'I'LL DO ANYTHING I CAN GET AWAY WITH'
What's a little holding or eye gouging or biting among NFL players? For St. Louis' controversial Guard Conrad Dobler, 'anything' on a football field seems to be everything short of neutron warfare
By Daphne Hurford
One of the questions on the NFL's personnel survey form is, "Did you take up football for any particular reason?" Conrad Dobler's answer was, "It is still the only sport where there is controlled violence mixed with careful technical planning. Football is still a very physical game."
What Dobler, the 6'3", 260-pound All-Pro right guard for the St. Louis Cardinals, means by "controlled violence," "careful technical planning" and "a very physical game" is that "I'll do anything I can get away with to protect my quarterback." And according to his opponents, what Dobler gets away with is holding, eye gouging, face-mask twisting, leg whipping, tripping, even biting.
Outside St. Louis Dobler is considered the "dirtiest" player in the league, someone who makes even Oakland's George Atkinson look like Mr. Clean. In fact, in one game Dobler's tactics so infuriated Merlin Olsen, the now-retired defensive tackle of the Los Angeles Rams, that Olsen swore he would never utter Dobler's name again. However, there is one player who has good reason to utter Dobler's name in his prayers—Cardinal Quarterback Jim Hart. Thanks to the protection—legal or otherwise—afforded by Dobler and his linemates, Hart has been sacked only 41 times the last three seasons, an NFL low. Among others who recognize Dobler's prowess are the NFL coaches, who have twice picked him to start in the Pro Bowl.
Asked the same question, Dobler says that he holds no more than any other player, that he would get caught more often if he did, and that reports of his dastardly deeds have been exaggerated. In the next breath, he says that rules are made to be broken and adds, with a slightly superior air, "If you're going to break the rules, you've got to have a little style and class." Asked if he really bites opponents, Dobler usually replies that he would never do such a tasteless thing, believing as he does in good oral hygiene. Of course, he adds, "If someone stuck his hand in your face mask and put his fingers in your mouth, what would you do?"
While Dobler insists that he is an aggrieved party as far as holding is concerned, he willingly offers a few hints on the best way to hold a defensive lineman or a blitzing linebacker. "Always keep your hands inside your chest because it's much harder for the referees to see them when they're in there," he says, "and if a guy does get past you, grab his face mask, not his jersey." Dobler also recommends "hooking"—clamping the opponent with your arm and dragging him down—as an effective means of detaining defenders.
"Sometimes I hold by accident," he says. "You know, I get my hand caught in a face mask. But always remember this: at no time do my fingers leave my hand."
Surprisingly, Dobler rarely uses his tongue on rivals. "You have to get just the right comment to make them mad," he says. "Verbal abuse could take all day. A faster and more efficient way to aggravate and intimidate people is to knock the stuffing out of them." Dobler particularly likes to aggravate and intimidate other Pro Bowlers, first-round draft choices and players whose salaries are higher than his $50,000 a year. "Of course I'm vindictive," he says. "I was a fifth-round draft choice, and who ever heard of a player from Wyoming?"
Born in Chicago, Dobler grew up in the middle of the Mojave Desert at Twentynine Palms, Calif. There are seven Dobler children—Corrine. Cynthia, Clifford, Conrad, Christopher, Catherine and Cassandra—and Conrad always was considered the "meanest kid" in the family. Catherine, who was unlucky enough to win the starring role in a charming Joan of Arc game devised by her brother, says Conrad "was always mean and ornery and liked to show off his muscles." Conrad's mother Clara says her son was always compassionate and eager to help someone less fortunate, that he is definitely "a winner, not a loser" and that he has always been "just like his father." His father, a former Golden Gloves fighter whom Conrad calls "Big John," says that "Conrad plays pretty good football from what they tell me" and adds that his son "is not quite as mean as they say he is." As proof he offers a tale about Conrad, then nine, escorting his mother to the doctor after she had cut her hand and fainting at the sight of her blood.
Conrad claims he has always been motivated by a lack of peer approval. After attending a Catholic grammar school, where there were only eight students in his graduating class, he went to a large high school where he felt lost and insignificant. To gain acceptance he took up football and basketball. "I never finished a basketball game," he says. "I always fouled out. Something just seemed to come over me. I had more fouls, I think, than the second string had points." A football scholarship took him to the University of Wyoming. Recently he taunted his coach at Wyoming, Jack Taylor, saying, "I'm the only 10¢ player the Cowboys ever had. All it took to recruit me was one letter." At Wyoming Dobler maintained a B average in his political-science major and child-psychology minor.
Drafted by the Cardinals in 1972, Dobler was released before the start of his rookie season. Luckily for Dobler a number of the Cardinals' offensive linemen were injured early in the '72 season, and they re-signed him in time for their third game. "When I came back I decided that I'd just play my own game," Dobler says. "I'd do what I do best and make the other guys play into my hands, make them have to beat me."
By midseason of 1972 Dobler had become the Cardinals' starting right guard, and he currently has no plans to vacate the position.
"I've thrived on criticism," Dobler says. "Tell me I can't do it, and that's all I need. When I started out, no one gave a damn who I was. I had to prove to everyone that they had a fight on their hands. All the bad mouthing I get is just fuel. If a guy says he doesn't respect me, he just makes my job that much easier." When Olsen accused Dobler of having a tremendous ego, Dobler replied, "If you don't have an ego, you're a wino." When Minnesota Defensive Tackle Doug Sutherland labeled Dobler a "marked man," Dobler said, "I'd have a lot more fun in this game if more people said they were going to get me. I've been playing dirty a lot longer than they have. Yeah, I'll get mine someday, but when I do, I'll take my portion plus some."
For all his tough talk, Dobler is often astonished when he watches himself on game films. "Sometimes I can't believe what I do, that I can fling my body around the way I do," he says. "Those things happen at the time. I couldn't repeat any one of them." Something certainly does come over Dobler during a game. The Greeks had a word for it: aristeia, that special show of valor when great warriors put forth superhuman effort. Diomedes had aristeia, so did Hector. What does Dobler call it? "I don't know. Insanity, maybe." Hanifan calls it a mean streak. But Homer and Hanifan would agree that the truly great warriors leave their whatever-you-call-it at the scene of battle, and away from the gridiron Dobler is a charmer.
Intelligent and articulate, he is quick to laugh and has a gentle, polite manner. He lights women's cigarettes, saying, "I once dated a sorority girl," and never forgets to add, "It's just an adjective" when he thinks his language might offend. His intensity shows in his chewed nails and in his restlessness; his hunger for approval shows in his attempts to entertain. He even does magic tricks. Dobler holds strong opinions, speaks his mind freely and then worries that he spoke too freely. When a player complains about Dobler's methods, Conrad simply says, "He'll get over it." But when Dobler feels he has hurt a friend's feelings, he says, "Oh, he'll get over it. But you know something, I won't."
Dobler's looks belie his 26 years. His dark brown hair is liberally dusted with gray. He limps as a result of arthritis in his knees, and he says he has "the bones of a 65-year-old man." His own private set of harpies keeps him from sleeping well, and when awake he can be described as hyperactive. He skis well, plays racquetball with grace and throws a dart with deadly accuracy.
During the off-season the Doblers—Conrad, wife Linda and 7-year-old son Mark—live in Laramie, Wyo. Dobler owns some property, including a bar called Block 11, in the town of Encampment (pop. 321) high in the Sierra Madres. The bar is so named because of zoning rules, not because Dobler thinks he can simultaneously block all 11 men on a team.
Every June there is a Woodchoppers Jamboree in Encampment, and Block 11 is the center of the boisterous nocturnal activity. Dobler always attends the jamboree, driving up from Laramie in his CB-equipped Mercedes, because it is such fun and, well, because his presence in Block 11 guarantees peace. Things can get rough in Wyoming saloons, most of which have iron bars on the windows to prevent the throwing of furniture and/or people through the glass, but no one is eager to deal with a bouncer of Dobler's size and reputation. The men's room in Block 11 is filled with raunchy graffiti expressing opinions on Dobler's athletic abilities—or lack of them. High above all the remarks, written in large letters, is: "Expletive deleted the Pine Lodge." Asked what this means, Dobler, blushing, says that the Pine Lodge is another bar in town and that he is the author of that particular piece of graffiti.
Linda Dobler, who was raised on a Wyoming ranch, will receive her bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of Wyoming in December and intends to continue her studies until she gets a doctorate. Despite what others might think, she says she does not need it to handle her husband. She drinks tequila by the shot (no lime, no salt), manages home, family and school with ease and roundly beats her husband at tennis. She admits that Conrad has a mean streak but says it doesn't affect their life together.
Dobler says defensive players fall into three categories: "The quick ones who never touch you, the strong ones who beat the heck out of you and the few who are both strong and quick. I'd rather go against a quick guy. He does certain things well, and you know what he'll do."
Dobler wonders whether it will be as easy in the years ahead, for he fears he might be mellowing. "At the Pro Bowl you get to know and like your opponents," he says. "And when you like a guy, you don't step on his fingers or kick him getting up." Last winter Dobler said he would play for five more years at the most. Now he talks about playing longer. He says he cannot imagine a Sunday without a game, although he hopes he won't play past his prime. He is aware of what happens to athletes who play too long and of the fleeting quality of fame. But it's not just the taste of stardom or the camaraderie that Dobler says he would miss. It's playing football—and playing it well.
Of course, if Conrad Dobler ever does mellow, he can use his own words to bring him back to reality: "If you ever forget that football is a violent game, they'll catch you gazing at the stars and put your lights out."