Bill Romanowski has never been my kind of player. There have been too many hits after the whistle, too many pops that border on cheap shots. In 1997, he spit in the face of 49ers wide receiver J.J. Stokes. At best, Romanowski comes off as quirky; at worst he's somewhere between nasty and contemptible. Not that he's one-dimensional. If not a truly great linebacker, Romo is close to it. He was an integral part of Super Bowl defenses twice for the 49ers and twice for the Denver Broncos. A Raiders victory Sunday would make him only the second man to win a fifth Super Bowl and the first to win with three teams. Oh, and at 36 he is still virtually indestructible, having played in 241 consecutive games.
The story now is that Romo is the quintessential Raider, a guy who should have been wearing the silver-and-black his entire career, a player who embodies the toughness and meanness the Raiders embrace. And it isn't not like any of this is an insult to Romanowski. Even he said this week: "I have the reputation of what a Raider player is all about. So not only am I one of the most hated players in the league, I'm now on one of the most hated teams. So it seems to be a great fit."
Oh, there are plenty of people who would second that motion.
Oakland's Rod Woodson, the Hall of Fame-bound safety, said Wednesday: "I played with the 49ers that year and I remember what happened with J.J. Stokes. My impression of Romo? It was shot that day. Shot. I told him, 'I would have fought you forever. If it was me [that Romanowski had spat on] and I signed here, I'd have swung on you the very first day.' He does stuff on game day just to see how guys will react."
Napoleon Harris, the rookie from Northwestern who starts at middle linebacker for the Raiders, said his impression of Romo through high school and college was "that he's a psycho, a dirty player who's always spitting and guilty of late hits."
Let the record show, however, that as often happens in sports when men are thrown together and become teammates, Woodson and Harris see Romo differently now. "I don't see it as dirty," Harris said this week, "because I understand the passion, how wired he is to play the game as hard as he can for as long as he can, hit through the whistle, which is what we're taught from the time we learn to play." And Woodson talks openly about being glad Romo is on his side. Great teammate, hated opponent.
To listen to Romo, on any football-related subject, is to understand how Harris became an admirer of sorts, in that unique way football players come to respect men who can negotiate the NFL's minefields for as long and as successfully as Romo has, which is 15 seasons. Asked to name his ideal player while growing up, Romo answered, "Jack Lambert," because "his play did all the talking."
Romanowski left Boston College figuring, "If I can make it six years, I'm going to be the richest man on the face of the Earth and will have done what I love to do. How can it get any better?"
In those first few years, playing in San Francisco, he acquired the reputation as a fierce hitter, an athletic and versatile linebacker who would drive through every tackle. "Some people call me dirty," he said. "A lot of people don't like me. I guess if I wasn't any good they wouldn't say much about me. I play angry. It's an all-week process that builds up for that team. I don't like who I'm playing against and I'm sure they don't like me."
I asked if, considering how players change teams so frequently -- yesterday's teammate is often tomorrow's opponent -- he has any problem working up that kind of anger and dislike for former teammates. "No, I have no problem at all," he said. "This is a violent sport. This is not a friendly game. I think you can make friends in football. [But] I'm not the kind of guy who can make a lot of friends."
But he continues to maintain his job as a starting linebacker on really good teams by fanatically staying in the best imaginable shape, which is the other fascinating part of Romo's story. It's largely why teammate Frank Middleton calls Romanowski, "probably the most unusual person I've met in my life."
Romanowski sometimes travels with a portable hyperbaric chamber that allows him to take oxygen under high pressure. He reportedly took his personal trainer along on his honeymoon. He carries so many diet supplements that he has a tackle box the size of a suitcase (and in 2000 was acquitted of fraudulently acquiring prescription diet pills).
Teammates either marvel or laugh at the water filters and machines that are delivered to Romanowski. He has body massages almost every day, tells his teammates about cell repair, has given them cream to loosen up ligaments before games, and uses machines that will supposedly help fractures heal faster. All this stuff, plus the chiropractors, personal therapists and acupuncturists who sometimes have to be flown in, is said to cost more than $100,000 a year. And it has prompted Jerry Rice, who is older and in better shape than Romo, to say, "You look at some of that stuff and you just have to laugh."
While talking to reporters every day this week, Romo has also been drinking a gallon of water -- he drinks up to two gallons per day -- that had been purified and ionized by a special device in his hotel room. On Thursday he told of testing his own urine and sending a -- I want to be delicate here -- a stool sample to a place called the "Great Smokies Laboratory" to be tested. Why? "You can tell what kinds of bacterias are in you, what kind of deficiencies you have."
"Drinking coffee" is one of his few bad habits, maybe french fries every few years. He'd rather take shark cartilage, which he does. And when asked how many pills he downs on a normal day, Romo answered, "About 100." But he also could be the only NFL player who in late January, when asked what on him hurts, could answer, "Nothing. But I've got a high tolerance for pain. You put my body on a normal Joe and he'd probably be hobblin'."
"I do so many different things," Romanowski said, "that I don't know exactly what each one does so I just do 'em all and it works."
Harris adds: "Man, I still think that stuff is crazy. I want to know, does that stuff work? But I've changed my diet because of Romo. And I'm going to do his training regimen in the offseason, too. Look at the shape the guy is in. He'll say to me, 'Nap, I'm faster than you.' And I'll say, 'Bill, don't start talking that stuff.' " But what every Raider and every Buccaneer knows is that Romanowski will have himself as thoroughly prepared as anyone who plays in Super Bowl XXXVII. And they'll know that some of his relentlessness, nastiness and championship determination will have rubbed off not just on a rookie such as Harris, but probably everybody on the Raiders' defense. There are a whole lot of folks who don't like Romanowski, but only a fool would suggest he's less than a winner. His credentials are indisputable, and come Sunday night could be further enhanced. "I just knew I belonged here," Romo said of joining the Raiders this season. "Sometimes in your life, you just get a feeling and I acted on that feeling." Asked if he wears any of his championship rings, Romanowski said, "I didn't bring one with me; I'm hoping to win another one."
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