Sat, Dec 27, 2003 - Page 20 News List

Bill Romanowski: golden boy of NFL or common ruffian?

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

The people who have known him the longest call him Billy.

It is a child's name, but they use it with Bill Romanowski anyway. It is the name from his youth and, later, of his time at Boston College, where the most controversial item he is said to have carried around was a jump rope.

Those were the days before Romanowski, a linebacker with the Oakland Raiders, joined the NFL and became its most familiar ruffian, before he spit in the face of an opposing receiver six years ago and almost divided his own locker room. And before he was linked to a designer steroid called THG.

"Probably the best kid I ever had," Jack Bicknell, the former Boston College coach, said in a telephone interview last week. "He was different, kind of particular about things, wanted his uniform done in a certain way. He was never involved in drinking. He was a tremendous physical specimen and he worked at it and that has obviously continued, maybe to a point where it's a little over the top.

"But he was everything that you wanted. He was not a wild man. He never punched anybody. I see the things on TV that he's involved with now and I don't recognize that guy. I just refuse to believe he's anything but the guy I coached and knew. Things happen, I guess."

A year ago, Romanowski and his Raiders teammates were the talk of their sport, a collection of aging athletes who outfoxed and outplayed opponents and stormed to an appearance in the Super Bowl. Now, that group looks like an association of misfits, a dysfunctional collection of players barking at their coach, losing games by the bushel and taking banned substances.

As Romanowski nears the end of his playing days, his legacy is that of both winner and troublemaker, of a man whose pugnacity has forged alliances and ripped them apart.

The last year of Romanowski's professional life has seen much upheaval, even by his turbulent standards.

Last January, he played in his fifth Super Bowl. In August, he punched his teammate Marcus Williams, a second-year tight end, shattering the socket of Williams' left eye, which led to a civil suit against Romanowski.

In September, concussion problems ended his season, as well as a streak of 243 consecutive games played.

In November, it was revealed that Romanowski and three other Raiders had tested positive for THG, or tetrahydrogestrinone.

In December, Fox Sports hired him as a broadcaster. A short time later he was called to testify before a grand jury in San Francisco that is investigating the laboratory suspected of producing THG.

Through it all, Romanowski's supporters have maintained their allegiance. Even the detractors acknowledge that, for his faults, Romanowski lives and breathes the underlying truth of his sport: That manliness is next to godliness.

"He didn't care who you were, he'd drill you," Brent Jones, the former San Francisco 49ers tight end and a former teammate of Romanowski's, said recently in a telephone interview. "One of the things I remember was, in training camp, him going after Jerry Rice."

In 1989, Rice was already a star, Romanowski a second-year player. As Rice dug into his route during a practice, Romanowski leveled him. A fracas between Romanowski and offensive lineman Harris Barton ensued.

"Other than the Jerry incident, he was a guy you enjoyed having on your team," Jones said. "Probably a nicer guy off the field than he is on it. When he was your opponent, he'd hold, he'd bite, he'd kick, he'd scratch and he'd spit."

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