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Conrad Dobler exhales cold air from his helmet like Godzilla breathing fire. A handlebar mustache adds to the menacing look on the face of this 6-foot-3-inch, 250-pound offensive lineman.
In this 1988 National Football League film called Tough Guys, a seven-minute vignette shows a shaggy-haired, taped-up Dobler blazing a warpath of leg whips, trips, stomps and elbows to a booming drumbeat. Dobler brags about playing in the "gray area" of the rules, hitting opponents so hard that mucus would bubble up in their nostrils. He named his phlegm-producing sticks "snot bubblers." His style of play earned him three trips to the Pro Bowl.
The video's highlights include Dobler, who starred on Don Coryell's "Cardiac Cardinals" teams of the mid-1970s, jamming his elbow under the facemask of a defensive lineman for the New Orleans Saints, stomping on a fallen Giants player, torpedoing another Giant with a headfirst dive at the guy's legs and pancaking Merlin Olsen, the Los Angeles Rams Hall of Fame defensive tackle who admits losing his cool and throwing a punch at Dobler. "The game is violent," Dobler testifies in the video. "I'm not."
But time catches up with everyone, even gridiron immortals.
Thirty years later, the violence of the game has left the 56-year-old reliant on canes and walkers. "It's a beautiful sport," he says of the game that ruined his body. "Man against man. It goes back to the gladiator days." The old gladiator is being pieced back together one artificial part at a time. In June Dobler had surgery at Barnes-Jewish Hospital to replace the busted artificial knee in his left leg that he'd been hobbling on for two years. Today he carries the recently returned broken knee in a plastic biohazard bag. The surgery was Dobler's seventh on that leg within a year. "I didn't realize how much pain I was actually in until I got this knee recently," Dobler says. "I was masking it with the drugs and stuff. Not only that, but I thought that's just the way that it's supposed to be."
Before that surgery, Dobler spent 100 days between February and October 2006 in and out of the hospital with a staph infection that developed after having knee surgery in late 2005 at Overland Park Regional Medical Center outside Kansas City. The doctors removed all of Dobler's artificial parts and replaced his knee using concrete spacers loaded with antibiotics. "They kept having to take them out and put them back in again," Dobler says. "And every time they took them out, they would scrape the infection off the bone again, and they could never get rid of it. Then I had a pulmonary embolism, which I had blood clots go to my lungs and almost kill me. So I had to get out of Kansas City and get to a hospital where maybe I had a chance of surviving." Dobler busts up laughing. After the staph infection finally cleared up last October, Dobler had his right knee replaced at Barnes-Jewish.
On a morning in mid-July, Dobler is scheduled to have the 71 staples removed from his left knee at College Park Family Care Center in Overland Park, Kansas. His walker clanks against the concrete floor like shoulder pads after a snap. He gingerly steps down the stairs leading out of his office building and shuffles slowly toward his Toyota Sequoia SUV. Dobler is one of about 8,000 retired NFL players, many of whom face a litany of health problems ranging from post-concussion syndrome to knees and hips that need replacing. Now, the battle-scarred tough guys of the past are standing up to the league, demanding a better disability plan and pensions similar to those of major-league baseball players.
The retired players' fight began at the 2006 Hall of Fame induction ceremony, when Harry Carson, a linebacker for the New York Giants from 1976 through 1988, gave an speech pleading with the league's leaders to take care of retired players. "If we made the league what it is," Carson implored, "you have to take better care of your own."
This past June, retired players testified before the U.S. House of Representatives. Gruff former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka vouched for his comrades, who told hard-luck stories of ending up homeless, penniless and unemployable. Lawmakers heard former players tell how numerous surgeries had led to amputations and how repeated and untreated concussions had ended in brain damage and suicide. They spoke of failed marriages and a mess of red tape that prevented retirees from collecting disability. The retired players will go before a U.S. Senate subcommittee on September 18.
NFL officials claim that the league pays 317 retired players and their families $20 million a year in disability benefits. But of the retired players eligible for benefits, only 144 receive long-term disability payments. In July the league and the union announced a $7 million fund to help ex-players pay for joint-replacement surgeries.
Dobler applied for disability in 1994. An NFL-hired doctor said his legs were 90 percent impaired. The league sent Dobler to another doctor, who conceded that Dobler had severe injuries but could do inactive labor. The league rejected Dobler's disability application. Since then, he has been denied twelve times and has exhausted his appeals.