Ex-NFL lineman calls Mickelson 'angel'

Sunday, April 01, 2007
By Scott Michaux
Staff Writer

The whispers about Phil Mickelson are hard to believe.

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Phil Mickelson and his wife, Amy, work together to assist charities through the Phil and Amy Mickelson Foundation.

(File/Staff)

Cynics see a marquee athlete who smiles all the time, interacts with fans and gives back some of his blessings and wonder, "Is he too good to be true?"

Some question the genuineness of his generosity, from his tour-affiliated charitable initiatives to spending time signing autographs.

Some people believe Mickelson is a phony. Of course, some people believe NASA never put a man on the moon. Both would be cases of extreme efforts being made to perpetuate a living hoax.

"He does not have a 'show' Phil," said Dave Pelz, Mickelson's friend and short-game coach. "There's no on-screen persona he brings out. He smiles because he's happy and enjoys life. "

Mickelson is careful what he reveals publicly about the charities that come under the umbrella of the Phil and Amy Mickelson Foundation.

"There are a number of things I don't feel comfortable talking about because it would question my intentions. Why is it that I'm doing that?" Mickelson said. "Some of the other things that Amy and I do, it's not important that anyone knows."

"When people steal trust from you, it's tough to get back. And then when someone like Phil comes along, it gives you hope that the world isn't made up of people that you can't trust. That's the biggest message for what he has done." - Former NFL player Conrad Dobler

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That Phil Mickelson and Conrad Dobler would ever be mentioned in the same sentence has to rank among the more implausible associations in sports.

We're talking the goodiest two shoes from sports' most gentlemanly quarters mixing with the widely advertised dirtiest player from the trenches of NFL history.

Short of Ray Lewis and Mary Lou Retton hanging out at a post-Super Bowl party, it wouldn't get much weirder.

But Mickelson and Dobler have provided an example of the best in human nature. The revelation of the link between two athletes from different sports and different generations who have never met or even spoken on the telephone gives a deeper insight to what makes the two-time Masters winner tick.

"He loves golf, he's a great golfer, he'll be in the Hall of Fame and be one of the best to ever play," said Mack Brown, the University of Texas football coach who is a close friend of Mickelson. "But he will want his legacy, along with Amy's, to be more about giving and caring for people than just about the game of golf."

Dobler will certainly attest to that. Mickelson has enriched his life with what can only be described as a random act of kindness. Though the golfer would have preferred the relationship be kept confidential, Dobler wanted the world to know.

"Hopefully, people will catch on to that like that one movie, Pay It Forward," Dobler said, referring to the sentimental 2000 film about a young boy whose homework project to come up with an idea to change the world yields a system for doing good deeds for three people who will each in turn do good deeds for three others.

"I hope it's a platform where other people can see that and realize that giving is living."

Mickelson's generosity came to light in February, when Dobler told Golf World columnist Bob Verdi.

The connection between Mickelson and Dobler was made after ESPN did one of those where-are-they-now feature pieces about Dobler, the three-time Pro Bowl offensive lineman from the 1970s once dubbed "Pro Football's Dirtiest Player" on the cover of Sports Illustrated. It turns out that the man who once bit the finger of an opposing defender wasn't in the best of places.

Life was relatively fine for Dobler, his wife, Joy, and their six children until July 4, 2001. Retired for nearly 20 years from football and running a successful business in Kansas providing temporary medical help to hospitals, the Doblers were enjoying a typical Independence Day. That's when something as simple as relaxing at a backyard barbecue turned into a lifetime horror.

Joy Dobler fell out of a hammock, a drop of only about 18 inches to the ground. But she broke her neck and became paralyzed from the neck down. After nearly six years of costly and intense rehab, she has made some progress but remains a quadriplegic. The business has been downsized to help pay medical expenses. The family's lifestyle forever changed.

Dobler certainly didn't get rich from playing in the NFL in the 1970s. His starting contract with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1972 was for $17,000, and his best salary of $130,000 was reached nearly a decade later in Buffalo.

There weren't too many endorsement deals being offered to the reputed nastiest player in the league.

"It certainly helped me on the football field in the sense of taking the game away from my opponents that they thought I was this Attila the Hun," Dobler said. "But in the public world and corporate America, they didn't know what to do with a guy who had that reputation. Maybe I should have gotten a soap commercial. Merlin Olsen said that one of these days somebody is going to break Dobler's neck and I'm not going to send any flowers. He ends up with an FTD commercial, and I get nothing."

Dobler needed much more than the pittance from his NFL disability benefits to pay his wife's medical bills, which ran about $18,000 a month in the first year after the accident.

Here's where Mickelson entered the picture. He saw the ESPN piece on Dobler, which focused on his wife's efforts to stimulate stem cell and spinal cord research and the NFL's lack of compassion for the bygone gladiators who made the league the wealthy sports entity it is today.

One thing that struck Mickelson in the piece was Dobler mentioning his daughter Holli - their second-youngest child - who had worked the hardest in high school of any of her siblings and deserved to go to whatever college she desired.

"Two or three years ago, before my wife's injury, I certainly had the opportunity to send her any place she wanted to go, but now I'm even hard-pressed to send her to a junior college," Dobler said.

Mickelson instructed his agent, Glen Cohen, to contact Dobler and offer to help pay for Holli's tuition to the school of her choice. Dobler - beaten down by years of having the NFL turn its back on him - was floored. Having never met Mickelson in his life, Dobler asked Cohen, "Why?"

"Because he can," Cohen told him.

"Sometimes when you least expect it an angel will show up and take care of you," Dobler said.

Mickelson reportedly paid $20,000 for Holli's first-year tuition at Miami of Ohio. He adds a $2,000 cost of living increase each year.

"When people steal trust from you, it's tough to get back," Dobler said. "And then when someone like Phil comes along, it gives you hope that the world isn't made up of people that you can't trust. That's the biggest message for what he has done."

The Doblers have no doubts about how genuine Mickelson's generosity is.

"If there's anything missing in his life, it's a set of wings. He's an angel," Joy Dobler told Golf World. "And if I can see him for the first time, I'm going to go up and give him a big hug."

Mickelson invited the Doblers to the Memorial Tournament in Ohio at the end of May, played only a couple of hours from where Holli is a sophomore - maintaining a 3.8 grade-point average while working parttime as a waitress to cover other expenses. Whatever rendezvous they have is intended to be private, but Mickelson offered one brief comment on the subject.

"They have been wonderful," he said of the Doblers, noting the pride he takes in Holli's academic success. "I am so excited the opportunity is being taken advantage of. That makes Amy and I want to do more, and we have. It's been fun."

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com.

HOW PHIL HELPS

Public charities that benefit through the Phil and Amy Mickelson Charitable Gift Fund:

Birdies for the Brave: He pledges $100 for every birdie and $500 for every eagle to benefit our nation's troops. Part of the money collected goes to the Homes for Our Troops program, which provides wounded and disabled veterans with new homes or renovates existing homes for handicap accessibility. The rest goes to the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, which provides college scholarship grants to the children of special operations personnel killed in combat or training.

Start Smart: The Mickelsons donated $250,000 to the San Diego, Calif., program last summer, taking 1,200 kids from 24 elementary schools on a Wal-Mart spending spree for needed school supplies and clothes.

Teachers Academy: In 2005, the Mickelsons formed a partnership with ExxonMobil to launch a program aimed at providing third- through fifth-grade teachers in the communities where Mickelson plays golf with the knowledge and skills needed to motivate students to pursue careers in science and math.