It was a Monday night in 1971 when Tim Rossovich walked into the Main Line bar where I was nursing a beer and my usual assortment of psychic wounds.
The 6-foot-4, 240-pound Eagles linebacker commanded a room. In addition to his size, he had an immense crown of steel-wool hair, Rasputin eyes and an aura that combined mania and menace.
The regulars reacted to his entrance. Some were drawn to him. Others recoiled. This was the place, after all, where he once bit the bouncer’s head. On another occasion, he repeatedly smashed his casted arm onto the bar and then, after removing the last plaster shards, lifted the freed limb and shouted, “I’m cured!”
An all-American defensive end on Southern California’s 1967 national champions, Rossovich had been the Eagles’ first-round pick that following spring. I’m not sure how thorough the team’s predraft spadework was then, but it would have been nearly impossible to miss all the California native’s bizarre behavior.
One night, he leaped out of his future wife’s second-floor dormitory window. Another time, following a fraternity-house shower, he climbed naked onto the lofty ledge of a campus building, allegedly to dry off more quickly. He once dove 40 feet into a shallow river and cut his legs severely. A few days later, he plunged into a contaminated USC fish pond, infecting the wounds so badly that he fell into a coma for four days.
His Philadelphia arrival was well-timed, coming at the end of the free-spirited 1960s. With a hairstyle and lifestyle that were equally wild, he became an avatar for the era’s nonconformity. And he could play football, earning a Pro Bowl spot in 1969.
But soon his freak-show antics began to overshadow his football ability.
The Eagles defender liked to strip and cover himself with various substances -- shaving cream, whipped cream, gasoline. He lived in a Rittenhouse Square apartment with teammate Gary Pettigrew and NFL Films executive Steve Sabol, and the three were invited to lots of parties. At one, Rossovich stripped and jumped into a birthday cake. Sometimes he arrived with his clothes aflame. Then, after friends would extinguish him, he’d pop up and announce, “Sorry, I’m at the wrong apartment.”
He swallowed lit cigarettes. He drank motor oil. And most famously, he ate glass. “He’d put things in his mouth I wouldn’t put in my hand,” the late Sabol said at the time. During an interview for a lengthy profile in the magazine’s Sept. 20, 1971, issue, Sports Illustrated’s John Underwood mentioned to Rossovich that he’d never seen anyone eat glass. The player grabbed a piece of his wife’s crystal ware and consumed it right there.
“I live my life to enjoy myself,” Rossovich told the writer. “I can’t explain the things I do much beyond that. I have more energy than I know what to do with. I can’t sit around.”
Today, such mania would not go undiagnosed. But in 1971, mental illness wasn’t a subject easily discussed in locker rooms. It’s doubtful Rossovich’s behavior was seen as anything more than the kind of inflamed aggression required of NFL middle linebackers.
“Some guys play with abandon,” Sabol said in 1971. “Rosso lives with abandon.”
Was he suffering from CTE? Such concerns wouldn’t surface for another 40 years, and there’s no indication anyone ever linked Rossovich to a concussion-related ailment. But I’d bet my college diploma that this relentless linebacker, who delighted in ramming his head into opponents, walls and lockers, suffered from it, if not then, certainly later.
On that long-ago night at the Main Line bar, I saw a football celebrity enter. But soon, even I, a half-drunk college senior, could detect that there was something dark and troubling propelling him past the boundaries of convention.
Last week, Rossovich died at 72, having survived decades longer than anyone in 1971 could have guessed. His obituary didn’t include many details, but it did note that there would be no funeral services. It was probably a wise decision. How would you commemorate a life as bizarre as his?
Rossovich was traded to San Diego in 1972. He spent a few seasons there, a few more in Houston and in 1976 was back in Philadelphia, finishing his career with the World Football League’s Bell.
Aided by strong show business connections – brother Rick was an actor, and Tom Selleck was Rossovich’s college roommate – he spent the next 20-some years as a stuntman and bit actor. According to the IMDB website, his last role (“Car-chase guy” in TV’s “Mike Hammer, Private Eye”) came in 1998.
Afterward, there were no more stories about him eating glass or driving motorcycles off piers. In 2016 and again in 2017, Rossovich was arrested for violent behavior. A recent photo revealed an old man beaten down by something unseen.
I left that bar before Rossovich. Later, I heard he’d gotten into a physical altercation with a patron.
From Dick Allen to Allen Iverson, Philadelphia has had its share of enigmatic athletes. Rossovich was unique. More than anyone else, he seemed a slave to his compulsion. You wonder if it became torment.
In that SI article, Rossovich identified one of his favorite movies as “Lost Horizon.” In that 1937 film, several harried westerners stumble into Shangri-La, a remote Himalayan village whose residents lived hundreds of years.
“Wouldn’t that be wonderful, to live for 300 or 400 years,” Rossovich said to Underwood before uttering the most revealing words in the entire 12-page article, “and be completely at peace?”
His wish reminded me of a line from “Lost Horizon.” One of the visitors asked a Shangri-La’s leader the secret to his village’s happiness. His answer might have helped Rossovich.
“If we have not found the heaven within,” he said, “we have not found the heaven without.”