Regardless of the era, kids of all ages tend to gravitate toward the skill position players in the NFL.
These are the glory positions that bring fame and fortune and youngsters want to be just like them some day.
Therefore, it’s not often that an adolescent describes their desire to be an offensive lineman.
Linemen aren’t glamorous and they are relatively “unseen.”
However, these are the unsung heroes of the gridiron. Without the offensive line, the skill position players don’t look so skilled.
In fact, it’s because of offensive linemen that the skill position players are stars.
The protection they provide and the holes they open are paramount to the success of their offensive teammates.
This is the reason why stories surface occasionally about quarterbacks or running backs lavishing expensive gifts on their linemen.
They recognize the value of the line and respect what they bring to the table.
From 1972-1981, it’s safe to assume that Conrad Dobler’s teammates respected what he brought to their team.
Dobler played guard for the Cardinals, Saints and Bills.
In his quest to beat the man in front of him, Dobler acquired the label of the NFL’s “dirtiest player.”
No. 28: 1970s Pro Bowl guard Conrad Dobler
📺: #NFL100 Greatest Characters on @NFLNetwork pic.twitter.com/tDxAUninID
— NFL (@NFL) October 19, 2019
Dobler deployed every trick in the book (and many that were not) to win the battle in the trenches.
His teammates loved him and opponents loathed him.
This is the story of Conrad Dobler.
Conrad Francis Dobler was born on October 1, 1950 in Chicago.
The Dobler family moved to the Mojave Desert near Twentynine Palms, California when he was young. Conrad was one of seven Dobler children and he was a pain even then.
Dobler’s brothers and sisters have maintained that he was the “meanest kid” in the family.
He was also described by one sister as “always mean and ornery and who liked to show off his muscles.”
After attending a grammar school with only eight kids, Dobler attended a much larger high school.
In an attempt to fit in, he played football, track and basketball.
Dobler’s mischievous and roguish demeanor as an athlete began to take form, especially on the hardwood.
On the gridiron, Dobler was a running back who was good enough to be named all-league.
Nearing graduation, he had a number of scholarship offers from colleges.
Looking over the offers he received, Dobler decided on the University of Wyoming.
Laramie, Wyoming might have seemed an odd destination for a college career, but not to Dobler.
“Wyoming was the king of the WAC back then,” Dobler said in a 2019 interview. “They were the best. That’s why I went there.”
He further joked that it didn’t take much to get him to attend Wyoming.
“I’m the only 10¢ player the Cowboys ever had. All it took to recruit me was one letter.”
Even though he had never played the position before, Dobler agreed to play offensive tackle in order to get playing time faster.
OTD 1972: The Cards selected future Pro Bowl guard Conrad Dobler out of Wyoming in the 5th round of the NFL draft. #BigRed1970s pic.twitter.com/vak6xGJ1Lc
— St. Louis Football Cardinals (@BigRed_STL) February 1, 2021
Under coach Lloyd Eaton, the Cowboys went 10-1 in 1966 and defeated Florida State in the Sun Bowl. Wyoming was undefeated in 1967 before losing to LSU in the 1968 Sugar Bowl.
Dobler arrived in 1968 and Wyoming finished the season first in their conference, but with a 7-3 record.
At that time, their win total was not enough to get a bowl invite.
In 1969, the Cowboys were 4-0 before a national controversy derailed the team.
During the week leading up to a game against BYU, a number of black players asked Eaton if they could wear black armbands during the game against the Cougars.
The reason for the request was that during the previous year’s game in Provo, the group was subject to racial epithets from BYU players.
To protest that incident, along with the Mormon church’s then policy of excluding black people from the priesthood, the players wanted to call attention to the matter.
Eaton told the players that they were not allowed to protest in any way, shape or form.
However, the day before the game, 14 black players wore black armbands over their civilian clothes and walked to Eaton’s office to ask how they could use the game to show team solidarity.
Instead, Eaton dismissed all 14 players from the team.
On this day in 1969, the Historic ‘Wyoming Black 14’ Protests Began. 14 black students were expelled from the University of Wyoming football team for espressing their opposition to bigotry and racism stemming from the LDS (Latter-Day Saints) church.
— AFRICAN & BLACK HISTORY (@AfricanArchives) October 15, 2021
As the story broke nationally, both parties were in disagreement with what transpired during the meeting.
For his part, Eaton said he listened to the players, then dismissed them.
The players, on the other hand, said Eaton did no such thing.
“He [Eaton] came in, sneered at us and yelled that we were off the squad. He said our very presence defied him. He said he has had some good Neeeegro boys. Just like that,” said Joe Williams, a team co-captain.
Most of the state of Wyoming, and especially the fans, backed their coach.
They believed that the players were acting unruly for wanting to protest and did not show gratitude for the opportunity the Wyoming program gave them.
In what became known as the “Black 14” controversy, the players were kicked off the team and the Cowboys season went into free-fall.
“The Black 14 was a bad deal,” Dobler said. “We couldn’t recruit any black guys after that. My stance on it was, let them wear the damn things,” he continued. “It wasn’t hurting anyone. We went out there and crushed BYU that day. But it wouldn’t last. We were never the same.”
The Cowboys beat BYU and also defeated San Jose State the following week.
However, Wyoming would lose their last four games.
The emotional toll of the controversy, along with the lack of 14 able bodies, has long been pointed to as the reason for the losing streak.
In 1970, the program hit rock bottom with a 1-9 record.
That was the lowest win total since 1946.
Dobler’s senior year in 1971 saw Wyoming hire Fritz Shurmur to replace the departed Eaton.
Not long after his arrival, Shurmur moved Dobler to the defensive side of the ball.
Under Shurmur, the Cowboys improved to 5-6 in ‘71.
Unfortunately for Dobler, he never did experience a bowl game during his four years in Wyoming.
However, he showed just enough talent to make NFL teams take notice.
A Surprise Draft Pick
After playing four years in Laramie, Dobler did not expect to be drafted by the pros.
He was shocked when a reporter called to tell him he had been drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals with the 110th overall pick in the 5th round of the 1972 draft.
“The St. Louis Cardinals are a baseball team,” Dobler responded while laughing at the reporter.
He soon found out it was the real deal and made his way to St. Louis for mini-camp.
Dobler played on the Cardinals offensive line and was cut just before the first game of the ‘72 season.
As he was making his way back home, Dobler mentally prepared himself for a teaching career.
He was stopped in his tracks when the Cardinals called asking him to return to St. Louis.
Their starting right guard had injured his knee and they needed Dobler to fill in.
It was at that moment that Dobler decided to do whatever it took to stay.
“When I came back I decided that I’d just play my own game,” Dobler says. “I’d do what I do best and make the other guys play into my hands, make them have to beat me.”
By the fifth game of the season, Dobler was entrenched as the starter.
Super B-Day to Conrad Dobler, who proudly wore the title "Pro Football's Dirtiest Player" .. that's probably bourbon pic.twitter.com/ewchP8C9XL
— Super 70s Sports (@Super70sSports) October 1, 2015
His line coach at the time, Jim Hanifan, recounted in 1977 what it would take for someone to take Dobler’s spot.
“You’d have to kill him to beat him.”
Hanifan was effusive in his praise for Dobler.
“Game in and game out, I would see guys he was going against, whether they were All-Pro or Hall of Famers … the greater the player was, Conrad always made that player play his best,” Hanifan said. Although he didn’t receive as many accolades as quarterback Jim Hart, running back Terry Metcalf or wide receiver Mel Gray, Dobler was a key cog on a Cardinals team that won NFC Eastern Division championships in 1974 and ’75, and went 31-11 from 1974 to ’76. That was the Big Red’s best run during 28 seasons in St. Louis.”
“When you’re fighting in the dirt for a position, climbing up from the bottom, you know what it is to compete,” Dobler added. “If we both wanted it, I’d want it more. I’d mow ’em right down with no compassion, no mercy.”
Dobler Gets a Reputation
In 1972 and ‘73, St. Louis was not a good football team, finishing 4-9-1 both years.
Thankfully, in 1974, the Cardinals improved on the field and ended the year 10-4.
The team advanced to the playoffs for the first time in ten years but lost to Minnesota 30-14.
It was around that time in his career that Dobler’s blocking “techniques” were widely questioned.
Bob Young and Conrad Dobler. #RedSea pic.twitter.com/O8JyNK91rk
— Ken Gelman (@kengfunk) March 5, 2020
Before the game against the Vikings, a number of Minnesota’s players joked that they would need rabies shots before playing against Dobler.
Dobler’s take on his blocking was, “I’ll do anything I can get away with to protect my quarterback.”
“Anything,” according to opponents, could include biting, kicking, tripping or punching.
“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.”
Dobler is Recognized…for both the good and the bad
Despite his questionable play, Dobler was named to his first Pro Bowl in 1975.
Teamed with right tackle Dan Dierdorf, the duo helped keep opponents at bay.
In ‘75, the Cardinals led the NFL with only eight sacks allowed.
During a three-year period, the Cards line only permitted 41 sacks, an NFL low at the time.
What an offensive line. Conrad Dobler and Tom Banks look like they just tied for first place in a "Guys you wouldn’t want to bunk with in prison" contest. pic.twitter.com/5Fvo1DHC0O
— Super 70s Sports (@Super70sSports) July 18, 2020
In 1975, St. Louis returned to the postseason before losing to the Rams in the Divisional Round.
In 1976, Dobler was named to his second Pro Bowl as the Cardinals missed the postseason with a 10-4 record.
Although he was recognized as a Pro Bowler, Dobler’s reputation as someone willing to cheat to win had grown.
The idea only infuriated him.
“Of course I’m vindictive,” Dobler said in 1977. “I was a fifth-round draft choice, and who ever heard of a player from Wyoming?”
In one of the biggest feuds in the game at the time, Merlin Olsen, a Hall of Fame defensive lineman for the Rams (and later TV pitchman and actor), frequently complained about Dobler.
After one particularly heated game, Olsen swore he’d never utter Dobler’s name again.
It’s Utah State week.
And Conrad Dobler still isn’t a fan of the late Merlin Olsen. pic.twitter.com/jhQuj9tGFg
— 7220sports (@7220sports) November 15, 2020
Even decades later, Dobler scoffed at Olsen’s remark.
“One game, I knocked the crap out of Merlin Olsen. If you wanted to see it on instant replay, you had to go to the kitchen because I knocked him so far out of the TV frame. After the game, he says, “One of these days, someone’s going to break Dobler’s neck, and I’m not going to send any flowers.” What happens? He gets the $500,000 FTD commercial, and I don’t get s***. He goes to the Pro Bowl fourteen times. He’s in the Hall of Fame. He’s probably got more money than God. When he was doing Father Murphy on NBC, he had a graveyard scene. One of the tombs said: CONRAD DOBLER. GONE, BUT NOT FORGIVEN. It’s been twenty years since I played him, and I’m still on his f****** mind. And I like that.”
Dobler took the criticisms and ran with them.
In order to beat his man, Dobler had already admitted that he would have to take extra steps to keep his guy from the quarterback.
However, he never tried to intentionally hurt anyone.
“Sure I played mean and nasty, and sure I tried to knock guys on their asses. But I never deliberately went out to try to hurt anyone. That was not me. I battled hard and did whatever I could to win, but there is a difference between playing hard and trying to injure someone.”
By 1977, and despite receiving his third Pro Bowl nod, Dobler was constantly having to defend his actions on the field.
Esquire archive: Conrad Dobler on why his wild man reputation was overblown: "I bit one guy, Doug Sutherland of the Vikings. He put his fingers through my face mask and I don't think they were there to stroke my mustache. So I bite one finger in my life, and I don't even chew." pic.twitter.com/7UpsHD0Qae
— Mark Tomasik (@retrosimba) January 24, 2021
In a rebuttal about his reputation for biting opponents, Dobler was dismissive.
“If someone stuck his hand in your face mask and put his fingers in your mouth, what would you do?”
Dobler has since admitted that he’d actually only bitten one player in his career.
“I only bit one guy: Doug Sutherland of the Minnesota Vikings. He put his fingers through my face mask, and I don’t think they were there to stroke my mustache. So I bite one finger in my life, and I don’t even chew on it. The legend grew from there. It’s almost like I’m worse than Jeffrey Dahmer.”
In response to the accusation that he held opponents, Dobler pleaded innocent.
“Sometimes I hold by accident,” he said in ‘77. “You know, I get my hand caught in a face mask. But always remember this: at no time do my fingers leave my hand.”
Dobler has also taken the time to address tripping calls against him.
“In one game I was called for tripping a guy who was standing up,” he says. “Sure I tried to trip him, but I didn’t succeed, and attempted tripping is not illegal.” He paused, then added, “Oh, hell, the officials are only human.”
Moving on to the Saints
Despite the fact that he had played in three straight Pro Bowls, St. Louis traded Dobler to New Orleans before the 1978 season.
They made the trade because Dobler was unhappy in St. Louis.
“Conrad said he was not happy,” Cardinals director of operations Joe Sullivan said. “He said he didn’t want to come back, that he wouldn’t come back. That was one of the reasons for making the deal.”
It turns out that Dobler was looking for a change of scenery.
During the summer, he had asked Cardinals management for a salary extension, which they refused.
Dobler then asked to be traded and he was granted his wish.
“The Saints have made me very, very happy. I’m probably worth more, but tell you I’m delighted,” Dobler said at the time.
The year before Dobler arrived, the Saints finished 3-11.
Happy 71st birthday to former New Orleans Saints guard Conrad Dobler. Dobler played with the Saints from 1978-1979. Dobler played his college ball at the University of Wyoming. #HappyBirthday #NewOrleansSaints #ConradDobler #WyomingCowboys #BoninsBriefs pic.twitter.com/ziGZMWxfv0
— Bonin’s Briefs (@DannyBoninJr1) October 1, 2021
In 1978, under new head coach Dick Nolan, the team went 7-9.
However, Dobler missed all but three games of the season due to knee injuries.
The following year, he played in every game and New Orleans improved again to 8-8.
Traded Again and Retirement
After the ‘79 season, Dobler was traded a second time, this time to the Buffalo Bills.
Coach Chuck Knox wanted Dobler for his veteran presence on a team of young players.
“They’ve started calling me an inspiration,” Dobler noted at the time. “That’s quite a transition, isn’t it, from the meanest man in football to a medical wreck to an inspiration? Someday I’d just like to be known as a football player.”
Dobler started every game for the Bills, who went 11-5 but lost in the Divisional Round to the Chargers.
In 1981, Buffalo finished 10-6 and beat the Jets in the Wild Card Round 31-27.
Happy Birthday Conrad Dobler, Buffalo Bills guard 1980-1981. Born #OTD in 1950! pic.twitter.com/uKeW8HIBUE
— ThisDateInBuffaloSportsHistory (@BuffSportsHstry) October 1, 2020
Their season ended the next week when they lost to Cincinnati by a touchdown.
Once the ‘81 season wrapped, Dobler retired.
In ten years as a pro, Dobler started in 125 games and played in 129 total.
He was a three-time Pro Bowler and played in four postseasons.
Difficult Times in Retirement
For a while, Dobler’s retirement was enjoyable.
Not long after leaving the game, he took part in a number of Miller Lite beer commercials with other famous athletes.
🍻 Happy Friday and cheers from Conrad Dobler…#TasteGreat #LessFilling #Troublemaker pic.twitter.com/qu3xQeslQo
— 80s Football Cards (@80sFootballCard) May 7, 2021
Dobler and his wife, Joy, owned a business, Superior Healthcare Staffing, in the Kansas City area that supplied medical staffing to local hospitals.
However, in 2001, Joy fell out of a hammock during a family barbecue and broke her neck.
The fall caused her to become a quadriplegic.
At the same time, Dobler was experiencing his own medical conditions.
Because of the brutality of the sport he had played for a decade, Dobler’s body had begun to break down.
Since retiring, he has had no less than 30 knee surgeries and nine knee replacements.
During a doctor visit in 2020, Dobler’s doctor made a suggestion.
“My last operation the surgeon said, ‘Why not cut it off now,” and I said, “Why not go screw yourself,’ “ Dobler said with typical bombast.
After Joy Dobler’s tragic fall, the Doblers’ had to sell their home and move into something more affordable.
The high cost of medical bills for both Doblers’ left them owing $2.5 million.
In 2005, HBO’s “Real Sports” with Bryant Gumbel did a story on the Doblers.
The segment detailed the family’s financial woes and the fact that the couple were unable to pay for their two youngest children’s college tuition.
I truly admire Phil Mickelson's values. He helped Conrad Dobler out and didn't know him and keeps his family first: http://t.co/oloMI2FLwI
— Pete Weber (@PeteWeberSports) June 13, 2013
Some time later, a representative for PGA golfer Phil Mickelson contacted Dobler. The message was simple. Mickelson saw the segment and wanted to help.
“Phil wanted to pay for our daughter Holli’s college education. A random act of kindness is the only way to describe it,” Dobler said in 2007.
Dobler was floored by the act of generosity that helped Holli eventually graduate with honors from Miami University of Ohio.
“I thought it might be a scam,” Dobler said in 2010. “I said, ‘Why is Mr. Mickelson doing this?’ And he said, ‘Because he can.’ All I could say was thank you, but that never really felt like it was enough.”
In 2018, Joy Dobler passed away.
Meanwhile, Dobler himself is barely getting around due to his battered body.
In interviews, he has expressed his disgust at the NFL for their lack of interest in helping out their veterans.
“They (NFL) vote for their best interests, not for their brothers,” said Dobler.
Currently 71 years old, Dobler continues to live in agony.
However, he powers through the emotional turmoil for the sake of his children and grandchildren and he continues to get by on the will he showed in a 2010 interview.
“I’m pulled in a lot of directions, but I put my head down and keep going,” Dobler said in 2010. “I’m not afraid of death. I’ve had a good life. But I have people who are counting on me. I’m not giving up.”
Brad Nair says
Great article Ben!!! Thanks for a true & insightful look at the NFL.
Great way to bring some much needed attention to the offensive lineman.
The most important, underrated, over looked, positions in football
Think about it: No blocking = No scoring / simple as that!!
Thanks again Ben!!!
Ben Donahue says
As a former lineman myself, Brad, I couldn’t agree more 🙂
Truly enjoyed the article Ben!! Great work,
I played OT in school so appreciate the focus in an offensive lineman!
Ben Donahue says
I appreciate the comments. I played, and coached, both sides of the line, so I enjoy writing about the hogs when I can.
Current NFL Players Association members should be ashamed of how they take care of the medical needs of the older players that made the game great.
They and the NFL could do so much without a significant change in their liefestyle.
Donald L Miller BSN, RN says
It was my pleasure to work for Conrad and Joy. They were Awesome employers
Doug Matuzak says
I just had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Dobler at the care home he resides in in Pueblo Colorado this evening. On the 19th of Jan 2023. What a mighty cool man.
Good to hear about that Doug. Glad he was able to enjoy visitors until close to the end.
Sadness at learned Conrad has died.
We enjoyed lots of blackjack hands together at the Silver Legacy in Reno.
He was a super human being and dear friend.
Though I was always a little scared of him (don’t split 10’s).
Thans also to Glen Carano, Tony Hill and Phil Villapinao for always making the
Super Bowl Super with Conrad at the casino and hosting game.