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Broncos linebacker Bill Romanowski's propensity for pill-popping is well known (SI, May 25, 1998). Pick a color, and Romanowski, 34, has a vitamin or mineral supplement to match. To teammates he's known as Rx. But his reputation took on a more unseemly tone last week.
On Aug. 9, a Douglas County ( Colo.) grand jury handed down a four-count felony indictment charging Romanowski with using friends and family to help him fraudulently obtain large quantities of phentermine, a controlled-substance diet drug whose effects in certain doses mimic those of amphetamines. If found guilty of all charges, Romanowski could face as many as nine years in prison.
From September 1998 to January '99, according to law enforcement documents obtained by SI, the Romanowskis directed Lori Johnson, 36, to obtain upward of 500 phentermine pills, more than five times as many as would have been prescribed on a standard diet plan. Romanowski's wife, Julie, 33, was charged in May with fraudulently obtaining a controlled substance. (She has yet to be arraigned.) Johnson and the Romanowskis' doctor pleaded guilty in January and received light sentences. No one denies that the drugs were for Romanowski.
Johnson's lawyer told SI that on numerous occasions, at the Romanowskis' request, Johnson obtained phentermine—which, according to a University of Colorado pharmacologist who testified to the grand jury, could allow an athlete to "experience increased mental alertness and masking of fatigue"—and prescription-strength ephedrine and delivered both to the Romanowskis' house. Mixing the two, one knowledgeable source close to the investigation said, "would give you the pharmacologic equivalent of crack cocaine, an amazing buzz that makes you alert and reckless."
Romanowski's lawyers deny their client was mixing the drugs. They say there's an explanation for his amassing the quantity of pills but decline to give it pending the trial. Romanowski reportedly told investigators that he took no more than one pill before every game. That leaves hundreds of pills unaccounted for.
Denver coach Mike Shanahan has said the Romanowski case won't be a distraction to the Broncos, but already center David Diaz-Infante has told authorities he received phentermine from Romanowski on one occasion. Sources close to the case say former Bronco Martin Harrison also provided a written statement to prosecutors detailing Romanowski's alleged offers of pregame stimulants. One white player told the grand jury that Romanowski suggested the substances would allow him and Romanowski to compete on a level field with African-American players.
"[ Romanowski's] exact words were, We have to go up against the black guys....' " the player told SI. "He said, They're faster and stronger, and we have to take advantage of this. It is the only way we can compete with the black guys.' He didn't say 'black guys,' he used the n word."
Romanowski's lawyer Jeff Springer acknowledged that the grand jury looked at the possibility that his client was providing drugs to players, but, Springer says, "[the jurors] obviously rejected that theory" He also denies Romanowski said anything about black players. Springer says his client intends to fight all charges. The case isn't expected to go to trial until after the season. Romanowski remains Denver's projected starter at left outside linebacker.