wrists or knees, his prominent disfigurement dictates a tale all on its own.
Oh, the knees.
Gaudy foot-long stitching surrounds large, lumpy swollen masses. Those marks are visual evidence of more than 30 surgeries, including nine knee replacements alone in the right one. Doctors urged him to amputate it. Staph infections and unusable tissue almost left him no choice.
Surgically placed plastic and metal is the only difference between using a dilapidated wooden cane or being forced into a wheelchair for the rest of his days.
He wants his leg. He won’t give up his leg.
But, today, the most striking issue isn’t the markings and wounds you can see – it’s the ones you can’t.
“I’m in Colorado today,” Conrad Dobler, 68, says as he sits on a padded patio chair on his daughter’s back porch in the outskirts of Pueblo. “I’m not sure why I am here though.”
“You’re on vacation, dad,” Erin Dobler-Lewin says for the second time in less than five minutes.
The former Wyoming Cowboy offensive lineman and self-made “dirtiest player in the NFL” is now a shell of his former self. Physically and mentally. He used to be feared by the meanest, most talented men in the highest level of football.
On this day, he moves at a snail’s pace and has trouble remembering where he calls home.
“You live in Kansas City, dad,” Dobler-Lewin implores.
“Yeah,” he says, “I do live there.”
Dobler admits his short-term memory isn’t what it once was. His days now begin with a checklist. A pen and pad tells him he needs to go to the store, turn off the lights and remember his cell phone, among other normal daily tasks.
The cell phone is an important one.
Recently, Dobler had to call his son-in-law, Chad Lewin, to ask him to help navigate him back home. Lewin, in Colorado, had to explain to Dobler how to get back to his house in Missouri.
It’s a far cry from when they first met.
It didn’t take Lewin long to find out who his new girlfriend’s father was. In Cheyenne, word travels quick. He said he was nervous about the first meeting but was bound and determined to make a good impression.
“Are you wearing a hat at the table?”
“That’s what he said to me after we had been eating for a while,” Lewin chuckles. “’What kind of man wears a hat at a dinner table?’”
It’s funny now. That statement coming from a man who made a living punching guys in the helmet, leg-whipping their feet from under them, biting fingers, scratching eyeballs and clawing neck skin on his way through a 10-year NFL career.
Dobler was never shy about his thoughts. Or his words. Political incorrectness, his fondness for the opposite sex and alcohol-soaked amusement is usually at the top of the list.
In fact, he is still very much that guy. In his mind.
He was quick to drop a joke – or 20. Dobler still thinks defensive lineman are a lower species. He refers to them as “donkeys.” He says he hopes his remaining days are “filled with blondes and pissed off husbands.”
Yes, Dobler is still that colorful character that donned the cover of Sports Illustrated back in July of 1977.
“It must’ve been a really boring month in sports to have me on the cover,” Dobler joked as he spit out at least his eighth piece of Nicorette gum.
In 2016, USA Today penned a story entitled: “Former NFL guard Conrad Dobler can’t recall children’s names.”
He jokes that he does now. Or that he will go down a list of their names until one answers.
Dobler may not remember what he had for breakfast or the fact that he has 11 grandchildren – his best guess was 10 – but his mind is sharp as a tack when it comes to his battles on the gridiron, his youth delivering milk in the desert of California and his decision to become a Wyoming Cowboy.
He recalls his draft day like it was yesterday.
“My roommates asked me where I had been,” Dobler recalls. “They told me a bunch of reporters had been calling. I called one back, thinking ‘oh, boy, what did I do now?’ The guy told me I was drafted. My first thought was – Vietnam? Then he told me it was by the St. Louis Cardinals. I thought the guy was joking.
“I told him, ‘I don’t even play baseball.’”
Dobler suited up for the Pokes from 1969 to 1971. Despite being recruited by nearly every team in the Western Athletic Conference, Dobler decided to come to Laramie. Wyoming was just coming off an undefeated regular season and a Sugar Bowl appearance.
He could’ve gone to Arizona, Arizona State, Cal-Berkeley, Utah and others, but he wanted to win, he said.
“Wyoming was the king of the WAC back then,” he exclaimed. “They were the best. That’s why I went there.”
No one envisioned what would happen next.
The Cowboys from Wyoming went from one of the hottest programs in the nation to obscurity with one swift decision. Dobler had grand thoughts that he might have a real shot at a national championship. The WAC title, he said, was already in the bag the day he signed.
“The Black 14 was a bad deal,” Dobler said, referring to then-head coach Lloyd Eaton, who kicked 14 black football players off the team for wanting to wear black armbands to protest BYU and the racial practices of the Mormon church. “We couldn’t recruit any black guys after that.
“My stance on it was, let them wear the damn things,” he continued. “It wasn’t hurting anyone. We went out there and crushed BYU that day. But it wouldn’t last. We were never the same.”
After that 6-4 campaign, Dobler said the current players were tasked with a vote to whether the remaining black teammates that stayed at UW could rejoin the team.
“That was b------,” Dobler said. “Of course, they can come back. They were good guys. What we didn’t know at the time was that the blacks were getting threatened by black groups on campus. Some of them didn’t even want to protest.
“We were a better team with them.”
Without most of them, Wyoming would hit rock bottom at 1-9 in 1970. Eaton resigned. Fritz Shurmur took the reins.
In Dobler’s senior season, the Cowboys would finish 5-6.
He never went to a bowl game. He didn’t sniff a conference title. Dobler didn’t think professional football was even an option. He said his plan was to rely on his 3.3 GPA and become a college professor. Political science, maybe?
“Shurmur moved me to the defensive line, so I knew he thought I was pretty good,” he said. “He always put the best players on defense. But I didn’t think anyone was helping get me to the NFL. I didn’t even see that as an option.”
Dobler never earned All-Conference accolades. He was a good lineman on bad teams, he said. Snickering, he added, “But I was on the All-Academic squad. Can you believe that? I take a lot of pride in that.”
Dobler-Lewin keeps a box of old photographs downstairs near the framed No. 66 Cardinals jersey her husband bought her for Christmas. She was born after her father’s retirement from the NFL. All she has are these pictures, his tall tales and a pair of autobiographies – “They call me dirty” and “Pride and Perseverance: A story of courage, hope, and redemption – to know about the legend of Conrad Dobler.
“I didn’t care for the book,” she said. “It shared a lot of things I didn’t really want to hear. Things about how he treated my mother and other things.”
Dobler chimed in.
“They make you write that stuff,” he claims. “They want the sex. Sex sells.”
The first photo to come out of the box is Dobler, sitting on the bench in St. Louis, looking off into the distance. He has those steely eyes, arching eyebrows and dark handlebar mustache. He looks very much like a bouncer or a dude you definitely don’t want to run into in a dark alley – much less a football field.
His white neck roll under his shoulder pads and the white medical tape from elbow to knuckles made him look that much more intimidating.
“I would use the same amount of tape each game,” he said. “I would use my arms as clubs and really give guys some chin music.”
The next image is from the Laramie Chamber of Commerce. It’s a wanted poster. Dobler, wearing traditional cowboy regalia and brandishing a rifle, points to the camera and is asking you to visit the Gem City of the Plains.
“In fact, he insists on it!” The poster states.
His daughter holds up the next photo. It's one of him jamming the face mask of Minnesota Viking great, Alan Page. He, of course, was a fierce member of the “Purple People Eaters,” a nickname given to the Vikings defensive line in the late 60’s. Dobler, playing for the New Orleans Saints at the time, appears to be in full control.
Dobler, who played for the Cardinals, Saints and Buffalo Bills, will be the first to admit that he could be a dirty player. He says he had to be to survive. Standing 6-foot, 2-inches and 250 pounds, he didn’t have the strength of many of his co-workers on the offensive line.
He became famous for his ferocious leg whip. Just when a defender thought he had a clear shot at the quarterback, Dobler would plant one leg and whip the legs – and sometimes face – of the oncoming “donkey.”
“I wasn’t going to let them touch the quarterback,” he says proudly. “I did whatever I needed to do to make sure that didn’t happen.”
Dobler played on one of the greatest offensive lines in NFL history. The Cardinals front five was anchored by names like Dan Dierdorf, Tom Banks, Roger Finnie, Bob Young, and few others. Dobler wasn’t in their class when he first joined the Cardinals in 1972.
After six grueling weeks of training camp, Dobler was released.
“They told me they would give me a call if anyone got hurt,” he said.
Fortunately for him, someone did.
Dobler came back to St. Louis determined to never let a coach cut him again. That’s when the brutal tactics came into play – even with his own defensive lineman in practice.
“Conrad fought every day in practice for at least three years,” Dierdorf said in an NFL Films production in the 80’s. “I never saw anything like it. He fought every day and he fought anyone who got in his way. He did that until he turned into a good football player.”
Dobler refers to himself as a “master of playing in the gray area.”
Don’t tell that to Merlin Olsen.
The former Utah State and Los Angeles Rams star went to battle with Dobler twice a year. Dobler used all of his typical tactics on the strait-laced, mild-mannered Mormon defensive lineman.
“I got him to quit once,” Dobler said of the Hall of Famer. “He wanted nothing to do with me.”
In that same NFL Films video, Olsen all but admitted as much, saying that Dobler was the only player in his 15-year pro career to get him to throw a punch.
“He was compensating for the lack of some basic skills,” Olsen said during the segment. “… he was a good street fighter, not as good of a football player. I got on his level.”
Olsen went on to star in Little House on the Prairie and flower commercials, among other roles. In an episode of Father Murphy, Olsen is seen standing in a graveyard. One of the tombstones reads: “Here lies Conrad Dobler.”
Dobler went on to star in a Miller Lite commercial.
“They used to send me two cases of beer a month,” Dobler laughed. “I was actually getting paid pretty good to drink beer. I started feeling a little guilty about that. Here I have this degree from Wyoming and my job is to drink beer.
“I wish I could have that gig again.”
Dobler's exploits on the field were legendary. He once punched "Mean" Joe Greene in the gut in pass protection, injured Eagles linebacker, Bill Bergey, on purpose, and bit the fingers of Dallas' Lee Roy Jordan.
Dobler’s new gig is a little more tame.
He's the president of a company that is a national flu vaccination provider. He runs it with his son, Stephen Dobler.
“He’s mad at me right now,” Dobler says of his son. “I don’t know why, but I’m sure it’s something I did.”
His daughter has her theory on that.
With her father’s mind seemingly getting worse by the day, working a day-to-day job isn’t really in the cards right now, she says.
“He said he needs something to do or he will just die,” Dobler-Lewin says. “He doesn’t want to just sit around and do nothing.”
Each morning, Dobler-Lewin says she tries to give her father purpose. She goes through a stretching routine with him, takes him for swims in their backyard pool and helps him cook in the kitchen, something he says is his passion. Italian Chicken panini is his specialty.
Dobler’s physical problems have been well documented.
He has been vocal in his opposition of the NFL for decades. He said they don’t do enough, financially or to medically support the players that made this league into a multi-billion-dollar industry. He has been open with anyone who will listen, appearing in a 5,000-word expose by the Los Angeles Times in 1988.
The crippling knee injuries have left him all but immobile. His shoulder is so banged up, he can barely use his worn-out cane.
“My back is still really bothering me,” he claims. “I just had surgery.”
Dobler-Lewin said “just” means three years ago, however, Dobler is still hunched over and appears to be in discomfort.
Dobler says he used to swallow a “handful” of pain killers every day. Now, he claims he is only on over-the-counter medications. His daughter, once again, sheds light on the real truth.
Dobler was doing anything he could to get his hands on Vicodin, Percocet or any other pill that would dull the pain. His doctors eventually cut him off.
If things aren’t bad enough for the three-time Pro Bowl guard, his wife, Joy Dobler, passed away on March 4, 2018.
Joy, Dobler said, taught him about patience, overcoming and love.
“She was the toughest woman I have ever known,” an emotional Dobler said, adding that he just watched a movie that really reminded him of her and struck a chord.
On July 4, 2001, Joy fell out of a hammock at a backyard party and broke her neck. She became a paraplegic for the last 17 years of her life.
“I was inside cooking,” he continued. “I was getting stuff to grill. She just went to get in the hammock, and it flipped, and she hit the wrong way.
“I get a little chocked up about it. I went into the other room last night and told myself to cut it out.”
Professional golfer, Phil Mickelson, found out about Dobler’s story. He reached out and paid for two of Dobler’s children to go to the college of their dreams.
“I was shocked. I thought it was a prank call,” Dobler chuckled.
It’s apparent Dobler loves to use humor to mask the mental, emotional and physical pain. Every time he gets serious, it’s always followed by a joke. Always.
He says his first wife became a psychiatrist, he says, to deal with him. He talks about the use of his cane. Says he isn’t sure if it makes him look important or impotent.
“Maybe both,” he laughs.
He says his doctors don’t give him pills anymore because they don’t want to spend hours explaining to the district attorney why he filled out a prescription. Dobler laughs and says his primary physician told him he must get it off the street.
“That’s fine,” Dobler says, “but I don’t know anyone on the street. Doctors are the ones who got me hooked on them."
Dobler-Lewin is more of a realist.
She knows her father’s mind is getting worse. Sure, he can recite the Dallas Cowboys starting defensive line in 1973, but is that because he has written so many books about it that it’s just burned into his brain?
Dobler has undergone neurological testing. The results were inconclusive.
Dobler’s daily reality can’t be more conclusive.
“I’m getting old,” Dobler claims. He also has no clue how many serious blows to the head he has taken. Dobler likes to call hard hits “snot bubblers.” He delivered plenty of them. He received plenty, too.
His daughter said he has agreed to donate his brain to research when he dies. That does little to ease today’s pain.
Yet, Dobler just smiles and moves forward.
He doesn’t spend too much time with what ifs and maybes. He’s never been that way, healthy or not.
Would he play football again today knowing what it has done to his body and mind?
“Hell yes,” he says. It’s not for the wins or the money, either.
It’s for the relationships.
It’s because he gets to say he played in the NFL.
He proved to himself that he could do it.
“Do I wish things would have turned out differently? Sure, in some cases,” Dobler says. “But like my dad always told me: you can crap in one hand and wish in the other.
“I guarantee I know which one will fill up first.”