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One of the questions on the NFL's personnel survey form is, "Did you take up football for any particular reason?" Conrad Dobler's answer was, "It is still the only sport where there is controlled violence mixed with careful technical planning. Football is still a very physical game."
What Dobler, the 6'3", 260-pound All-Pro right guard for the St. Louis Cardinals, means by "controlled violence," "careful technical planning" and "a very physical game" is that "I'll do anything I can get away with to protect my quarterback." And according to his opponents, what Dobler gets away with is holding, eye gouging, face-mask twisting, leg whipping, tripping, even biting.
Outside St. Louis Dobler is considered the "dirtiest" player in the league, someone who makes even Oakland's George Atkinson look like Mr. Clean. In fact, in one game Dobler's tactics so infuriated Merlin Olsen, the now-retired defensive tackle of the Los Angeles Rams, that Olsen swore he would never utter Dobler's name again. However, there is one player who has good reason to utter Dobler's name in his prayers—Cardinal Quarterback Jim Hart. Thanks to the protection—legal or otherwise—afforded by Dobler and his linemates, Hart has been sacked only 41 times the last three seasons, an NFL low. Among others who recognize Dobler's prowess are the NFL coaches, who have twice picked him to start in the Pro Bowl.
Dobler was just another obscure offensive lineman until 1974, his third season in the league, when some members of the Minnesota Vikings jokingly requested rabies shots before a game against the Cardinals. Suddenly Dobler had acquired an image. "What you need when you play against Dobler," said one rival, "is a string of garlic buds around your neck and a wooden stake. If they played every game under a full moon, Dobler would make All-Pro. He must be the only guy in the league who sleeps in a casket." When the camera showed Dobler going through his repertoire during a telecast of a St. Louis-Dallas game, commentator Tom Brook-shier wondered aloud. "How does he get away with it?"
Asked the same question, Dobler says that he holds no more than any other player, that he would get caught more often if he did, and that reports of his dastardly deeds have been exaggerated. In the next breath, he says that rules are made to be broken and adds, with a slightly superior air, "If you're going to break the rules, you've got to have a little style and class." Asked if he really bites opponents, Dobler usually replies that he would never do such a tasteless thing, believing as he does in good oral hygiene. Of course, he adds, "If someone stuck his hand in your face mask and put his fingers in your mouth, what would you do?"
While Dobler insists that he is an aggrieved party as far as holding is concerned, he willingly offers a few hints on the best way to hold a defensive lineman or a blitzing linebacker. "Always keep your hands inside your chest because it's much harder for the referees to see them when they're in there," he says, "and if a guy does get past you, grab his face mask, not his jersey." Dobler also recommends "hooking"—clamping the opponent with your arm and dragging him down—as an effective means of detaining defenders.
"Sometimes I hold by accident," he says. "You know, I get my hand caught in a face mask. But always remember this: at no time do my fingers leave my hand."
Surprisingly, Dobler rarely uses his tongue on rivals. "You have to get just the right comment to make them mad," he says. "Verbal abuse could take all day. A faster and more efficient way to aggravate and intimidate people is to knock the stuffing out of them." Dobler particularly likes to aggravate and intimidate other Pro Bowlers, first-round draft choices and players whose salaries are higher than his $50,000 a year. "Of course I'm vindictive," he says. "I was a fifth-round draft choice, and who ever heard of a player from Wyoming?"
Born in Chicago, Dobler grew up in the middle of the Mojave Desert at Twentynine Palms, Calif. There are seven Dobler children—Corrine. Cynthia, Clifford, Conrad, Christopher, Catherine and Cassandra—and Conrad always was considered the "meanest kid" in the family. Catherine, who was unlucky enough to win the starring role in a charming Joan of Arc game devised by her brother, says Conrad "was always mean and ornery and liked to show off his muscles." Conrad's mother Clara says her son was always compassionate and eager to help someone less fortunate, that he is definitely "a winner, not a loser" and that he has always been "just like his father." His father, a former Golden Gloves fighter whom Conrad calls "Big John," says that "Conrad plays pretty good football from what they tell me" and adds that his son "is not quite as mean as they say he is." As proof he offers a tale about Conrad, then nine, escorting his mother to the doctor after she had cut her hand and fainting at the sight of her blood.
Conrad claims he has always been motivated by a lack of peer approval. After attending a Catholic grammar school, where there were only eight students in his graduating class, he went to a large high school where he felt lost and insignificant. To gain acceptance he took up football and basketball. "I never finished a basketball game," he says. "I always fouled out. Something just seemed to come over me. I had more fouls, I think, than the second string had points." A football scholarship took him to the University of Wyoming. Recently he taunted his coach at Wyoming, Jack Taylor, saying, "I'm the only 10� player the Cowboys ever had. All it took to recruit me was one letter." At Wyoming Dobler maintained a B average in his political-science major and child-psychology minor.