FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 23, 1988, SPORTS
Copyright 1988/THE TIMES MIRROR COMPANY
He Always Put His Best Leg Forward
Will somebody please hold Merlin Olsen down for a few days? Tie him up if you have to.
It might be a good idea to give every defensive lineman in the area rabies shots. Quarantine the Ram camp.
Conrad Dobler is in town!
You all remember Conrad Dobler? The guy with the Fu Manchu moustache and the antisocial instincts of a treed gorilla. Put an iron flowerpot on his head and a sabre in one hand and you got Conan the Barbarian. A one-man Mongol horde. Genghis Khan would hide.
Conrad didn’t play football, he waged it. You couldn’t describe what he did as play. Not unless you figure the Indians played Custer.
Dobler turned a line of scrimmage into a killing ground. He went about the game with the maniacal, suicidal fervor of one of those people who think you go right to heaven if you die in battle.
Football is a brutal, violent game, but Dobler put another dimension to it. Strong men would go white at the lips, and veins would stand out in their necks when they spoke of Conrad Dobler. And those were just his teammates.
People on other teams would have to be restrained from getting a gun and insisting no judge in the world would call it anything but justifiable homicide. Dobler wasn’t just hated, he was abhorred.
He loved it.
He tells his side of the story in a new book, “They Call Me Dirty” (Putnam), that he was in town to publicize this week.
Dobler didn’t have a career, he had an apocalypse. Some guys put on their game face the morning of the game. Dobler was born with his. Some guys wear a mask to protect their face. Dobler wore his to protect the league.
First of all, there was the leg whip. This was a little refinement of the art of football mayhem that can only be likened to bombing unarmed cities or stoning baby carriages.
It calls for a lineman, if fooled or knocked out of his block, to whirl his body around with his legs out-thrust in such a way that they come blasting across the opposing lineman’s knees — or eyes or teeth — and do more or less permanent damage to his ability to make the tackle, or breathe normally for the rest of the game, for all of that.
Dobler also had this little technique of jamming his fingertips or his knuckles into an opponent’s Adam’s apple, a little maneuver the Gestapo used to use to make you talk. Dobler’s victims sometimes weren’t able to talk for days. Even Mean Joe Greene used to say, “What’s the matter with you, Dobler?”
Conrad Dobler was almost the Eddie Stanky of football. He wasn’t very big, he wasn’t very strong, he wasn’t very fast — all he could do was beat you. He always felt he had to get the first punch in. And the second and the third.
Still, he was part of what was, certifiably, the best offensive line in the history of pro football. The St. Louis Cardinals of the ’70s, the cement blocks of football, with Dobler, Dan Dierdorf and Thomas Banks anchoring them, set the National Football League record by giving up only eight sacks one season, and one of those was a field-goal attempt that went sour on a bad snap from center. To give you an idea how impressive that was, the Raiders’ quarterback was sacked nine times last Sunday alone.
Dobler’s assault was psychological as well as physical. “I used to find some reason to get mad at that guy across from me. He had freckles. He didn’t have freckles. He talked too much. He didn’t talk enough.
“Then, I had to get him so mad at me, he’d forget to play football. He’d just want to kill me. He’d forget to get the quarterback.
“I remember, once, I had Kenny Houston so mad at me on a sweep, he went right for me and let the ballcarrier go. He upended me. But the ballcarrier went in for a touchdown. He’d say, `Ha, Dobler! I got you that time!’ And I’d say, `You think so, donkey? Look in the end zone!’ “
Dobler used to get Olsen, the Rams’ all-world defensive tackle, so mad that they would turn their game into Dempsey-Firpo. Years later, on one of his TV shows, Olsen had a scene that showed a tombstone in the old West. On it was the inscription: “Here lies Conrad Dobler. Gone but not forgiven.”
Eventually, this notoriety boomeranged. Dobler had achieved such a reputation for kicking and biting — “Ever stop to wonder what fingers were doing inside my face mask?” — that the league not only outlawed the leg whip and the throat gouge, but Dobler became the marked man of football.
“There’d be a play where another lineman would have part of another player’s shirt in his hand — and they would call the holding on me!” Dobler says.
He was like the Mafia don who lives his life in the lenses of the FBI photographing his every move. He couldn’t function. “When you start stalling your team’s touchdown drives with phantom penalties, you’ve had it.”
Still, Dobler figures he elevated one of the obscure positions in football into a semi-glamour role. “I needed an edge and I found it,” he says. “I played 10 years and on the best offensive line ever in football.”
If he has any regrets, it’s that he never played in a Super Bowl — and that his outlaw reputation overshadowed his considerable talents as a player.
“I want people to know I was the very best,” he says. “I want them to know I was a player of ability. I made teams good. And when I left them, they became losers again.”
Sure, Conrad. Whatever you say. Now, can I have my hand back? And please put me down!
Reprinted with the permission of the Los Angeles Times
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A dozen years ago, Linda McCoy-Murray compiled a book of Jim Murray’s columns on female athletes (1961-1998). While the book is idle waiting for an interested publisher, the JMMF thinks this is an appropriate year to get the book on the shelves, i.e., Jim Murray’s 100th birthday, 1919-2019.
Our mission is to empower women of all ages to succeed and prosper — in and out of sports — while entertaining the reader with Jim Murray’s wit and hyperbole. An excellent teaching tool for Women’s Studies.
Proceeds from book sales will benefit the Jim Murray Memorial Foundation, a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization providing sports journalism scholarships at universities across the country.