By dumb luck we have caught Bill Romanowski between workouts.
Already this morning Romanowski, a Denver Broncos outside
linebacker, has spent three hours on a track, refining his
sprint mechanics, and 30 minutes working out in the deep end of
a pool--all under the watchful eye of Randy Huntington, his
high-performance coach. Soon Romanowski will begin a three-hour
weightlifting session, so now is our chance to make small talk.
Banner headlines in the morning papers blared the news: JUDGE
THROWS OUT SEXUAL HARASSMENT SUIT AGAINST PRESIDENT. But
politics and Paula Jones leave Romo cold. If you want to see him
come alive, bring up zinc.
"Zinc is our most anabolic mineral," says Romanowski, who takes
25 milligrams of it, along with 400 milligrams of magnesium,
each night. Why zinc? "If your zinc levels are low," he says
ominously, "you'll have low levels of testosterone." He provides
SI with a scoop of dubious provenance: "Seventy percent of pro
athletes are deficient in zinc"--ergo, in testosterone. Not
Romo. "I get my blood and urine tested every three months," he
says. "I want to make sure my minerals are in balance."
They are. The same can't always be said of his emotions. When he
committed the disgusting act that threatened to define his
career--recall, if you will, Romanowski spitting in the face of
San Francisco 49ers wideout J.J. Stokes during a Dec. 15 game on
national TV--it was not the first time he had, psychologically
speaking, gone through the guardrail and over the cliff. Three
years ago he was ejected from a game against the Arizona
Cardinals for repeatedly kicking running back Larry Centers in
"Romo gets so geeked up on game days, you can't even talk to
him," says Broncos guard David Diaz-Infante. Indeed, the
obsessive drive that has enabled Romanowski to start on three
Super Bowl champions and to play 10 years without missing a game
is also what transformed him for a couple of weeks last season
into one of the most reviled athletes on the planet. He ingests
more powders and pills than Jerry Garcia in his prime (chart,
page 61), and he employs not only his aforementioned
high-performance coach but also a nutritionist, a biomechanics
guru and a massage therapist. To see him on game day is to
suspect that a shrink might not be a bad idea, either.
To set the stage for Spitgate: Denver had just suffered a
humiliating defeat at the hands of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and
Romanowski had made only two tackles in the game. Up next on
Monday Night Football were the 49ers, who had traded away Romo
four years earlier. "I couldn't wait to play 'em," says
Romanowski, an Olympic-class grudge-bearer who, nine-plus years
after having been selected by the Niners in the third round of
the draft, was still going out of his way--a fist in the larynx
here, a knee in the lumbar region there--to punish teams that
had chosen a linebacker ahead of him.
So, yeah, he was a little excited about that Monday-nighter,
which would turn out to be another Broncos loss. Niners
quarterback Steve Young got the message in the third quarter
when Romo hit him after a whistle and was flagged for
unnecessary roughness. Then, three plays later, there was poor
Stokes, woofing at Romanowski after the two emerged from a
pileup. Whereupon Stokes got it flush in the face: The Loogie
Seen Round the World.
The next days were dark times for the Romanowskis. A Denver
newspaper columnist wondered what kind of example Bill was
setting for his children: Dalton, who was then three, and
Alexandra, eight months. "I just felt bad for my mom and my dad,
my wife, my brother and sisters," says Bill. "To cause them
embarrassment, it hurt me."
"I felt bad for Bill," says Julie, Romo's wife of five years.
"When you love somebody, you want to protect him. To see him
hurting and not be able to fix it was difficult for me."
Romanowski downplayed the incident for about 24 hours, telling
reporters it was just something that happens "in the heat of
battle." Soon enough he realized that response wasn't going to
cut it, and on Wednesday morning he issued an apology. Although
no one has ever accused Romanowski of being racist, he had spit
in the face of a black opponent two weeks after the Golden State
Warriors' Latrell Sprewell, who is black, massaged the throat of
his coach, P.J. Carlesimo, who is white. With a generous boost
from sports-talk radio, Romo's act took on a life of its own,
and it threatened to divide the Denver locker room.
On the day Romanowski issued his apology, Broncos players and
coaches met for 45 minutes to discuss the spitting incident.
Quarterback John Elway effectively put the matter to rest when
he stood and said, "This guy's done everything but get down on
his knees. Let's put this behind us and go out and play some
The Broncos did. Having played themselves out of a first-round
bye with the losses to the Steelers and the 49ers, they
proceeded to run the table in the playoffs and finished off
their streak with a Super Bowl defeat of the Green Bay Packers.
Romo, singed by fallout from the Stokes incident, kept his mouth
shut and played football.
Or so he might have been expected to do. But there he was in the
AFC Championship Game against Pittsburgh, calling Kordell
Stewart a "dumb s---" after the Steelers' young quarterback,
facing second-and-goal on the Denver five with Pittsburgh
trailing 24-14 in the third quarter, forced a pass into the end
zone that was intercepted by Broncos middle linebacker Allen
"He's like the crafty catcher who's asking you about your
girlfriend as soon as you step into the batter's box," Denver
defensive coordinator Greg Robinson says of Romanowski. At the
Super Bowl, Romo made a point of looking up fellow Boston
College alumnus Mark Chmura, now the Packers' Pro Bowl tight
end, and telling him, "You're the biggest idiot that ever came
out of Boston College. I'm insulted that we could have gone to
the same school."
Chmura's reaction? "He said, 'Romanowski, I'm gonna kill you,'"
Romo recalls with a grin. "That's when I knew I'd gotten into
Not that you'll find a Mensa membership card in Romanowski's
wallet. Says Julie when a visitor compliments Dalton's
vocabulary, "Thank god he got my brains." She's kidding, we
think, as was the former Boston College player who says, "If
Chmura is the dumbest guy to come through BC, it's because he
beat Romo in a photo finish."
Romanowski was at least smart enough to fill the five-week
interval between Spitgate and the Super Bowl with earnest
apologies for the former. The acts of contrition paid off. By
the time the title game rolled around, public opinion had
shifted. Yes, he was a jerk, but he was the kind of jerk you
wanted on your team. Gone, for the most part, was the
vilification that followed his great expectoration, a
particularly inspired example of which appeared under the byline
of San Francisco Chronicle columnist Tim Keown, who wrote that
without football, Romanowski would be "sitting on the steps of a
trailer somewhere, whittling away and trying to figure out how
his overalls got stuck in that tree. He'd be saving up for some
naked-lady mud flaps."
Without football Romanowski would more likely be milking cows on
his family's dairy farm in Vernon, Conn. At BC, where he was a
four-year starter, he amused teammates with his stories of life
on the farm. One of his favorites: Despite the fairly complex
network of chutes and retractable gates through which the cows
had to pass before milking, "there was this one cow, Number 48,
that was always first," says Romo.
Listening to him tell the story, you realize that Number 53
relates to Number 48. Like the cow, he is determined to be
first, regardless of whom he offends. When Jerry Rice came his
way on a reverse during training camp in 1989, Romo, then in his
second season with the 49ers, fought off a block and, he recalls
with a grin, "knocked the crap out of" the future Hall of Fame
wideout. For this blatant breach of an unwritten rule--no one
hits Number 80 in practice--Romanowski immediately found himself
in a fistfight with the offensive line. "When I take the
practice field," he says, "I give it everything I have."
This gung-ho attitude led Romo, in subsequent training camps,
into more run-ins with Rice, whom Broncos coach Mike Shanahan
calls the one NFL player whose off-season regimen is a match for
Romanowski's. Despite their rocky relationship, Rice and Romo
have quite a bit in common--including, according to recent
reports, an affinity for deep-tissue massage.
Romanowski's trade to the Philadelphia Eagles on draft day in
1994 was accompanied by whispers from 49ers executives that he
had lost a step. Romo agreed. "Watching myself on film," he
says, "it seemed like I wasn't running as fast as I did when I
He hooked up with Remi Korchemny, a former speed coach for the
Soviet track team, who deconstructed his stride and then put it
back together. "I was amazed at the gains I made in strength and
speed," says Romanowski, who went on to have two fine seasons
with the Eagles. In November 1995, after a Philadelphia win over
a Denver team that would finish the season ranked 15th in the
league in total defense and 23rd against the run, Romanowski ran
into Shanahan on the field at Veterans Stadium. "You're playing
great," Shanahan told Romo, who was soon to be a free agent.
"Let's talk after the season."
At the time the Broncos were weak at linebacker, recalls
Shanahan, a detail-sweating, micromanaging type who, according
to one Denver executive, "wants to control everything but the
bounce of the ball." Shanahan values reliability, discipline and
character. Signing Romanowski, a so-so pass rusher whose
strengths are stuffing the run, blowing up screens and
smothering tight ends in pass coverage, was a no-brainer.
With Romo installed at strongside linebacker, Denver's defense
in '96 improved to fourth overall and first against the run, and
Romanowski was selected to his first Pro Bowl. Another milestone
followed six months later, when he missed an exhibition game.
The previous spring Romanowski had undergone surgery to repair a
tendon in his right knee. Despite exhaustive Romo-esque
rehabbing, the joint began to bother him in training camp.
Dissatisfied with the answers he was getting from the team's
trainers, he consulted Greg Roskopf, a biomechanics expert from
Fresno, Calif., who was under contract with the organization.
Roskopf noticed that Romo lacked normal range of motion
in--don't laugh--his right big toe.
It turned out that this seemingly minor podiatric problem was
forcing Romanowski to favor the inside of his right foot, thus
straining the outside of the knee. Roskopf worked some
flexibility back into the toe, and the knee felt better. Romo
was sold. Roskopf has been on call ever since. "We're so
ingrained to treat symptoms," Roskopf said recently as he
kneaded Romo's left buttock, in which he had detected some
tightness. "Sometimes we fail to look at the root cause of
Said Romanowski, prone on a table, "Before I met Greg, I was a
biomechanical wreck." He's in a massage room at the Golden,
Colo., offices of Experimental & Applied Sciences (EAS), which
makes many of the nutritional supplements that Romanowski
ingests daily. Romo is so convincing an evangelist for EAS that
he says he has converted three quarters of the Broncos to the
company's products. He has also turned some of his teammates on
to Roskopf and Huntington, his high-performance coach.
Huntington is presiding over this afternoon's weight-training
session, which is being enlivened by the drawled smack of
Denver's backup quarterback, Bubby Brister. Romanowski is
working on the machine with which Brister just finished, an
evil-looking apparatus called the Shuttle MVP. During his set
Brister got the needle up to 90. "What'd the birthday boy do?"
he inquires about Romo, who turns 32 this day. "Did he get 90?"
"Eighty-eight," Romanowski replies.
"Well, get 90, or no beer for you tonight!" says Brister,
conveniently ignoring the fact that Romanowski was working
against roughly twice the resistance he had. Brister, who's 35
and in just his second week of Romanowski's regimen--four times
a week on the track, six times a week in the weight room, for an
average of six hours a day--is sore but excited about the
strides he has already made in speed and strength. "Romo's on to
something," he says. "I might just play till I'm 40."
"It's easy to work with Bill," says Huntington, who has coached
Wayne Gretzky and Mike Powell, among others. "You've got to hold
him back. After the Super Bowl I told him to take a month off.
After three weeks he couldn't take it anymore."
The widely held notion around Denver, where Romanowski is far
more popular than he was in Philly or the Bay Area, is that he's
a throwback player, a link to a bygone era--a notion he does
nothing to discourage. Rather than express regret over breaking
the jaw of Carolina Panthers quarterback Kerry Collins with a
helmet-to-head hit in a preseason game last August, for which
the league fined him $20,000, Romo waxed nostalgic about it
during the playoffs. In the days of Nitschke and Butkus, he
said, "everything went. They didn't get fined $20,000 for
hitting a quarterback hard. They got a pat on the back."
Throwback? Yes and no. Something tells us none of the 1967
Packers flew to California four times a year to make sure their
minerals were in balance or spent in the neighborhood of
$100,000 annually, as Romanowski does, on pills and powders and
to pay his battalion of helpers.
Nor, we suspect, did Ray Nitschke go home after a tough day at
the office and serenade his family on the guitar, as Romo does.
"It's a great way for him to relax," says Julie. "His job is so
high-pressure." On the evening of his 32nd birthday, Bill and
Julie treated a visitor to a duet of Eric Clapton's Wonderful
Tonight. They hit few false notes.
That unexpected performance was no more surreal than those that
take place when the Lemieuxs drop by. Claude Lemieux, a right
wing for the Colorado Avalanche, and his wife, Deborah, are
close friends of the Romanowskis. It is easy to see why Bill and
Claude were drawn to each other: As one of the most hated
players in his league, Lemieux is the NHL equivalent of
Romanowski. Learning that they hang out together is like
discovering that Muammar Gaddafi and Radovan Karadzic share a
villa in Tuscany. Do Claude and Bill talk shop--trading secrets,
perhaps, about how to bite one's opponent and get away with
it--over brandy and cigars? As far as we know, no. Says Julie,
"Bill plays guitar, and Claude sings along."
The Avalanche were on the road, so the Lemieuxs could not attend
Romo's birthday celebration. Instead, Bill and Julie met some
teammates and their wives--plus Huntington and Roskopf--at a
steak house. In deference to the occasion, Huntington pushed the
next morning's workout back from 8 to 10:30.
Appearing at the party was Denver wideout Ed McCaffrey, a recent
conscript to Romo's regimen who had missed that day's sessions
to preside over his son's play group, for which Brister savaged
him mercilessly. While McCaffrey defended himself, his wife,
Lisa, provided the evening's highlight when she read a
hilariously bawdy poem about Romanowski that she had written.
After taking a number of deliciously cruel potshots at an array
of characters, including Collins, Stewart, Romo and Julie, the
unofficial Bard of the Broncos wrapped up her presentation with
a sincere sentiment shared by a city still glowing from its
first NFL title:
All kidding aside, today's a great day.
We're psyched you've moved here
and hope you will stay.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JEFFREY LOWE [Bill Romanowski with pills and powders on glass table]
COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO TAKEDOWN Romanowski, acquired to harden Denver's rushing D, nailed Dorsey Levens with one of his five Super Bowl tackles. [Bill Romanowski tackling Dorsey Levens]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JEFFREY LOWE [Bill Romanowski doing leg press]
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID GONZALES/RICH CLARKSON & ASSOCIATES ON TOP OF THE WORLD Bill and Julie were riding high after the Broncos rolled to their first NFL championship. [Bill Romanowski and Julie Romanowski in bus window]
ALL IN A DAY'S WORK
Yes, he pops lots of pills and he works out rigorously, but in
10 NFL seasons, Bill Romanowski has 914 tackles and zero games
missed. Maybe he's on to something. Here's a look at Romo's
daily intake of nutritional supplements.
--50 mg coenzyme Q10: Helps the body produce energy.
--1,000 mg vitamin C: A powerful antioxidant.
--10 mg vitamin E: May help hard-training athletes maintain a
stronger immune system.
--5 g creatine-monohydrate: Increases body's energy.
--1,800 mg essential fatty acids (EFA): Fats not produced by the
body; helps prevent inflammation.
--1,000 mg beta-hydroxy-beta-methylbutyrate (HMB): An amino acid
metabolite that appears to increase the body's ability to build
muscle and burn fat.
--700 ml protein powder shake with 20 g whey protein powder.
"Try the vanilla," Romo says of the shake.
--800 mg chondroitin sulfate with 1,000 mg glucosamine: Taken
together, or "stacked," as Romo says, this dietary supplement
combination may "strengthen connective tissue and lube the
joints" and "keep 'em feeling good."
--8 g glutamine supplement: An energy producer that helps the
--200 micrograms chromium polynicotinate: Helps regulate blood
--2 mg copper sebacate: May strengthen connective tissue,
ligaments and tendons.
--1,800 mg EFA.
--1,000 mg HMB.
--800 mg chondroitin sulfate with 1,000 mg glucosamine.
--700 ml protein powder shake with 20 g whey protein powder.
--Same as breakfast.
--30 mg zinc monomethionine/aspartate: We wouldn't want to be
testosterone deficient, would we?
--450 mg magnesium aspartate: "Helps me relax," says Romo.
"Romo gets so geeked up on game days, you can't even talk to
him," says Diaz-Infante.
"He's like the catcher who's asking about your girlfriend
as soon as you step into the box," says Robinson.