The man heralded as “Pro Football’s Dirtiest Player” has died at 72. Conrad Dobler was often described with words like “filthy,” “mean,” and, of course, “dirty.” Conrad was a household name in the 70s. My father, who saw the man destroy people on the field himself, told me about Dobler’s passing. Thanks, dad!
Dobler is one giant dichotomy, with a bit of hypocrisy and a solid commitment to his honor code. Conrad has a reputation that is a little exaggerated and mostly earned. The media is often good at creating a narrative or character for a person but usually doesn’t capture the entire essence of a person. I won’t pretend to do that, but in honor of his legacy, it feels important to acknowledge him as a complex individual.
Conrad Dobler was born on October 1st, 1950, in Chicago, IL, to parents John and Clara. Conrad had six siblings. Dobler’s brothers and sisters have confirmed that he was the meanest kid in the family. A sister described him as mean, ornery, and a show-off. So flattering! Conrad’s parents had kinder words – “Big John,” the boxer, would tell a story about when his son escorted his mother to the hospital after she fainted. Mrs. Dobler described Conrad as compassionate and eager.
The compliments roll on. Conrad described his mother as a control freak (it’s where he got it from, he says). She was also physically strong – he said she would drive her milk truck pregnant. Ms. Clara was born to Polish Immigrants in a family of 14. Mrs. Dopler was a cook in Chicago and served Al Capone and other organized crime members – they enjoyed her authentic Polish food immensely.
The family then moved to Arizona and then again to Twentynine Palms, CA. If you haven’t heard of it, no one else has either. Dobler went to a Catholic grammar school with seven other students. Conrad didn’t do any sports until high school – his parents had him using all of his free time to work before. But to fit in, he became a multi-sport athlete in high school.
Pro Football’s Dirtiest Player was forming as soon as he played sports – he has had a bit of a reputation on the field since ever. Dobler was an all-league running back, receiving scholarship offers from many colleges. He ended up choosing the University of Wyoming. After all, the Wyoming Cowboys were king of the WAC.
Conrad Dobler would attend the University of Wyoming in 1968. At that point, Conrad switched to a new position – offensive tackle. Dobler switched again to defensive tackle his senior year and became defensive MVP. He received academic honors, as well.
Conrad attended the University of Wyoming during a problematic time in the University’s history. They never had a strong win-loss record in those four years, and Dobler’s career was shrouded in the team’s controversy caused by Coach Lloyd Eaton.
Just before the midpoint of the season of 1969, African American team members went to coach Eaton. They requested permission to wear black armbands over their uniform during their upcoming game against BYU. African American players were subjected to racist slurs at the BYU game the prior year. In response to that and to the LDS church’s continued opposition to allowing African American men to become priesthood members, the players wanted to wear armbands.
Eaton said they were not allowed to protest in any way. The day before the game, 14 African American players went to Eaton’s office with black armbands on. He fired them all off the team. Eaton claimed he listened to them and then fired them; the players say that Coach Lloyd had sneered, yelled, and used racial slurs.
The majority of Wyoming supported the coach and was upset at the 14 men for not “being grateful” for the opportunity Wyoming had offered them. A confusing concept to me. The team needed the players as much, or more than the players needed the team. They should feel no more gratitude than any other contributing member of the team and should not be expected to take racism on the chin with no response. Fans should be grateful that the football players were willing to play, even after such an awful experience at BYU.
Conrad Dobler said, “My stance on it was, let them wear the damn things.” Conrad pointed this out as the beginning of the team’s demise. He also mentioned that no African Americans would play for the team after that, which was a significant loss to the team. The team’s win-loss record careened downwards for the rest of Dobler’s career. Thankfully, the NFL still noticed him despite Coach Eaton.
Conrad was so sure he wouldn’t be in the NFL that a reporter broke the news in a call, letting him know that he had been drafted as a 5th-round pick, 110 overall. Dobler thought he was joking, saying the St Louis Cardinals were a baseball team. Soon after, he was off to the Cardinals training camp. Conrad was cut from the team at the end of the preseason.
Dobler fell back to his initial plan to begin a teaching career. Until… he got a call from the Cardinals asking if he would come back – there was an injury, and they wanted him to fill in. Back to St Louis he went. Conrad’s line coach said you would have to kill Dobler to take his spot. Having been rejected so early created a spirit in Conrad to do everything he had to do to maintain his position. He felt like an underdog, coming from such an obscure school. Something he said made him vindictive.
Conrad Dobler had an incredible career in the NFL. He was a pro bowler three years in a row, beginning in 1975, and was a critical member of one of the greatest O-lines of all time. In 1975, the offensive line only allowed eight sacks the entire year – a record in the League at the time. The Cardinals won the NFC Eastern Division Championship game in 1974 and 1975.
Dobler played for the Cardinals from 1972-1977, the Saints from 1978-1979, and the Bills from 1980-1981. A contract dispute resulted in the Cardinals trading Conrad to the Saints. Injuries were catching up to Conrad – his knee injuries kept him off the field for much of 1978. Dobler more than made up for it in the 1979 season. Regardless, Conrad was traded to the Buffalo Bills in 1980. The head coach sought a veteran’s presence for a young, rebuilding team. Say what you will about Dobler, but every team had a better win-loss record while he was on their team.
Pro Football’s Dirtiest Player hung up the cleats after the 1981 season at age 31. Conrad had played 129 games and started for 125 of them. The three-time pro bowler had also participated in four post-seasons in his career. Dobler had an impressively long career for playing such a hard-hitting position – 10 years. His injuries were catching up to him.
Pro Football’s Dirtiest Player – why the reputation?
A well-written article about Conrad Dobler would be incomplete without discussing his approach to playing the game. There are few pictures of Conrad sinning; he took full advantage of the lower-tech football world. He advised everyone that keeping their hands inside their chest was the best way to hide rule-breaking behavior from the referees. It would have been a sight to behold to see him in action. Although not exhaustive, some of Dobler’s dirty behavior were: holding, spitting, eye-gouging, tripping, leg whipping, biting, face mask twisting, head-slapping, and hooking.
The best quote describing playing against Conrad is: “What you need when you play against Dobler is a string of garlic buds around your neck and a wooden stake. If they played every game under a full moon, Dobler would make All-Pro. He must be the only guy in the league who sleeps in a casket.”
Pro football’s dirtiest player has some infamous injuries that have gone down in history. Dobler had this to say when addressing the biting rumor “I only bit one guy: Doug Sutherland of the Minnesota Vikings. He put his fingers through my face mask, and I don’t think they were there to stroke my mustache. So I bite one finger in my life, and I don’t even chew on it. The legend grew from there. It’s almost like I’m worse than Jeffrey Dahmer.”
Players did say they would need to be up to date on their rabies shots before they played against Conrad. A teammate contradicted his one-bite claim – Dobler allegedly bit a defensive men’s ankle in a dog pile, leaving the man crying hysterically. This was after he dropped the man to the ground with several well-aimed punches to the solar plexus. One of Conrad’s favorite moves. Dobler also punched Mean Joe Greene, spit on an injured player down on the field, hyperextended an opponent’s shoulder intentionally, and then there was Merlin Olsen…
As Conrad said, Merlin Olsen was knocked out so badly you would need to check the kitchen for an instant replay because he had knocked him out of the TV frame. Merlin never forgave him for kicking him in the head like that. Dobler has also defended himself against other claims, saying he is not a tripper but an attempted tripper. Teammates have also accused him of being an armpit hair twister and a throat hitter – as Conrad reminded us, there’s no padding there. Dobler was even accused of using plaster casts on his arms as weapons.
When confronted with his reputation, Dobler felt the criticism was unfair. He thought he didn’t break the rules any more than anyone else, or he would get caught more (refer back to his tip on not being seen by referees). Conrad also offers that rules are meant to be broken, and if you break them, you should do so with style and class. His holds were always “on accident,” yet he would share tutorials on how to correctly “hook” someone.
Conrad felt strongly that although he played mean and nasty and had little empathy for the victims of his physical play, he made it clear that he didn’t hurt people for the sake of hurting people. Dobler focused on playing hard, not injuring his opponents. He felt the NFL was not a game; it was survival – he did what he had to do to survive. This made it fair.
Dobler allegedly was a sensitive guy – when he hurt a friend’s feelings, he was less likely to get over it than his friend. Conrad may have used his “Pro Football’s Dirtiest Player” title to intimidate opponents, but he was softer than he cared to be. He expressed concern about going soft physically after getting to know players at Pro Bowls and growing to like them. This comes from someone a reporter described as having the “antisocial instincts of a treed gorilla.”
Conrad Dobler personal life
Dobler was a bit of a ladies’ man back in the day, bragging about dating a “sorority girl.” Conrad was a womanizer, smoker, and drinker back in his hay day – he was a great entertainer specializing in magic tricks. Allegedly, Dobler punctured a stewardess’s lung after a particularly rowdy night. Conrad had married his first wife, Linda, in the 70s, but they would divorce. Conrad had three children with Linda: Abbey, Erin, and Mark.
Mark Dobler, born in 1970, defended his father when kids would taunt him at school. He was able to differentiate his dad from the player on the field, telling people his dad was just doing his job. Linda was concerned that Conrad’s reputation would upset Mark, but that never seemed to be an issue. Conrad’s mother wasn’t worried one bit – one referee once told her son was intelligent and played with finesse, which was good enough for her. The other stuff was good for bringing people to the stadium, so it was fine with her.
Conrad was struggling physically. By age 26, he had graying hair, walked with a limp due to arthritis in his knees, and told people he had the bones of a 65-year-old. That was only halfway through his career. Things definitely did not get better.
The best retirement days were early on for Conrad. He was hired to do Miller Lite commercials with many other celebrities – they were hits. He also met the love of his life, Joy, in 1985. As most love stories begin, Joy and Conrad met on the streets of New Orleans. Conrad was in an overcrowded bar, and Joy was standing outside it. Dobler got his soon-to-be wife in the bar and gave her a dead flower (Conrad swears it was just a little old). There’s no love like New Orleans love – things are a little different down here in the Big Easy.
Dobler has described his wife Joy as the only positive influence he has ever had in his life (I bet he didn’t say that where his mother could hear him). Joy captured his heart and was a permanently positive beacon in the storm that exists in the Dobler household. Somehow Joy’s optimism mixed with Conrad’s extreme pessimism, his gruff nature not bothering her in the slightest. The love birds had three children, Franco, Holli, and Stephen, making Dobler a proud father of six.
In 2001, Joy fell from a hammock a few feet at a family barbeque. She fell in such a way that she broke her neck and became a paraplegic. This didn’t shake Joy’s optimism ever. She was always confident she would walk again and had daily therapy to achieve that goal. Mrs. Dobler also became a mother figure to other spinal injury patients at her rehab. She counseled newly disabled individuals and was a strong activist for scientific research on spinal cord injuries. Joy was always grateful this happened to her and not her husband or the children; she knew she could handle it.
The Doblers ran medical businesses: Superior Healthcare Staffing and another business that provided flu shots. Conrad has also dabbled in other ventures – he owned a warehouse that he mostly rented out and allowed a cell phone company to build a tower around the building for more cash. He was an entrepreneur through and through and was creative with new endeavors – like brokering a deal between a distributor and a local Italian restaurant’s pasta sauce.
The couple racked up an incredible amount of medical bills together. As Conrad says, Walmart Greeters have better health insurance benefits than former football players. Dobler was denied benefits from the NFL retirement board. He felt betrayed… he gave his all to football and believed they would help him when his body gave out. The Doblers downsized out of Joy’s dream home and sold most of their assets, floundering as business owners during the 2008 recession. The couple had escalating debts and maxed out credit cards.
In a beautiful moment of kindness, Phil Mickelson, the PGA Tour Golfer, saw a piece on the Dobler’s struggles in life on ESPN – he offered to pay for the couple’s two youngest children to attend college, no strings attached. It brought Conrad to tears. He said he would paint Mickelson’s house if he could get up a ladder. Dobler was also known for paying it forward from time to time – Pro Football’s Dirtiest Player cooked for charity auctions and visited a friend with bone cancer for a week, making meals.
Conrad Dobler perceived most “modern-day” football players as idiots and felons (his words), claiming an NFL player who hit another with his helmet was “criminal.” The irony is obvious; Dobler’s opponents would have preferred a helmet to the head versus what they actually got. Conrad seemingly was able to justify or forget his problematic behaviors when criticizing the players of today, who he felt were not operating on a moral code like he was. Perception is in the eye of the beholder.
Dobler’s rants are likely in part fueled by his Vicodin usage. A medicine that sedates most people hyped Conrad up. He’d tried Percocet and OxyContin but decided Vicodin was it. Four large doses were part of the daily routine, the only way Dobler could make it up and down the three stairs outside his business. He was 90% disabled at the point, working 12 hours a day, seven days a week, and was Joy’s primary caretaker.
Stress was high in Conrad’s life. At age 60, his children described him as mentally unstable, and psychologists said he was depressed, had life-ending ideations, and was in danger of losing control. He pointed to his life circumstances and asked who wouldn’t be.
By 2020, Dobler had 30 knee surgeries and 10 knee replacements. Three on his left knee and seven on his right knee in 2006 due to a staph infection, nearly costing him his leg. Walking with a cane helped in the short term, but as of 2010, he couldn’t continue to do so because it was too painful – his shoulders needed to be replaced as well, but they could not afford it. Conrad was unable to get off of a church pew alone since 2007 – requiring multiple people to hoist him up.
During his playing career, Conrad said, “Yeah, I’ll get mine someday, but when I do, I’ll take my portion plus some.” Prophetic. Pictures of Dobler’s knees are available online, but they felt too disturbing to share. They were once described as looking like mishappen melons in a supermarket discount bin – that may have been too kind. Conrad’s knees felt more graphic than the photo of a successful eye-gouging on the football field. If you are brave enough to google them, don’t say you were not warned.
The end of Dobler’s retirement
In 2016, Dobler did an entire interview regarding his memory loss that was tied to his 10-year football career, showing symptoms of neurocognitive decline. He lamented over the loss of what was once a great memory. As a child, Conrad could commit a long food distribution order to memory that his father only said once. He doubted he could even remember where to find the business truck at 66. He also couldn’t remember his children’s names. Memory loss came in handy on the golf course; Conrad often forgot his number of strokes, always underestimating that particular number.
In 2018, Joy Dobler passed away.
As of 2020, Conrad was still fighting for his legs – when a doctor asked him why not amputate his knee before an additional surgery, Dobler responded by asking why the doctor didn’t go screw himself. Pro Football’s Dirtiest Player died with both of his legs on February 13th of 2023 at age 72.
Dobler’s family is donating Conrad’s brain to CTE research. Dobler’s children, Stephen and Holli, will not release a cause of death until his brain has been studied. They are also donating parts of his spinal cord and other tissues to scientific research. Stephen reports that his father felt strongly about donating his brain for the sake of future players.
His children also point out that he doesn’t regret playing football and that it provided him the opportunity he may not have had otherwise. To which I say, who would want to admit that they regret their career publicly, their contribution to the world – a key part of their identity? This is not an unpopular sentiment – but when you see former players would not want their sons and grandsons to play, that speaks loudly.
Holli indicates that her father experienced progressively worse memory loss, decision-making, and ability to make day-to-day life decisions in the last five years of his life. However, the symptoms associated with earlier stages of CTE that are less obvious could have been present. Full-blown dementia, for example, is only associated with stage 4 CTE – the first time family members may truly notice the memory loss that was less obvious in stages 1-3.
How does Conrad Dobler want us to remember him? “I want people to know I was the very best. I want them to know I was a player of ability. I made teams good. And when I left them, they became losers again.” We will, Dobler, we will. We also will remember the sacrifices, both of body and mind, that you made in the name of football. We will not forget the selfless donation of your brain to scientific research that will benefit future players.
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