Most players in the NFL, even if they don’t want to admit it, know when it’s time to hang up their cleats for good. For some, their breakaway speed doesn’t quite allow them to break away. Others begin spending more time on the trainer’s table than on the practice field. Bill Romanowski didn’t have either of these problems. After 16 seasons in the NFL, he was still physically at his peak. “I was stronger than I had ever been,” he says. “I was faster than I had ever been.” But there was one part of his body that Romanowski had not yet fully understood how to train—his brain. And after he could no longer keep track of the number of concussions he suffered, one of the most physically and mentally toughest players ever to play the game had to say goodbye to the game he played for nearly a lifetime.
It started with simple lapses in memory—missing car keys, walking back into the house and being unable to remember what he was looking for. But soon, the memory loss became more severe. There were times when he couldn’t remember the directions from the Oakland Raiders practice facility to his home. It became clear to Romanowski that the hits were starting to add up fast. Not just the bone crushing tackles that he would lay on running backs and tight ends. “It’s the little jolts,” he says. “Every time you shed a block. Every time you jam a running back. Every bump, every shock affects your brain. It’s death by paper cuts.”
Romanowski knows he’s not alone. His brethren, even the ones who had much shorter careers, are suffering similar symptoms. In a league that continues to try to outlaw helmet-to-helmet hits, those little knocks and dings add up exponentially. That is why Romanowski has dedicated the next act of his life to changing the way people think about their brains forever. “I trained harder than anyone in the NFL,” he says. “I was years ahead of my time in understanding what you needed to do to help the body recover. I studied how nutrition could help put out inflammation in the body. If I knew then what I know now, I would have absolutely focused as a player on ways to reduce inflammation in the brain. But what most former players need to know, in any sport, it’s not too late to start. If you don’t want to decay the rest of your life, you’ve got to start now.”
Romanowski’s resume speaks for itself. In a grueling sport, he played outside linebacker for 243 consecutive games, an NFL record for linebackers. During that time, he reached the Super Bowl five times, winning four of them, including back-to-back titles with the San Francisco 49ers and the Denver Broncos. He was selected for the Pro Bowl twice. And while some may have seen his altercations on the field as the actions of a player out of control, his coaches saw a warrior that was willing to do anything to the opponent, or himself, to win a football game. When he couldn’t do what it took—helmet-to-helmet tackling, all out physicality—it was time for something new.
“When I left the NFL, it was ‘OK, what do I do now?’” Romanowski says. “And I just thought about what I really love. I love football. I love training, every aspect of performance. And I love nutrition. Hollywood was also intriguing to me, getting the opportunity to do acting. Those were the opportunities that I had. The owners of CytoSport, Michael and Greg Pickett, took care of the Raiders with supplements. They had developed Muscle Milk. As soon as my career was over, I started talking to them about helping them out and learning the industry—product development, distribution, branding. I said I want to help you guys; I want to learn this industry, and I know I can make a difference.”
Once Romanowski came aboard at CytoSport, he would go to different distributors to talk about the company and the product offerings. Through his network of contacts, he began to initiate conversations at major corporations like McDonald’s and Coca-Cola, looking for ways to grow the brand. As Romanowski began to understand the intricacies of the business, he became inspired to develop his own line of products. Teaming up with an engineer at CytoSport, they began to work in the lab together.
“We would start mixing up ingredients to help brain focus,” he says. “Every day, I would look at formulas from different doctors and scientists and look at usage levels on certain ingredients; that’s how I brought it all together. If a study said 100mg of something created an effect, I used 100 mg. Some companies would put in 10 mg because to use 100 mg was too expensive. We needed to use what the research said would produce an effect. We would try different things and I was the guinea pig.”
The same level of experimentation and intellectual curiosity that Romanowski brought to training for footbal, he used in his budding career in nutrition. The developing formula, he hoped, would not just be a boost for athletes suffering from cognitive function issues, but also for every day people looking to expand their mental energy. “Monster and Red Bull are big,” he says, “but they jack you up on caffeine and sugar. What people don’t understand is that the real engine for the body is the brain. Why not take care of that first. Nutrition companies doing protein powders don’t understand the brain. Scientists do, but they don’t know how to create the products and the branding.”
After two years of experimentation, Romanowski finally developed a product he felt was worthy for the marketplace. He started his own company, Nutrition 53, and he named his first product Neuro1. “When I first tried it,” he says, “I felt the difference immediately. My brain was lightened up in ways that it hadn’t been in a long time. I had been living in a fog for a long time from playing in the NFL, dealing with all the concussions. Now, the fog finally felt like it was starting to lift. I put myself through the most extreme environment you can body through: 16 years of the NFL, 27 years of football. I want to have a great lifestyle for the rest of my life. Nutrition is going to have a big impact on that. The reason why I called the company Nutrition 53 was because it was my uniform number. What I did in the NFL, how I learned about nutrition, the way I approached my body and the game, it helped me learn what I needed to do to make this happen.”
To this day, Romanowski still feels that professional athletes leave a substantial amount of performance on the table because they’re not willing to take his approach, to pay the price—literally. “During my career, I spent millions on myself—nutritionist, massage therapists, acupuncturists, body work specialists, the best strength and speed coaches in the world, the best food and supplements, hyperbaric therapy, cranial work. I would spend as much time on recovery for my body as I would on training. Most guys won’t do that. And they definitely won’t spend that much.”
When Mike Shanahan took over as head coach of the Washington Redskins, Romanowski put together an organizational plan for the team based on what he would do as a player if he were in the league today. He wanted to see the coach that led him to two Super Bowl victories succeed again. The plan was extensive, and expensive.
“Every position in an organization has multiple coaches, but there’s one, maybe two, strength coaches to handle all of these guys,” he says. “The training of an athlete in a weight room is far more complex than playing the game of football. You’re dealing with the human body, with so many different muscle groups. On top of that, you have the different injuries you deal with through training cycles, issues you deal with during the season, how physical a game or a practice was. Playing football is lot easier than the detail it takes to get the most out of every athlete. That’s why I would make every position have its own strength coach. That strength coach would monitor every workout, watch his players’ diets, observe where those players are mentally, and report things to a nutritionist who would be part of the staff. Every position would have its own soft tissue specialist to work on recovery every day. I would have a biomechanical analysis done daily on every athlete on a team. Practice is an opportunity to watch every movement an athlete makes on the field or their lack of movement.”
The plan would have cost approximately $5 million per year on the high end, but Romanowski feels that in a sport of attrition, how much would a team be willing to pay to be the last man standing? Isn’t it worth it to be the best? “Eventually, I think teams will adopt a lot of this,” he says. “Maybe it’s 5-to-10 years from now. But they’re not ready to do it.”
To this day, Romanowski receives calls from NFL players looking for advice on how to take their performance up to a new level. “Some of them are catching on,” he says. “They’re starting to work with their own speed coaches. But you have to be willing to work with the best. You have to be willing to pay the price. I hired guys that were training Olympic athletes, the fastest runners in the world. It was expensive. No one is willing to pay that price.”
In the meantime, Romanowski is dedicated to helping anyone interested in improving their life and willing to try something new. “I am going to change the world,” he says. “I am going to change people’s lives. We have a product that helps nourish the brain. We have a product that helps people get leaner. We have a supplement that helps people get the restorative sleep they need to grow and recover, and we’ve got a multivitamin that gives people the nutrition that they need. We’re going to expand into other products that help people pre- and post-workout, products that help people recover.
For Romanowski, every scientific study, every new product brings him closer to winning the battle to staying healthy and leading a vibrant life for decades to come. And if you’ve ever been around Bill Romanowski, you know one thing is for certain—he will do what it takes to win the battle.