Former Buffalo Bills guard Conrad Dobler was better off than many of his contemporaries for almost 20 years after his NFL retirement.
Granted, his knees were a tortured mess, the result of nine years spent in the offensive trenches. And his meager pension, common to players of his era, was hardly enough to ensure he would live happily ever after. But Dobler, once renowned as football's dirtiest player, had cut out an upper-middle-class niche in the business world with a company that provides temporary medical staffing to hospitals. He was doing all right.
The stability Dobler had attained for his wife, Joy, and their six children vanished on Independence Day 2001. Joy suffered a broken neck in a short fall off a hammock and became a paraplegic. The medical bills were staggering. Dobler's pension barely covered their monthly health insurance premium.
Joy's need for care diverted Dobler from his business. The family was maxing out credit cards, some with loan-sharklike interest rates of 26 percent. No longer would they have the wherewithal to pay college tuition for their daughter Holli, their youngest child and an academic whiz.
"The public thinks that because you played in the NFL, you got to have $5 million," sighed Dobler, who hit his career-high salary of $130,000 while playing for the Bills in 1980 and '81. "Yeah, I got it buried beneath a lilac bush in the backyard."
The tragic tale was told in a feature aired by ESPN, prompting a phone call to the Dobler home from Gary Cohen, the agent for reigning Masters champion Phil Mickelson. Mickelson had seen the story. He wanted to help. He was pledging $20,000 a year for Holli's college, plus annual increases for inflation.
"I've never met Phil Mickelson," Dobler said. "I asked, 'Why?' Gary said, 'Because he can.' "
Dobler will have an emphatic rooting interest when Mickelson sets out today in defense of his Masters championship at Augusta National. He will follow the scores as closely as he can from his company's secondary office in Houston. He will be at the television set Sunday back home in Kansas City if Mickelson's right there in contention.
"I'll be pretty excited for him," Dobler said in a phone interview. "I'll probably have to stop at church and do a lap around the beads. We can all use all the help we can get."
Mickelson and his wife, Amy, are at the forefront of multiple charitable endeavors. Their foundation oversees Birdies for the Brave, which raises funds for military personnel.
The Mickelsons also have initiated Start Smart, an educational program, in their hometown of San Diego. Mickelson, who ranks third with all-time Professional Golfers Association of America earnings of more than $40 million, will discuss those projects to the point of exhaustion to help generate publicity and encourage public involvement. But he steers the conversation away from more personal matters, such as the one involving the Doblers.
"Some of the other programs -- not programs, but things that Amy and I do -- it's not important that anyone knows," he said in February during the annual Masters teleconference with the returning champ. "It's just fun. I don't know how the story with the Doblers got out. They have been wonderful. I think the thing I'm most proud of is that the GPA [for Holli] from the first year was a 3.8. I am so excited the opportunity is being taken advantage of. That makes Amy and I want to do more, and we have."
The Doblers are scheduled to meet the Mickelsons next month at the Memorial, a PGA Tour stop in Dublin, Ohio. It will be an interesting contrast in reputations: Dobler, who carved out a football career in which nasty, surly tactics were his calling card, juxtaposed with the pristine Mickelson, a modern-day Ozzie Nelson who has captured droves of fans with an affable nature reminiscent of Arnold Palmer. "What do I say to him?" Dobler asked. "I guess all you can say is, 'Thank you.' "
No. There's more he can say. Dobler should let on that this week, while in Houston, he has been visiting the home of friends, cleaning their house, preparing their evening meal, because the man's wife is battling bone cancer, and it has been months since they've tasted home cooking.
Dobler can recount that Monday night he told that same buddy, "The Governor" as he calls him, that they were going to the Astros baseball opener, taking a breather and recharging. No argument. Case closed.
Dobler can explain that he's more inclined than ever to lend a helping hand, to "pay it forward," because of inspiration he has derived from Mickelson's unsolicited and most assuredly unexpected act of generosity that enabled the family and Holli to fulfill a dream they were ready to surrender.
"When I have time to help someone, I jump at the opportunity," Dobler said. "Since I've been down here, I haven't had much to do at night. I sleep on a cot in my office. Why shouldn't I be helping someone?"
Holli will turn 20 next month. She's in her sophomore year at Miami of Ohio, pursuing a dual major in Spanish and English. Her ambition is to become a college professor.
"I'm pretty proud of her," Dobler said.
He was of a different opinion late last week, when he received a phone call from Joy, who hit him with this lightning bolt: Holli's pregnant. "I was saying, 'Get her out of that damn school. What are they teaching her?' "
And that's when Joy delivered the only words capable of both soothing and infuriating her husband -- "April Fool's."
"That," Dobler recalled, "was not funny at all."
But it was funny, and he knows it. And besides, who would have thought, a couple of years ago, when hope was negligible, that they'd have the heart to joke, especially when it came to Holli? "As much as you see bad people in this world, there are angels out there," Dobler said. "It plays with your mind.
"The only thing I can say is: Those who think they're in this alone, they're not," Dobler said. "You can be blessed by the good Lord, by good luck, or by good people."