ROMO: MY LIFE ON THE EDGE: LIVING DREAMS AND SLAYING DRAGONS
By Bill Romanowski with Adam Schefter and Phil Towle
William Morrow, $24.95, 314 pages, Illus.
REVIEWED BY A. G. GANCARSKI
The genre of sports memoir, by and large, is not one in which great literature is necessarily found. Its offerings usually are hastily-written, loosely-connected stories, drained of most of their life by time and editing. Just as baseball cards and old newspaper clippings yellow, then fade into dust, stories of former athletes often seem to do the same. A game or a season that seemed not just relevant but vital in the present tense usually means considerably less once time passes.
That extended disclaimer aside, there have been great sports-related autobiographies. The ones that have succeeded and stood the test of time (like those of baseball legends Ted Williams and Sandy Koufax) were characterized by an engaging voice and an ability to parse detail and deal with uncomfortable truths or events. While it remains to be seen if Bill Romanowski’s memoir of his days playing football will be of interest to readers a few decades from now, it should be said that his book, co-written with longtime Denver Broncos beat writer Adam Schefter, shies away from very little. Mr. Romanowski, in “Romo,” deals forthrightly with the trials, tribulations and triumphs of being not simply an NFL linebacker, but one of the best of his generation.
The reader will appreciate the tapestry of detail on display here. Mr. Romanowski, one of the best cheap shot artists and trashtalkers of the modern era, spares no one’s feelings in telling his story. Thus he tells us about stomping then-Giants wideout (and future Denver teammate) Ed McCaffery in the groin at the end of the play, with no remorse whatsoever; in the world of Romo, it is clear, that simply is how the game is played.
Along those lines, current Redskins’ signalcaller Mark Brunell features in the narrative: After Mr. Brunell’s Jaguars upended Mr. Romanowski’s Broncos during the wildcard game of the 1996 playoffs, the flinty-eyed linebacker vowed revenge against #8. The next year, also during the playoffs, Mr. Romanowski delivered his receipts in the form of extralegal hits — and the Jacksonville quarterback caved, reduced to whining to Mr. Romanowski about what a cheap shot artist he was during the game. The Broncos won by 25. And from then on, it was all downhill for Mr. Brunell in Jacksonville, as he was exposed as essentially soft, collapsible in the face of pressure.
The lesson of that anecdote is the lesson of Mr. Romanowski’s career. To attain the pinnacle of professional achievement, an athlete must be willing to go beyond what his competitors will do. So it was that Mr. Romanowski spit in the face of former 49ers passcatcher J. J. Stokes during a game with Denver. And so it was, also, that the linebacker found himself turning to the chemical world for sustenance as the rigors of a career in the NFL wore on his sturdy frame.
“Romo” features an extended and wide-ranging account of the subject’s acquaintance with painkillers, performance-enhancers and other pharmaceutical pick-me-ups, rendered with a detail oddly reminiscent of William Burroughs’ debut novel “Junky.” The drugs, often, are described with a lover’s eye for detail. Whether extolling the “powers of Creatine” or paying tribute to the utility of a dose of Halcyon “every now and then,” it is clear that Mr. Romanowski early on made his peace with the necessity of taking whatever it took to get on that field. In that context, it should not surprise the reader how readily the linebacker embraces, for example, “the secret culture of Phentermine.” Mr. Romanowski understood throughout his career that the business of being an NFL linebacker, at its heart, is deeply existential and opaque from the outside.
The book brims with such existential insights that it should be required reading not just for aspirant athletes but for any of us who understand how dear the price of glory is. “We are all addicted to something … an excuse to justify our endgame,” Mr. Romanowski muses at one point. In this account, it is clear that the linebacker was tormented throughout his career by the inevitability of his obsolescence in the “young man’s game” that is the NFL. He stared into the abyss of his inevitable career eclipse and did whatever it took to maintain his position. If only for an extra game, or maybe for another season. Bill Romanowski may have been a dirty player. He may have taken shortcuts to hold his spot. But he did what he had to do. That’s the American way, and credit goes to Romo for not shying away from it. His body was broken by the NFL. But looking back, he understands that the price was worth it.
A. G. Gancarski is a writer in Jacksonville, Fla.