The first concussion suffered by Bill Romanowski over his 16-year NFL career came during a game against the New Orleans Saints. Romo was a rookie linebacker for the 49ers, and the play was a counter-trey, the pulling guard rolling to his left. The guy’s knee came in hard against Romo’s helmet, and for the first of what would be more than 20 times, the gelatinous tissue of Romanowski’s brain brushed up against the hard surface of his skull’s inner wall.
The last concussion came during Romo’s final season, 2003, when he played for the Raiders. That was the one that spelled the end. A few weeks later, the veteran linebacker with 243 consecutive game appearances drove out of the parking lot of Oakland’s McAfee Coliseum and suddenly stopped. Romanowski had forgotten where he lived.
For Romanowski, a Connecticut kid from a meager upbringing who had willed himself to become an extraordinary athlete, a guy who fought off chop blocks for a living, a madman who famously was captured on television spitting in an opponent’s face, a linebacker who wore eye-black like war paint, an ex-Bronco who popped pills like candy, an unlikely working man’s hero who captivated the Denver faithful, it had come down to this: Bill Romanowski’s brain was all messed up.
He retired soon after that, around the time he realized he couldn’t remember who sang his favorite song. “I was coming from a place of pretty intense fear,” Romanowski says.
Romanowski has a theory, though: What you focus on is what will happen. He believes it. He starts each day by meditating. (That’s right, Sports Fan, Bill Romanowski meditates.) Four years ago, with his speech slowing and his mind unable to remember events that happened only a day before, Romanowski began to focus on finding a way to heal.
Could there be an ex-jock better suited to the task? Romanowski’s acquaintance with chemistry is legendary. As a player, he assembled and engulfed each day a briefcase full of vitamins, supplements and pills he swears were instrumental to his career longevity. (Although Romanowski admits he took the now-banned growth hormone THG, he says he never took any substance that violated NFL rules at the time. He was acquitted of a 2000 charge that he obtained the diet-stimulant phentermine illegally.)
When he felt his mind faltering, Romo started making calls to researchers he’d consulted in the past. He called people like Thomas Incledon, an Arizona fitness and nutrition specialist. He asked them what they knew about neuro-nutrients. He studied journals. He ordered products.
Working in a makeshift laboratory, Romo brewed hundreds of combinations of supplements he thought could restore his fading brainpower. He made himself his own guinea pig, downing mixtures and recording his response. Slowly, Romanowski started to remember details he’d struggled to recall before. His energy level rose. He felt he was clawing his way back from the fog.
Excited, Romo attacked the world of neuro-nutrition the way he used to attack 300-pound nose tackles: hard. He started a company, raised $3 million and hired a team of executives from companies including the Quiznos restaurant chain to help get his potions to market. That’s what he’s doing now: hawking powdered drink mixes that are supposed to get the synapses firing more efficiently. Romo swears they’ve worked for him. He talks slowly, but there’s no denying his mental acuity. Sitting in a LoDo coffee shop, Romanowski rattles off names of chemical ingredients as if they were flavors of coffee: Alpha-glycerylphosphorylcholine. Acetyl l-carnitine. Rodiola Rosea. He talks about distribution channels and pricing strategies and direct-selling over his company’s Web site, http://www.nutrition53.com. He says his mission is to help people regain mental capacity they think they’ve lost.
It might work. There was an indelible close-up of Romanowski captured by a television camera during the Raiders 28-16 whopping of the Broncos late in the 2002 season. The image was breathtaking: A wild-eyed man consumed with rage as he awaited the snap. That’s not the Romo you get now, the guy who welcomes handshakes and hugs from still-adoring Denver fans as he rolls through town, the guy who remains trim and athletic in a pullover shirt and casual slacks. But despite the trauma he’s suffered, there’s still something intense about Romo that makes you believe he can succeed. It’s that focus thing. “I don’t believe in working on your weaknesses, because you just get stronger in your weaknesses,” Romo says. “But there’s nothing you can’t accomplish if you focus.”
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