The first thing this reporter noticed about Conrad Dobler was his right hand. Gnarled by bumps, bulges and angry marks, his grizzly-sized mitt engulfed the gear shift of my Volkswagen squareback. He barely fit into the car and drove so I could take notes during transit between a crush of charity events.
It was 1982, the year after the former University of Wyoming standout retired from a 10-year career in the National Football League, and on the drive across Jackson Hole, Dobler, and his hands, shared his story.
He’d found much success and satisfaction playing offensive guard, but the game had taken from him too.
Dobler lifted his hand from the gearshift to illustrate his point. It looked as though it would be painful to open a jar with that paw or maybe even grip a golf club.
Dobler wished he could have “a little bit of my health” back, he said.
Professional ball players appear to be in top shape in terms of conditioning, stamina, strength and other health metrics. But in Dobler’s day, NFL players’ long-term well-being received little attention, and even less priority. He and many of his colleagues fielded the consequences on their own.
The joints in Dobler’s hands were one problem. There were also his knees.
Before Dobler died in Pueblo, Colorado, on Feb. 13 at 72, he’d had nine knee replacements, the LA Times reported.
And there was his brain. He suffered “post-traumatic head syndrome,” the paper said. His family donated his brain to Boston University’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center for study, USA Today reported.
No cause of death was listed in various announcements pending the outcome of those studies.
Wyoming won’t forget Dobler
Clara Dobler, a cook who had Al Capone as a client, gave birth to her son Conrad on Oct. 1, 1950 in Chicago, according to the National Polish-American Sports Hall of Fame. The family, including six siblings, moved to Twentynine Palms, California, early in Dobler’s life where his father John operated a milk delivery business.
Dobler chose to attend UW when its football team was on the crest of a winning wave. But dreams of national collegiate fame turned to shame in 1969 when Wyoming coach Lloyd Eaton sacked The Black 14.
The year before, Brigham Young University fans slurred Wyoming’s Black players at a game in Utah. The Black Wyoming players approached Eaton about wearing armbands in protest at the upcoming 1969 tilt in Laramie.
Eaton kicked all of them off the team.
Dobler told sports writer Cody Tucker of 7220 Sports in 2019 the ugly incident was “a bad deal” and harmful to Wyoming. But Phil White, editor of the school’s Branding Iron newspaper at the time and the author of “Wyoming in Mid-Century: Prejudice, Protest and The Black 14,” said he found little evidence of white Wyoming players protesting Eaton’s actions.
“At the time of the Black 14’s dismissals, Dobler was a sophomore and second string and Mel Hamilton and Earl Lee of the Black 14 were starters,” White said in an email. “For some of them who had been riding the pine, the dismissals opened up a lot more game time.”
Dobler’s performance on the gridiron eventually caught the eye of the St. Louis Cardinals, who drafted him in the fifth round in 1972. At 6 feet 3 inches tall and 254 pounds, he rose from obscurity to earn three Pro Bowl selections.
He also earned a reputation as a scrapper. Over the years opponents accused the lineman of tripping, punching, stomping and even biting players. Sports Illustrated named Dobler “Pro football’s dirtiest player,” in a 1977 cover story.
Dobler capitalized on his notoriety but also pooh-poohed many of the accusations, saying they largely came from opponents who couldn’t take his roughness. In 2021 he told Pro Football History that he didn’t even chew on the fingers of the opponent who stuck digits through his facemask.
His rough-and-tumble personality emerged only after he left Laramie.
“He sure created this persona that really wasn’t what we knew at the university,” said Kevin McKinney, the recently retired longtime information director for UW athletics. “In terms of hanging people out of dorm windows and that kind of stuff. I never knew him as that kind of person.”
Dobler also played with the New Orleans Saints and the Buffalo Bills. Ten years of pro football exacted a toll, however.
“When you hit someone 265 [pounds] as hard as you can, you hurt yourself a little bit,” he said when he was 31. “I’ll have plastic knees by the time I am 50. The NFL doesn’t pay for that — you’re on your own.”
In 2016 he opened up to USA Today about his fading memory, a possible result of repeated blows. At times he’d blank on the names of his six children or how many strokes he’d taken down a golf fairway.
In a 2019 story, writer Tucker said Dobler’s injuries had turned him into “a shell of his former self.” In Dobler’s playing days little was known about the consequences of repeated impacts to the head, UW’s McKinney said.
There were smelling salts on the sidelines, and a fundamental expectation that players would go back in and play “whether they were concussed or not,” McKinney said.
“It’s too bad [for]Conrad Dobler and all the hundreds of other college [and professional players] who went through those injuries,” McKinney said “We didn’t consider them serious [injuries]. We thought they were tough guys.”
Regardless of reputation, deserved or otherwise, athletes who make it in the professional ranks lend Wyoming a sense of pride, University spokesman Chad Baldwin said. Wyoming won’t forget Conrad Dobler.
Dobler himself remained a UW fan. “As famous as he became, he didn’t forget Wyoming,” McKinney said.
“I would run into him at various places where he might come to our games,” McKinney said. “He would show up at road games, very proud of being a Wyoming Cowboy.”