Bill Romanowski who played in the National Football League with the Raiders, 49ers and Broncos, stirs up nutrition powders at his lab in Lafayette, Thursday March 25, 2010. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat) 2010

Reconstructing Romo

LAFAYETTE — "Here, try this," Bill Romanowski said, offering a pipette of liquefied ginkgo, huperzine and rhodiola.

There was time when accepting a mixture of obscure extracts from Bill Romanowski would have been considered a very bad idea. In addition to championship football and violent behavior — or perhaps related to them — he was once known for the countless supplements he ingested, some of them anabolic steroids.

But this is 2010, and the former NFL villain has gone legitimate. He pitches his own FDA-approved supplements, analyzes Raiders games for Comcast and appears in movies like Adam Sandler's remake of "The Longest Yard." Anyway, standing in the kitchen of Nutrition53, the company he launched three years ago, Romanowski looked pretty authoritative in his white lab coat.

The concoction tasted of green tea and potting soil, with notes of metal shavings. A few minutes later, the retired linebacker whipped up another serving, this one suffused with a mango flavoring agent developed by Japanese chemists. Now it was like candy.

"I didn't care about taste, but society does," Romanowski said. "If it tastes like dirt, people aren't gonna use it again."

Romo spends a lot of time in this kitchen. There is a coffee pot and a microwave, as in most offices, but one wall is given over to an apothecary of labeled powders in clear plastic jars — Carbogen, Liquid Sucralose, Malic Acid, Xylitol, Boswellia, Flax Seed Powder, Sodium Citrate and dozens more.

Nutrition53 sells Neuro1, a brain-function product, and Lean1, for shedding fat, and Sleep1, which is self-explanatory. Romanowski is also preparing to roll out Muscle 1, aimed at a younger crowd of would-be muscle dudes, and is working on formulas for Happy1, a mood enhancer, and Flex1, for joint pain.

The serious mixing, packaging and shipping happens at the industrial-sized facilities of CytoSport in Benicia. But most of the initial experimentation was by Romo himself. His supplements have won a legion of admirers, some of them famous.

"Tiger Woods will not start his day without Neuro1," Romanowski said.

Nutrition53 is the centerpiece of an amazing reinvention. Romanowski went to two Pro Bowls and made the playoffs with four different teams — San Francisco, Philadelphia, Denver and Oakland. He played in five Super Bowls and won four of them, and he didn't miss an NFL game until his 16th and final season.

But Romanowski is remembered equally for his transgressions. This is the man who punched Chiefs tight end Tony Gonzalez, kicked Cardinals fullback Larry Centers in the head, broke the jaw of Panthers quarterback Kerry Collins in two places, spit in the face of 49ers wide receiver J.J. Stokes and, most infamously, shattered the orbital socket of Raiders teammate Marcus Williams in a practice-field fight in 2003, effectively ending the tight end's NFL career.

To opposing fans, and even some of his own, Romo was a sideline-to-sideline basket case, barely in control of his hair-trigger temper. Now you see him, 35 pounds lighter, his menacing alter-ego a distant memory as he wears a wide-eyed, ear-to-ear and seemingly permanent smile.

To Romo, there never was a contradiction.

"Did I sometimes cross a line out of 12,000 plays that I had in the NFL? Absolutely," he said. "So 11,990 plays were regular great football plays. But there were 10 plays or so that all of a sudden people labeled me as a madman and crazy."

Romanowski seems to have dodged the bullets of the steroids controversy. He was linked (along with three other Raiders) to the designer steroid THG in 2003, and two years later admitted on "60 Minutes" that he took steroids and human growth hormone supplied by the BALCO lab and Victor Conte. He also acknowledges taking ephedra before games until the NFL banned the herbal stimulant. But he hasn't come under the scrutiny that has dogged athletes such as Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens.

Romanowski's obsession with dietary and chemical supplements began with Dr. Michael Colgan's book, "Optimum Sports Nutrition," which Romanowski read while playing for the 49ers. He soon found himself devouring book after book and directly contacting experts on everything from simple multivitamins to protein shakes to inflammation medicine to IV therapy.

"What I had the ability to do was implement, OK?" Romanowski said. "I could take information from three different people and realize that, you know what? If I use this much Vitamin C and this much acetyl-L-carnitine, which is an amino acid, and this much Alpha GPC — boom, that combination would work for me. ... On some level, I was a 16-year lab rat."

By the time he got to Oakland in 2002, Romo was carrying around that famous tackle box full of pills and taking as many as 250 a day. He was also informally prescribing supplements to teammates, setting up, as he calls it, "a mini-GNC" in empty lockers. He had his liver function, kidney function and blood work analyzed every three to four months to make sure the aggregate wasn't toxic.

It wasn't just better football through chemistry, of course. Romanowski also worked out six to eight hours a day in the offseason, rested in a hyperbaric chamber and took his food intake just as seriously. He liked to play at exactly 242 pounds. The linebacker weighed himself compulsively, and if he came in at 241, he'd eat a little more than usual that day; if he was at 243, he'd eat a little less.

"I was so maniacal that, literally, if we were getting ready to play a cold-weather game, I would eat meat from an animal that had to survive in the cold — moose, deer, elk, buffalo," Romanowski said. "Was I any more prepared for the game because I ate moose? Really, probably not. But mentally, I'd go out on the field at zero degrees with no sleeves on and flying around, and thinking in my head, &‘Man, it's warm out here today.'"

But as he focused on getting continually stronger, leaner, faster and more durable, Romanowski failed to see the real threat coming: concussions.

He figures he had more than 20 during his playing days, and as is often the case, they became increasingly frequent and severe. He suffered a bad one when a Tampa Bay fullback blasted him in Super Bowl XXXVII, and another six months later when Raiders teammate Frank Middleton hit him during 2003 training camp.

Romanowski's thought processes got fuzzy. In his final weeks as a player, he would sometimes be walking out the door of his home when he'd think, "Oh, I forgot the tackle box," only to discover the five-pound case at the end of one arm. He heard "Brown Eyed Girl," his favorite song for most of his life, and couldn't remember that Van Morrison sang it.

"I left the Raider parking lot two weeks before I retired, and I couldn't find my home," Romanowski said. "A drive I made every day. It was 10 minutes away from the Raider facility. I just kept driving. It took a half-hour, but it finally came to me. I was too scared to call my wife and ask her. I was just kind of in this daze."

Predictably, Romo's response was to research brain chemistry and concussions and set about finding an elixir that would improve his mental function. That was the genesis of Neuro1.

"With nutrition, that gives me a chance to change the world. And I don't say that lightly. Those are big words," Romo noted. "But you know what? ... Every waking moment that I'm up, I'm thinking about how can I change the world?"

Yes, it sounds a little grandiose. Then again, Romanowski has changed his world dramatically over the past six years. Who could blame him for thinking he could fix the rest of us?

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or

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