In late 2003, Raiders linebacker Bill Romanowski drove his car out of the parking lot at McAfee Coliseum in Oakland and then stopped. Sixteen seasons in the NFL as one of the hardest-hitting players in the game had come to this: Romanowski couldn't remember where his house was.
Romanowski, who played at Boston College from 1984-87, had incurred countless concussions during his years on the gridiron, and the results were devastating to his brain.
"Basically, [the doctors] said, 'Do not put a helmet on and run into people anymore,' " Romanowski recalled in a phone interview yesterday from California. "They also said, 'We can't tell you if you'll end up like Muhammad Ali.' "
Romanowski, who played for the 49ers, Eagles, Broncos, and Raiders, retired at the end of that season, and set out to reverse the effects of years of violent collisions. He had strengthened his body throughout his NFL career with supplements -- including THG and ephedrine -- that sometimes straddled the line of legality, and Romanowski hoped he could build up his mind as well.
He consulted doctors and scientists, taking their advice and combining it into a homemade product.
"[I was] a little bit of a mad scientist," Romanowski said.
Last year, Romanowski decided to launch a company to sell his line of supplements called Nutrition53 (Romanowski's jersey number throughout his college and pro career).
The two-time Pro Bowler and four-time Super Bowl champion still speaks slowly, and frequently pauses, but he said his products have helped him dramatically.
"I have gotten considerably better," Romanowski said. "I know how to get to my house. Am I forgetful, still, at times? Absolutely. Do I still have a sense of taste and smell? Yes."
Romanowski has come out with two products so far: Neuro1, which he claims will sharpen and energize the brain, and Sleep1, which promotes more restful and rejuvenating sleep, according to nutrition53.com. Romanowski markets the products to athletes as well as business professionals looking for an edge, but he resonates most when talking about his own experiences with head trauma.
Romanowski said he didn't speak up about his concussions until the end of his career because he wanted to get back on the field.
"If you're an older player and you start getting concussed, the team can say what they want -- they are going to figure out a way to cut you and bring in somebody new," he said. "Someone who's getting concussed is a liability."
Romanowski is known less for concussions than the controversy that surrounded him throughout his career. In 1997, while he was with the Broncos, television cameras caught Romanowski spitting in the face of San Francisco wide receiver J.J. Stokes.
He also was charged, and later acquitted, with illegally obtaining the diet pill Phentermine in 1998 and using it as a performance-enhancing drug. He tested positive for THG, also known as "The Clear," in 2003.
That same year, he punched Raiders teammate Marcus Williams during training camp, breaking Williams's eye socket. Williams's playing career ended shortly thereafter, and Romanowski agreed to pay a $415,000 settlement two years later.
In 2005, he released an autobiography, "Romo: My Life on the Edge," that detailed his drug use in the NFL.
Still, Romanowski claims that though he used products now banned by the league, he never used a product that was illegal at the time.
"I looked at the list as the Bible," Romanowski said of the NFL's list of banned substances.
"The biggest regret I have in my 16-year career is at the end of my career taking THG, which when I took it, it didn't have a name and they didn't know what it was. I knew I was pushing that line, that integrity line, that moral line of right and wrong."
Romanowski also had a long relationship with Victor Conte, the head of the Bay Area Lab Co-Operative who spent four months in prison for orchestrating an illegal steroid distribution scheme. Romanowski said the media overlooked Conte's work with mineral supplements, which the linebacker said were some of the best products he took.
"One thing I do know about Victor is he's an honest guy," Romanowski said. "Some of the real criminals were the investigators . . . with the different tactics that they would use and the different lies that they would use to try to get information. A lot of the guys that were busting him were guys that had bought steroids from him on a regular basis -- and took them."
The athletes implicated in Conte's distribution ring have been mostly track athletes or baseball players, and Romanowski said the NFL's strict testing policy has kept the league clean.
"People want to say that the league is really dirty," Romanowski said. "I'm here to tell you it's not."
Sounding little like the Romo who was considered by many a dirty and overly aggressive player in his NFL days, Romanowski spoke about "taking care of humanity," and his desire to send Nutrition53 products to Iraq to help soldiers who suffer concussions in battle.
He praised the NFL for its recent work in addressing concussions in the game and hopes to get the league to endorse his products to players.
"I just knew how tough the game was on the body," Romanowski said. "This is a way for me to give back."
Daniel Malloy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.