Years ago, Bill Romanowski came to work early. There were preparations to be made, advantages to pursue, corners to be cut.
The longtime NFL linebacker bent some rules and broke others, and now that he has been retired for nearly a decade, he has no problem admitting it. The hours he spent tailoring his jersey, carefully applying forbidden substances to his uniform, and ingesting a chemical just because it made him stink? All in the name of winning, he said.
“In my mind, you’re just always pushing to get an edge,” said Romanowski, 46, who played for four teams over 16 seasons before retiring in 2003. “Always.”
Over the past week, the San Diego Chargers faced criticism and a review by the NFL that is continuing, league spokesman Greg Aiello said, because of allegations that the team used banned equipment. It was first reported that the Chargers allegedly used “Stickum” or some other prohibited sticky substance in a loss nearly two weeks ago to the Denver Broncos.
Chargers Coach Norv Turner later said the league was examining the use of a non-league-issued towel; NFL rules allow only towels provided by the league. No adhesive or slippery substance may be used or applied to uniforms.
Romanowski said no one would give a second thought to Stickum or towels if they knew how many times he tested the rules or flagrantly broke them. The measures some NFL players take to gain an edge can be surprising, amusing and disgusting, he said.
During his playing days, Romanowski reported to the stadium at least four hours before kickoff, long before most teammates entered the locker room. He wore his pads so tight, in an effort to prevent blockers from holding him, that it took three equipment workers to help him into them. He cut a flap into his jersey and taped down the fabric so that offensive linemen couldn’t grip his shoulder.
Those measures weren’t against the rules. After he was in uniform, however, Romanowski began the second, more illicit phase of his preparation. Romanowski said he spent an hour or more using a Q-tip to carefully apply silicone to his gloves for added grip, and Vaseline to his jersey and pants so that blockers would hit the grease and slide off. Enough to make an impact, but not so much that officials would notice.
“I was so detailed about how I put it on,” he said, “that they couldn’t get me.”
When Romanowski was beginning his career with the San Francisco 49ers, the team’s medical staff provided players with the anti-inflammatory medication dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO) to ease swollen joints and tired muscles. The NFL doesn’t ban DMSO, but the chemical does come with a noticeable side effect: Even in small doses, it causes bad breath and body odor. Of course Romanowski saw this as a potential advantage and said he took the substance intravenously. If his breath was bad enough, he said, maybe a blocker would be tentative when it came time to engage him.
“Little distractions, you know?” he said.
It evidently was so effective that, when Romanowski moved on to Denver, Philadelphia and Oakland, he found the product, commonly used on racehorses, at veterinary supply stores. He said that a hotel once threatened to force the Oakland Raiders to pay for new carpeting, curtains and bedding in Romanowski’s room because the linebacker hadn’t left the odor at the field.
“I took it, at times, a little too far,” said Romanowski, who also has admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs throughout his NFL career.
At some point, athletes at any level approach a crossroads where interesting decisions must be made. To use chemical assistance or not? Try herbal cures or acupuncture or home remedies to soothe the pain — or give way to something much stronger? Or to be one of those guys that many teams have; someone who has no problem gouging, punching, grabbing or pulling at the bottom of a pile.
“It’s a nasty game,” Washington Redskins linebacker Lorenzo Alexander said, “once you get up underneath there.”
Shaun Smith, who played defensive line for five NFL teams, admitted in an interview this week that he examined injury reports to find opponents’ weaknesses. Although the league has emphasized player safety in recent years, the reality is occasionally harsher for those who wear the pads. Smith said, for example, that if he were playing this week against the Jacksonville Jaguars, whose quarterback, Blaine Gabbert, is protecting an injured shoulder, Smith would target that shoulder and try to drive Gabbert into the ground.
“That’s just how I think about it,” Smith said. “. . . Just the way I was raised on sports.”
That’s not all, though. In 2010, Smith was fined $10,000 — a fine dropped on appeal — for “inappropriate touching” of a 49ers offensive lineman’s genitals.
Two years later, Smith neither admitted nor exactly denied reaching for an edge, or anything else. But Smith said that an opponent doesn’t focus on his job if he’s preoccupied with protecting parts of his body or exacting revenge.
“I learned this a long time ago: If I can do anything to get in your head, I’m going to do it,” Smith said. “And if I can get away with it, why not?”
Earlier in 2010, another player had accused Smith of reaching for the same body parts.
“You’re going to keep doing it till you get caught,” he said.
That was Romanowski’s philosophy, too. He said he never was caught, so he kept challenging the rules. After his marathon pregame sessions, the time came each Sunday to be inspected by officials. Had they discovered any illegal substance on his uniform, Romanowski’s team could have been heavily fined and his employment jeopardized.
He was careful, however, and officials’ eyes moved right past him. Then Romanowski went to work, putting all those advantages to the test, along with a few more. Romanowski admitted to grabbing and gouging — and even spitting in former NFL wide receiver J.J. Stokes’s face.
Anything for an edge. Romanowski’s only regret was that Stokes didn’t retaliate.
“If I could . . . get him to where he wanted to come after me instead of worrying about catching the football or blocking,” Romanowski said, “I knew I won the game within the game.”
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