Thursday, January 23, 2003

SAN DIEGO.— Here comes Raiders ruffian Bill Romanowski with his portable pharmacy, his suitcase-sized tackle box of supplements. Want some help carrying that, Romo? Don’t want you getting a hernia just a few days before the Super Bowl.

Inside the box are big pills and little pills, round pills and oblong pills, white pills and yellow pills each in its own compartment. These aren’t take two and call me in the morning pills, they’re more like take two and go clothesline a tight end pills. By the end of the day, Romanowski will have swallowed more than 30 of them; they help him maintain his edge as, uh, the NFL’s most crazed linebacker.

Every now and then, he checks his watch as if he’s afraid he’ll miss his next dose. On the table before him is a jug of fluid that looks like water except that Romo, the uber-athlete, would never quench his deep-down body thirst with anything as ordinary as water. No, this is an energy and sport drink made by CytoSport (motto: “Driven by Science, Inspired by Performance”). It comes in six delicious flavors, by the way: Tangy Orange, Tropical Fruit, Cool Citrus, Apple, Peachy Keen and Grape.

Romanowski attends to his 6-foot-4, 245-pound body as if it were the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Stretching and lifting weights are just the beginning for him. He’s also worked on by massage therapists, chiropractors, acupuncturists and probably the occasional witch doctor “what you’d call alternative therapies,” he says with a smile.

And let’s not forget the portable hyperbaric chamber he has at home, which pumps oxygen into his body at high pressure and enables him to recover from injuries faster.

“I do so many things, I don’t know how much each of them does for me,” he says. “I just do them.”

It seems a bit much, all this pill-popping and body maintenance, but Romo must be getting some benefit. He has lasted 15 seasons in the NFL and has never missed a game, playing in 240 straight. He even survived a potentially nasty bit of legal business a couple of years ago when he was charged with fraudulently obtaining prescription diet pills. The jury acquitted him, and he happily continued his better football through chemistry ways.

Romanowski was with the Broncos then. Before that, he’d busted heads for the 49ers and Eagles. His renegade nature and general nastiness always seemed better suited to the Raiders, though. And no one was surprised to see him sign with Oakland last offseason after the Broncos gave his job to a younger player.

“I asked the Broncos to release me,” he says, “and five minutes later I phoned Mr. [Al] Davis and left my number. His secretary called me back and said, ‘Mr. Davis thinks you’d look good in silver and black.’”

Of course, Al has always had a weakness for grizzled types, and Romo is about as old-school as it gets. In fact, he almost sounds like he’s channeling Sam Huff when he says, “I play very angry. It’s an all-week process. I don’t like who I’m playing against, and they don’t like me.” And: “This is a violent sport. This is not a friendly game. People make references to war; that’s what the mentality has to be. You’re taught to hit people as hard as you can hit them.”

Sometimes Romanowski has hit people a little too hard for the NFL’s taste. He’s racked up $70,000 in fines over the years for such crimes as breaking Kerry Collins’ jaw and rattling Eddie George’s cranium. Then there was that unfortunate spitting incident involving J.J. Stokes. Must have spent too much time in the hyperbaric chamber that week.

The Raiders love him, though, now that he’s on their side. He’s kind of a Richard Simmons figure in the locker room, constantly reminding his teammates to take better care of their bodies. And on the field, he’s forever inspiring them with his take no prisoners play.

“I was here before Romo got here,” cornerback Tory James says, “and I let everyone know that he is one of the nicest guys off the field. He will help you with everything. I was hurt in 1997 in Denver, and Romo took me under his wing and helped me to get right just by talking to me every day and working out with me. When a guy is hurt, he feels like he’s not a part of the team, but Romo was there for me every day and helped get me over the hump.”

Romanowski is also the Raiders’ foremost authority on Super Bowls. He has four rings from his days with 49ers and Broncos; a fifth would tie him with Charles Haley for the all-time record. “When we won the Super Bowl my first two years in the league [1988-and 89],” he says, “I thought, ‘This is easy.’ But after three NFC Championship game losses and a couple of years in Philly I realized how special it is.”

So when he isn’t gulping down megadoses of vitamins and other concoctions, he’s telling his teammates, “This [Super Bowl] is once in a lifetime. Don’t gauge your thinking by me, because I’m very rare.”

Bill Romanowski, a rare case? I think we all can agree on that.

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