Walking away, under his own power

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Bruce Kozerski leaves football on his own terms and, more importantly, on his own two feet.

The senior Cincinnati Bengal lasted 12 years in the National Football League, and that's enough wear and tear for ten lifetimes. Offensive linemen age in dog years. The lucky ones are the players who leave the game under their own power.

''I've bled enough for a lot of people,'' Kozerski said Thursday afternoon. ''I've had neck problems over the years, elbow problems, knee and ankle problems. As we sit and talk, my body's saying, 'Thank you.' ''

It was about time. Kozerski quit with a year remaining on a contract that could have made him as much as $900,000, yet neither the money nor his roster spot were guaranteed. He was still listed first on the team depth chart at right guard, but he would have been pushed for his position by several younger, larger and more cost-efficient candidates. The handwriting on the wall was as noticeable as neon.

''We have enough guards,'' Bengals President Mike Brown said Thursday, ''to staff the guardhouse at Buckingham Palace.''

Bruce Kozerski may not have been the best guard to play for the Bengals, but he was almost certainly the brightest. The ability to assimilate subtle assignment nuances on short notice enabled Kozerski to distinguish himself at each of the line positions during his career, sometimes in the space of a single game. This versatility was a vital commodity as the line Anthony Munoz anchored started to spring leaks.

The team's needs are different now. This year's draft was devoted to finding high-grade beef for the offensive line, and the Bengals landed so many huge prospects that the 287-pound Kozerski confessed he felt ''almost anorexic'' during mini-camp.

''When Bruce came in, he was state of the art,'' said Dave Lapham, the Bengals' radio analyst and former lineman. ''Now, you need to be 330.''

Even as the game outgrew him, Kozerski would find ways to cope. He made up for lost leverage with technique and tenacity, and almost always put himself in the right place at the right time. According to his coaches, Kozerski was involved in more than 400 offensive plays before breaking his ankle last October, and was not charged with a single assignment error.

''A solid customer,'' Mike Brown called him. ''Whatever we needed, whatever we asked, he stepped forward and did.''

Like his father, Brown can be parsimonious about praise. But he thought enough of Bruce Kozerski to stage his retirement announcement at the Bengals' annual pre-training camp media luncheon. Typically, the event is designed to preview the season and promote the team. Thursday, it was a time for reflection.

''What will I not miss about training camp?'' Kozerski said. ''Probably the night meetings - boring, monotonous night meetings. Believe me, after all these years they get that way.

''You try to pay attention, because you can always learn something, but when you have trouble sitting straight because your back hurts, and you have to constantly move your legs because your knees hurt, and you can't put your elbows on the table because they hurt, and holding a pencil to write hurts because your fingers have been hurt during the day -- you'd rather be laying in your bed watching ESPN.''

Eventually, there is a cumulative effect to all these aches and pains, and it is not pretty. Football linemen frequently trade the quality of their later life for the sake of their sport.

''Your spine is like a shock absorber,'' Lapham said. ''There are only so many hits in it. If you can play a decade and everything's functional and you don't have any artificial parts, you have to consider yourself blessed.''

All told, Bruce Kozerski said he has been playing football for 22 years. That's plenty.

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.

Published July 12, 1996.