By dumb luck we have caught Bill Romanowski between workouts. Already this morning Romanowski, a Denver Broncos outside linebacker, has spent three hours on a track, refining his sprint mechanics, and 30 minutes working out in the deep end of a pool—all under the watchful eye of Randy Huntington, his high-performance coach. Soon Romanowski will begin a three-hour weightlifting session, so now is our chance to make small talk. Banner headlines in the morning papers blared the news: JUDGE THROWS OUT SEXUAL HARASSMENT SUIT AGAINST PRESIDENT. But politics and Paula Jones leave Romo cold. If you want to see him come alive, bring up zinc.
"Zinc is our most anabolic mineral," says Romanowski, who takes 25 milligrams of it, along with 400 milligrams of magnesium, each night. Why zinc? "If your zinc levels are low," he says ominously, "you'll have low levels of testosterone." He provides SI with a scoop of dubious provenance: "Seventy percent of pro athletes are deficient in zinc"—ergo, in testosterone. Not Romo. "I get my blood and urine tested every three months," he says. "I want to make sure my minerals are in balance."
They are. The same can't always be said of his emotions. When he committed the disgusting act that threatened to define his career—recall, if you will, Romanowski spitting in the face of San Francisco 49ers wideout J.J. Stokes during a Dec. 15 game on national TV—it was not the first time he had, psychologically speaking, gone through the guardrail and over the cliff. Three years ago he was ejected from a game against the Arizona Cardinals for repeatedly kicking running back Larry Centers in the helmet.
"Romo gets so geeked up on game days, you can't even talk to him," says Broncos guard David Diaz-Infante. Indeed, the obsessive drive that has enabled Romanowski to start on three Super Bowl champions and to play 10 years without missing a game is also what transformed him for a couple of weeks last season into one of the most reviled athletes on the planet. He ingests more powders and pills than Jerry Garcia in his prime (chart, page 61), and he employs not only his aforementioned high-performance coach but also a nutritionist, a biomechanics guru and a massage therapist. To see him on game day is to suspect that a shrink might not be a bad idea, either.
To set the stage for Spit-gate: Denver had just suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and Romanowski had made only two tackles in the game. Up next on Monday Night Football were the 49ers, who had traded away Romo four years earlier. "I couldn't wait to play 'em," says Romanowski, an Olympic-class grudge-bearer who, nine-plus years after having been selected by the Niners in the third round of the draft, was still going out of his way—a fist in the larynx here, a knee in the lumbar region there—to punish teams that had chosen a linebacker ahead of him.
So, yeah, he was a little excited about that Monday-nighter, which would turn out to be another Broncos loss. Niners quarterback Steve Young got the message in the third quarter when Romo hit him after a whistle and was flagged for unnecessary roughness. Then, three plays later, there was poor Stokes, woofing at Romanowski after the two emerged from a pileup. Whereupon Stokes got it flush in the face: The Loogie Seen Round the World.
The next days were dark times for the Romanowskis. A Denver newspaper columnist wondered what kind of example Bill was setting for his children: Dalton, who was then three, and Alexandra, eight months. "I just felt bad for my mom and my dad, my wife, my brother and sisters," says Bill. "To cause them embarrassment, it hurt me."
"I felt bad for Bill," says Julie, Romo's wife of five years. "When you love somebody, you want to protect him. To see him hurting and not be able to fix it was difficult for me."
Romanowski downplayed the incident for about 24 hours, telling reporters it was just something that happens "in the heat of battle." Soon enough he realized that response wasn't going to cut it, and on Wednesday morning he issued an apology. Although no one has ever accused Romanowski of being racist, he had spit in the face of a black opponent two weeks after the Golden State Warriors' Latrell Sprewell, who is black, massaged the throat of his coach, P.J. Carlesimo, who is white. With a generous boost from sports-talk radio, Romo's act took on a life of its own, and it threatened to divide the Denver locker room.
On the day Romanowski issued his apology, Broncos players and coaches met for 45 minutes to discuss the spitting incident. Quarterback John Elway effectively put the matter to rest when he stood and said, "This guy's done everything but get down on his knees. Let's put this behind us and go out and play some great football."