The Dirty, Pretty Game

I had just rocked Roger Craig really hard in our first padded practice of the year.

“Romo, what the fuck is wrong with you?”

Roger was yelling at me as he jumped up off the ground. It was my second year with the 49ers. Now, you have to remember, this was Roger Craig, the legendary All-Pro running back, and I was just a young third round draft pick trying to win a starting linebacker spot. All I wanted was to be noticed by my coaches.

I got in his face, helmet to helmet. “Get ready, because I’m bringing it all day,” I yelled. I was practically foaming at the mouth, taking myself to a dark place for the sport I loved. Roger looked at me, this young linebacker with a crazy look in his eyes, a little stunned. I think he thought I had lost it.

The thing is, I hadn’t lost it.

At the end of the day football is a dirty, nasty, violent sport. The NFL is a big time entertainment business — the meaner you are, the more you are feared; the more you are feared, the more you get noticed and the more money you get paid. I was never the most talented football player — I never had the “it” factor like a Ronnie Lott. Ronnie worked hard as hell, too, but he also had something that was just innate in his being. He could knock the shit out of people and make the big play to win the game. It seemed like it came easy for him. He was one of the best football players I’ve ever seen.

Well, I didn’t have what he had, but I wanted it so badly and would do almost anything to try and get it. I had to manufacture the nastiness from somewhere because it didn’t come natural to me. I grew up a momma’s boy and had to learn how to be mean and dirty. To try and get there, I had to dig deep and take myself to a really dark place inside my being.

I owe everything I did on the football field to work ethic. Whatever you may think about me — good or bad — there was nobody on the planet that wanted it as bad as I did or who worked harder. If guys put in two hours in the weight room, I wanted to put in three or four. My obsession with football took me some places I’m not proud of. I look back at my career and I am truly sorry for some of the things I did — the spitting and the fighting and the other things I got carried away with. But the way I saw it, the more violence and nastiness I played with out on the field, the more I was feared and hated by opponents — and loved by my coaches, teammates and fans. The game was fueling my ego and dampening the deep-seated fear of not being good enough. The more stunts I pulled in the games the more I showed up on TV and the bigger my reputation was getting for being one of the NFL’s dirtiest players. It was a vicious cycle and I reveled in it.

I know I’ve got a certain reputation.

I remember sitting next to one of my locker mates at the Raiders and one of his homeboys was dying to know what I was actually like. He asked him, “Does Romanowski chew on glass and beat people up when he’s in the locker room?”

But what’s funny about my reputation is that you can ask any of my teammates what I was like off the field and they’d describe me a happy-go-lucky guy — a guy who really cared about people. I loved telling jokes, motivating guys in the weight room and sharing my knowledge about nutrition, recovery and performance. On the field is, of course, a different story.

If people only knew how hard it was for me to be that crazy guy out on the field. I had to turn into that character on the field.

Looking back, I think from a young age I was motivated and driven by fear. I was a young, skinny, scared kid from a lower middle class family in Vernon, Connecticut. Sports were my way out. I remember many nights sitting around the kitchen table overhearing my parents talking and worrying about money. How would they put each of us through college? What do you do when you’re a little boy and you can sense the pain in your parents’ voices? For me it was really scary, and I wanted to take that pain away from them. I didn’t want them to have to worry about money. I wanted to take that fear away from them.

After a lot of therapy following my football career, I figured out that the fear of not wanting to be poor, not being good enough and wanting to be noticed drove me to do things I’m still ashamed of. But the silver lining in my upbringing is my relentless pursuit for greatness through work ethic that was second to none.

When I was a little boy, the only thing I cared about was sports — and of course gym was my favorite class in school. For my sixth grade gym class, I remember my parents not being able to afford the school-logoed gym clothes we were required to wear. So my mom took a pair of old white shorts and dyed them blue, and gave me one of my dad’s old t-shirts that was four sizes too big and told me no one would know the difference. I remember walking out for the first gym class and everybody was laughing at me. The pain and embarrassment I felt still brings tears to my eyes today. It was one of those moments in life that triggered my obsession with sports. I never want to feel pain like that again.

Sometimes I want to put my arm around that little boy and talk to him. I’d say, “Please don’t be scared. Everything’s gonna be alright.”

That’s my inner struggle right now, looking back on my life. How smart was it to try to turn myself into this mean, nasty, violent linebacker? Maybe if I would have just been a good football player who didn’t cross over that line — didn’t get in fights out on the field, didn’t try to poke peoples’ eyes out, or break peoples’ fingers, or spit in people’s faces — I would feel better about the person I became? But on another level, maybe I would be a guy that you’ve never heard of. I know I’d never have played in the NFL. Fear works in mysterious ways and drives people to limits they never thought were possible.

In college, I was scared I would fade away into the practice squad. The thought of that scared the shit out of me. When I got to Boston College, I found out that 99 percent of freshmen get redshirted every year. In practice, they would separate the starters, who wore maroon and gold jerseys, from the redshirt guys, who wore yellow jerseys. I hated wearing that yellow jersey. I looked across the field at all my teammates in maroon and gold and said to myself, I don’t know what it’s gonna take. I don’t know if it’s gonna be a month, a year, a few years, but I’m going to be out on that other sideline.

You thought I was crazy in the NFL. There were literally tears coming down my face.

That next week in practice, all hell broke loose. I hit anything that moved. We were supposed to be going three-quarter speed, but I didn’t listen. I sacked our starting QB, Doug Flutie, four times. I got into fights with the O-line. I stuck Troy Stratford, our starting running back, and drove him into the ground.

The game against Western Carolina that year was my Rudy moment. I knew it. Coach Jack Bicknell was yelling for a guy to go on to the field for the opening kickoff of the second half, but he didn’t realize the guy got hurt in the second quarter. I was pacing up and down the sideline like a crazed dog. Coach caught me eyes staring at him. When he signaled at me with his index finger, I looked behind me because I couldn’t imagine he was referring to me. He grabbed my facemask and said to me, “Romo, do you want to play? Will you run down on kickoff?

“You’re damn right I want to play.”

All I remember about that kickoff is running so hard and so fast down the field, I was 10 yards ahead of everyone. I ran over two guys that tried to block me then it was just me and the guy with the ball. He juked left, then right, and I dove like a madman through the air … right over him the top of him and landed on my head.

When the play was over, I could hear Coach screaming for me to come over to him.

“Romo, in my life as a football coach, I’ve never seen anybody run so hard, so fast and who wants it more than you,” Coach started. “But next time, just tackle the damn guy with the ball.”

From that day on, I wore the maroon and gold in practice.

When I got to the NFL, I was back to the bottom of the totem pole. I wanted to play and that same burning desire I had at BC was more intense than ever. We had greats like Jerry Rice, John Taylor, Brent Jones and Roger Craig. So I had to come up with another game plan to get noticed.

What’s the best way to be seen? You have to give the illusion that you’re everywhere. That’s what I did: If Jerry Rice caught a 10-yard pass in practice and took it all the way to the end-zone and scored, I knew the coaches’ eyes were on Jerry. So I just started racing him to the end zone every time he caught a ball. And eventually I would beat him there. Full sprint. When they saw Jerry, they were also going to see me right behind him, hustling my ass off.

Part of my obsession with performance led me to take substances I probably shouldn’t have. As I admitted in 2005 on 60 Minutes and later in my book Romo: My Life on the EdgeLiving Dreams and Slaying Dragons, I took substances like Ephedrine and Phentermine because I was looking for any way to get an edge. I was looking for any way to continue to play the game I loved. I tried every possible thing — as long as it wasn’t on that banned substances list. I think if I had to do it all over again, I would have changed some things.

I have to live with my decision to come clean for the rest of my life.

But was I the only guy to use substances? Not even close. I’m just one of the only guys to admit it. But that doesn’t matter now. I thought the truth would set me free. On one level, it did. It felt good to tell my story, but maybe I should’ve written it and then taken all the manuscripts and burned them.

I’m not here to offload responsibility onto others. There will be no scapegoating of fellow athletes, coaches, or my beloved sport. I’m more focused now on my journey toward my own truths. Along the way, I realized we all struggle with similar issues, especially those of us driven to the kind of perfection that challenges our values. Face it: we are all addicted to something. We have become seduced and overly attached to something or someone — and we sometimes use it as an excuse to justify the ends. We are all victims of our own insecurities, trying to find our real self.

And you know what? When I came clean, I thought, People are ready for this. It’s 2005. The NFL can handle the truth.

Well, guess what? As Jack Nicholson once said, You can’t handle the truth. The result is that on some level, the NFL has essentially banned me from the family. If I never wrote that book – meaning, if I wasn’t honest — I believe I’d be broadcasting nationally or running a team. I’d be embraced by the NFL family. So I paid a price. The NFL still isn’t ready to face its own insecurities and its own truths. The NFL is focused on two things: image and money. There’s not a whole lot of room for a story like mine.

It’s hard to move on from the NFL and the game I dedicated my life to and the game I owe so much to. Post-retirement is a really scary place. The health issues are a big, big problem that’s often swept under the rug. I mean, look at head injuries.

Do you know what concussions feel like? Concussions feel like car accidents. When you play linebacker in the NFL, it’s like you’re getting in 10 to 15 car accidents every weekend. From the blows to your head to the blows to your body — people can’t even comprehend what these guys put themselves through every Sunday. Truthfully, football players are not paid enough. There will be a lot of people that will walk away from the NFL and they will never be the same. People say, Well, they made millions of dollars. But health doesn’t have a price tag.

In my life, did my obsession with wanting to be the best sometimes get the best of me? Definitely. But now it’s time to right the wrongs and be able to help other people, athletes and non-athletes, take care of their bodies and minds. For all its faults, I don’t think there’s a better teacher than football. Like life, it’s not whether you get knocked down, because of course you will. It’s what you do when you get back up that really matters.

I actually ran into Roger Goodell a couple years ago on the sideline of a Raiders game. I pulled him aside and said, “Roger, I just want you to know that I’m sorry for any embarrassment that I ever caused the NFL.” And he said “Bill, you were a great player and a good guy,” and he kind of just brushed it off like it was water under the bridge. I respect that he said something nice, but guess what? Reputations are really hard to build and easy to break. There’s a part of me that believes it’s unfair that I took all the blame for substance use. But the man in me is at peace with it. I’ve even been meditating daily.

Bill Romanowski, the meditator.

Who’d have predicted that?

Bill Romanowski, a 16-year NFL veteran, is the founder and CEO of Nutrition53, a nutrition company that strives to deliver better health, greater confidence and a brighter future.