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Now a cheerleader, making a difference


From 1972 to 1981, if there was a leg whip to be administered, an eye gouge to be doled out or a bite mark to be given in the NFL's trenches, Conrad Dobler was more than happy to do it.

Roundly called the "dirtiest player in the NFL," Dobler left no stone unturned in protecting his turf and his quarterback as a guard for the St. Louis Cardinals, New Orleans Saints and Buffalo Bills in a 10-year career.

Imagine, then, given Dobler's nasty football nature, how surprised defensive linemen he faced would be to hear the words of hope that Dobler has for young victims of spinal cord injuries.

"I tell them [paralyzed children] the cure is there. It will be there," Dobler said yesterday. "You have to prepare yourself to get up out of that chair, because it's just around the corner. And if you're not prepared for that, even if the cure comes and you don't do your rehab, you won't be prepared to get out of the chair. So do everything you possibly can now, because when that time comes and it's time for you to walk, you'd better have your muscles ready. You'd better have your feet and legs ready, and you'd better be mentally ready to go out there and get the job done."

Of course, life has a way of altering one's perspective, and Dobler's certainly changed on July 4, 2001, as he was grilling for an Independence Day barbecue at his suburban Kansas City, Mo., home.

Sometime around 7, Dobler's wife, Joy, was climbing into a hammock in the backyard, when she fell out, landing on her head.

"I wasn't bungee jumping or speed racing," said Joy Dobler. "I went to get into a hammock in my backyard, about a foot and a half off the lawn and fell out and broke my neck. It's a plush lawn, soft grass. I couldn't do it again if I tried a million times."

All it took was that once for Joy Dobler, a 6-foot-tall woman who had coached a local Catholic boys basketball team, to become a quadriplegic.

After extensive surgery, Joy Dobler developed a severe esophageal infection that caused her condition to deteriorate even more. Conrad Dobler spoke with actor Christopher Reeve, who, himself was the victim of a spinal cord injury, and followed Reeve's recommendation that she be moved to a St. Louis hospital, where she spent 10 months in recovery and rehabilitation.

In the succeeding years, Joy Dobler's condition improved substantially, though the family was forced to sell its home to keep up with more than $500,000 in medical expenses.

But the Doblers have maintained an upbeat attitude, and they are relentless in raising funds to battle spinal cord injuries.

Their efforts led them to Baltimore yesterday with more than $200,000 for the opening of the Kennedy Krieger Institute's International Center for Spinal Cord Injury, the world's first facility devoted to rehabbing and restoring children with spinal cord injuries. The center's director, Dr. John McDonald, treated Joy Dobler, as well as Reeve, who died last October.

The Doblers shared a stage yesterday morning with Loyola football player Van Brooks, who was paralyzed last September making a tackle during a game against Georgetown Prep.

Brooks, who was unable to move at all immediately after the accident, has improved steadily with three weekly three-hour therapy sessions at Kennedy Krieger. Though he cannot stand on his own, Brooks can exercise in a device that has him upright, and displayed to an audience yesterday his ability to grab and squeeze materials.

"I can see the progress, from when I first got injured, not being able to move at all, to now, where I can move, just about my whole upper body," Brooks said. "I'm starting to get small functions back. I can write now. I can pick up small things."

"For the age that he is, you would think that he wouldn't [be able to measure the progress] mentally," said Brooks' father, Van Sr. "The mental part is more stressful than the physical part. To sit down and say in one minute that you walk out the door and the next, you can't move at all, that's a big difference, and at 16 years old, at the time of the injury, that's a big, big difference."

Besides football, if there were something that Conrad Dobler could impart to Van Brooks, it would be his sense of meanness, at least as it relates to the spinal cord injury that has him down for the moment, but perhaps out of the wheelchair someday.

"There will always be someone who will be able to [outperform] you," Dobler said. "But those same people that are out there performing where you can't perform, if they were put in your situation, would they be able to go through the rehab that you have to go through three or four times a week? Do they have the ability to do that? You will always beat them in that aspect. You have to have that fighting desire."

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