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."
Television cameras caught the latter on Dec. 15, 1997, when Romanowski, then a member of the Denver Broncos, spit on 49ers receiver J.J. Stokes, who is African-American. The incident angered players in the Broncos' locker room, temporarily creating a furor about race in sports.
The Denver Post ran an editorial at the time that said: "Bill Romanowski should be ashamed of himself. There's no question that fans who still believe in the ideals of sportsmanship are ashamed of him."
Five weeks later, the Broncos won the Super Bowl.
The 1.93m, 111kg Roman-owski, who is 37 and grew up in Vernon, Connecticut, has often masked misdeeds with a throwback quality that still engenders awe. He has donated his time and money to children at his alma mater, Rockville High School, all the while breaking rules and incurring fines in his profession.
Some peers are willing to push his shortcomings aside.
"Bill Romanowski is a beast," New England Patriots safety Rodney Harrison said on Saturday, using one of the league's terms of endearment. "I respect the guy. He plays with heart and soul, the way it was meant to be played."
And Romanowski's positive test for steroids?
"People can say he cheated, but you never know how long it was going on," Harrison said. "What I've seen for the last 12 or 13 years is a tremendous player. Other guys have been suspended. Did he make a mistake? Was it on purpose? You really don't know, so I don't want to judge him."
Michael Strahan, the Giants defensive end, took a harder stance.
"The rules are what they are," Strahan said. "If you can't compete naturally then don't compete."
Romanowski was one of several athletes subpoenaed to testify in front of a grand jury in the federal investigation of the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative and its owner, Victor Conte. An American antidoping official has said Balco may be the source of THG, an assertion Conte has denied.
Romanowski, who did not respond to a request for an interview that was made through the Raiders, has never hidden his obsession with his body. He endorsed one of Conte's zinc and magnesium supplements, ZMA Fuel, in the January 2000 issue of the magazine Muscular Development, claiming, "Victor's the man."
In August 2000, a grand jury in Denver indicted Romanowski on charges of illegally obtaining the prescription diet drug Phentermine, though he was later acquitted. Charges against his wife, Julie, who faced eight counts of illegally obtaining the drug for her husband, were subsequently dropped.
If Romanowski was popping pills in college, his coaches had no knowledge of it, Red Kelin, the former Boston College linebackers coach, said recently. But Romanowski was particular about improving his physical prowess, Kelin said.
"I remember one summer I saw him in the weight room and I said, `Billy, why don't you go home?"' Kelin said last week. "He said: `Coach, I joined a taekwondo class. It helps my balance. It helps my speed.'
"He related everything to football. He wouldn't do anything to hurt his body because it was his temple. It probably has gotten him in trouble with the rumors and all of that, but I can't say that he was taking steroids. If he did it in college, he did it without my knowledge."
Jim Turner, the offensive line coach at Temple and a teammate of Romanowski's at Boston College, said recently that Roman-owski embodies what is right about football.
"I think he is the most misunderstood guy in the country," Turner said. "I would bet my life that Bill Romanowski is not cheating."
Romanowski has not announced whether he will continue playing next season, but one issue in his life will ultimately reach a conclusion.
The lawyer for Williams, Tony West, has spoken to Romanowski's legal representation on at least two occasions, West said. The complaint against Romanowski for punching Williams has been filed and served, and West said Williams planned to move forward on the case.
"I think Marcus believes that this is someone who needs to be held accountable for his actions, meaning he did something uncalled for and unprovoked," West said of Romanowski.
The case is about what happened at practice between Romanowski and Williams, West said, but other witnesses may be deposed to discuss Roman-owski's career in full, moments that, for better or for worse, have contributed to the makeup of the man.
As the episodes are replayed, those who know Romanowski may find them difficult to hear. But they have stood by Roman-owski before and sound as though they will again, no matter what.
"When you coach for a long time, there are maybe 20 kids that are very special, and you stay in touch with those guys; he's one of them," Bicknell said of Roman-owski. "I'd love to see him, have him come over to my house. I'm going to be talking to him."
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