Spotlight

Paul Dombroski

Trust Spotlights

Paul Dombroski

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Paul Dombroski is a former NFL DB who played six seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs, New England Patriots and Tampa Bay Buccaneers between 1980-85. His unique story after the game involves a battle with breast cancer, a career as a hairstylist, and a passion for helping others.

Q
How did you discover you had breast cancer? What was that like?
A

Both my parents were gone and I was set to go back to Hawaii to sell our family home. About a week and a half prior to the trip I was just on the sofa yawning, and I ran my hand across my chest and I felt the lump. My mother was a breast cancer survivor, so I made that assumption right away.

I was debating whether to tell my wife or not, because I wanted to make sure that it didn’t distract us from what we had to do when we went to Hawaii. But after thinking about it, I knew I had to tell her. She was devastated, and ended up saying, maybe we shouldn’t go, instead we should stay and go to the doctor right away. I said, “Look, a couple of weeks is not going to make a difference. I need to do this and be there for my family, and get the estate and house taken care of.”

She agreed reluctantly, and I didn’t even tell my four other siblings about it, so nobody else in my family knew that I had this lump. About two weeks later I came back and went to my primary care physician first. My previous checkups were basically that I’d walk in, he’d say “How are you doing Paul?” and I’d say “Fine”. And then we’d just talk football or something else. But this time, he looked at me, felt the lump, and said, “That’s suspicious.” And that word “suspicious” starts to confirm in my head what I was already thinking. So, I went to radiology, they gave me an ultrasound, and I got my first mammogram.

I have a different respect for women now when they get mammograms. I walked into the room and the technician gave me a puzzled look. Not knowing that men can get breast cancer, the experience of a mammogram really wasn’t on my radar. So, I’m looking at her, pointing at my breast, and wondering how I’m going to get it into that machine. I looked like a contortionist trying to get myself into it.

After that I had to go get a biopsy, because you just can’t see enough from a mammogram or ultrasound. I went to a surgeon, and I’m sitting in this waiting room with all women, and she yells my name out. I’m like, “Wait! Keep this on the down low!”

I walked in the room and there’s a pink apron laid out – all these things are starting to connect now. I go across the hallway to get a biopsy, and my wife has her face in her hands as the surgery begins. Being an ex-player, we’ve been on enough training tables that it really wasn’t bothering me yet. But then, all of a sudden, another surgeon walks in, and then another technician, and another, and so on. That’s when it hit me, that they don’t see this very often. What’s next, are they going to start selling popcorn? I realized then and there that this is different.

A week later, I get a call from the surgeon’s office, and they said that everything looked OK, which gave me a little sigh of relief. But a couple of days later, I get a call from the surgeon himself. He said, “Paul, your worst fears are realized. It’s an invasive carcinoma.” As a male, breast cancer is really not on our radar.

a couple of days later, I get a call from the surgeon himself ... “Paul, your worst fears are realized. It’s an invasive carcinoma.” As a male, breast cancer is really not on our radar.

Q
What happened next?
A

The next step was surgery. When I heard the news, I wasn’t crushed or devastated or anxious. For a brief second after I got the information, I had this little twist in my stomach, and then I was ready to take care of it. I went into football mode and wanted to know how I could get back on the field. I’ve always taken care of myself. I eat well, I exercise, I’ve been the same weight since I played football thirty-some years ago.

My work week at the salon is Wednesday-Saturday. I got operated on a Monday, and went back to work that same week. If I had high blood pressure, or was extremely overweight, if I had diabetes or other conditions, there’s no way I could’ve done that. None of my clients even knew I had breast cancer for two years.

My surgeon gave me some great advice, and told me that I shouldn’t feel like I have to tell people right away. I’d know when the time was right. He was exactly right. The hard part for me was, working with women in my profession, hearing them go through the same struggle and feel their emotion. As a hairdresser, part of our job is very personal, and people like to share their lives. It was hard not to be able to empathize with them, but I wasn’t ready for that.

Q
Initially, you were reluctant to share your story. What made you decide to go public and become an advocate for breast cancer awareness?
A

A couple of years had passed, and as I continued to deal with the passing of my parents, I knew that they would want me to help other people. I’m a former NFL player, a hairdresser, and a breast cancer survivor – I had a unique platform to talk about early detection, awareness, health, nutrition. And to me, eventually in life, your health is your wealth.

I went to the Former Players Convention and was looking at guys and thinking, “You might’ve made a ton of money, but how is your health?” Because that’s what’s going to hold you back from doing what you want to do the rest of your life. Playing with your kids and grandkids, taking a hike, etc. It was time for me to share my story.

Q
You’ve said that early treatment was one of the keys to beating breast cancer. We often see players struggle or neglect to get medical care post-football. Can you talk about the importance of getting regular check-ups and staying on top of your health?
A

That’s one thing I started as soon as I got out of football. When you’re playing, you are in your 20s. You get a couple injuries, like a banged-up knee, and you get your physicals. My philosophy is that the work really starts once you finish. Because all that damage was done, no matter how long your career was, what happens is that health is kind of put aside.

Guys have to get a job, focus on work, they have their family, and it becomes less of a priority. Women have a wellness exam every year, whether that’s a PAP smear, or mammogram, or something else. Guys will neglect that aspect of their life for 5, 10 years. I think {health} is a topic of discussion that should be had more.

Once you’re done playing, that’s when the work starts. Not just financially, but with your health. We focus on the finances – I played in the 80’s, so I hardly had enough money to go back to see my family in Hawaii sometimes. It doesn’t matter how much money we make, because your career can be cut short. On paper, it looks like you’re going to make a lot of money, but injury hits, and now what? You blink your eyes, and you’re 50-years-old and have neglected your health, are overweight with high blood pressure and are playing catch-up on your health.

I think we have to have the ability to look at a problem or situation and be able to attack it. We spent most of our lives sitting in a film room watching situational football and figuring out how to solve it. The things that are built in us, once we’re finished, we just put that aside. A lot of us have played since we were young and have been working out, practicing every day, etc. But that stuff came natural to us, because it's physical ability. What I don’t think we develop is the application of using some of those strengths and applying them to our health, so we neglect it.

Q
What kind of advocacy do you do now to raise awareness and help other men and former players?
A

Now that my story is out, I’ve worked with the American Cancer Society on a lot of breast cancer events like Relay for Life. And just talking to whomever I can talk to. I spoke to one of the largest hair academies, I’ve had opportunities to speak at the Manning Passing Academy. I spoke last year to 1,250 kids, and while cancer wasn’t the focus of it, I got a standing ovation when I told them I was a breast cancer survivor. Cancer touches everyone in some way, shape or form.

I’m now on an advisory committee for Florida Hospital to build a breast cancer unit on one of their campuses. It’s interesting because the message is the same with breast cancer detection, it is just a different messenger. I think it’s a great platform and opportunity. A lot of times ex-players use their football notoriety to affect other people, and hopefully I can help change the dialogue amongst men that you have to talk about it, and be aware of it. If you start looking at your family history and some of the precursors, you may very well be in a situation you should keep an eye on.

Q
As you contemplated your decision to retire from the NFL, what thoughts were going through your head?
A

I think I’m a little different than your average player in this sense. I graduated from a small college in Oregon and got really no looks from anybody, so coming out of college I went back to Hawaii and was a security guard on campus and coached JV football and basketball at my old high school (Leilehua High School). At the time, there were 28 NFL teams. I wrote a letter to all 28 of them with a brief resume, and was going to fly to the mainland and tryout at their free agent tryouts (which they don’t have anymore).

About half of the teams responded to me, so I was gearing up to go, and the Kansas City Chiefs had a couple of guys from Hawaii playing on the team at the time and they sent a scout out to my area to run a combine. So I worked out, went to the combine (with around 200 other guys, some on parole, others wearing high-top Chuck Taylors and cut off jeans), and they invited me up to spring ball, and I made the team. My journey was one of those where I was always looking over my shoulder, always on the bubble, and never got comfortable.

Coming out of football, I had gotten to the point in my career where I did not enjoy it anymore. I didn’t enjoy the politics of football. I had my degree in education which helped quite a bit, because I had a Plan B. But I think I was in the same situation as a lot of guys in that we’ve been playing with our whole lives, I went through that transition of where I thought I would use my degree and substitute teach. I taught for two years, I was modeling, acting, doing real estate – a lot of different things.

But eventually, looking at bad business relationships I had – me and my wife sat down one night and I said, “We need to do something together as a business.” I knew I could trust her. And she suggested that I go to hair school and that we could open a hair salon. And because I had a modeling/acting background, I found I had a skill and a talent for it. And now I’ve been doing it for 25 years, and am at a point where another transition is coming – to public speaking and helping others.

Coming out of football, I had gotten to the point in my career where I did not enjoy it anymore. I didn’t enjoy the politics of football.

Q
Did you seek help from The Trust and/or the NFLPA? If so, can you describe what your experience was like?
A

Prior to the Scottsdale Former Player Convention, I sat down and put together a plan on how I wanted to approach my transition into breast cancer advocacy. I have all these moving parts – it’s organizing them in a way that helps me focus more attention on what I want to do post-career.

I sat down with The Trust and LaShea Davis Williams, a Program Manager. I realized that public speaking and advocacy wasn’t an opportunity that I had been able to do for the past 30 years, because I had to go out and make money just like everyone else. My motivation now, because of my breast cancer, was to help people.

Sitting down with LaShea, she gave me a lot of insight into how The Trust could help me do what I wanted to do. She hooked me up with a SCORE mentor, Ned Deitz, and in one meeting he gave me some great ideas. Sometimes just bouncing something off somebody is enough, it doesn’t have to be a complete plan. He was encouraging, and gave me enough ideas that helped me focus my attention.

Q
What would you say to another former player who is facing challenges and seeking resources and doesn’t know where to start or what to do?
A

I completely understand retired players and their mentalities sometimes. There are a lot of bad decisions we make in our transitions out of football, and even while playing. And we become very closed in and don’t want to appear weak in some way. Failure is a hard thing to face, but sometimes facing failure makes you stronger.

It’s very difficult to get guys to admit these things and search out resources for help. Because in our playing days, everything was there for us. The goal was to win, and the team is going to give you every advantage it can to win every Sunday. But when you’re out on your own, you don’t have that same support, so you have to rely on yourself. And if you don’t have those built-in mechanisms, then it’s very difficult.

You’re talking to 20-somethings who think they are invincible and are going to play forever and make a lot of money, but money runs out eventually. Especially if you don’t respect it. Sometimes powering through something can be counter-productive. We learn to power through pain and circumstances on the field, but you must look in the mirror someday and say, “I have to talk to someone." And there are resources to seek out. It’s not that you aren’t the man you think you are. Every man needs support someday from somewhere.

Personal growth is fluid. If you live long enough, there are ups, downs and plateaus in life, and you have to learn to look at the downside of life, not live there. Find a way to get out of it, and start moving the trajectory back up. A lot of times guys will stay in that low point and focus on it, and there’s always something around the next corner that will be beneficial. And reaching out to organizations like The Trust is an avenue, because there are guys out there in the same situation as you who have come out of it, and they just need to hear those stories.

We learn to power through pain and circumstances on the field, but you must look in the mirror someday and say, “I have to talk to someone." It’s not that you aren’t the man you think you are. Every man needs support someday from somewhere.

Q
What skills did you utilize during your football career that helped prepare you for life after the game?
A

I would say the adage “shake it off, take a lap.” Players are going to go through a roller coaster post-career, and at some point, you just need to shake it off and go take a lap and regroup and try something else. Failure shouldn’t be measured by one circumstance, and because we were so successful on the field, we have a hard time dealing with failures.

When you get beat for a touchdown, you line up again. And you have to learn to line up again in life and try and find that thing that stimulates you to the point where it becomes something you want to do. I had a certain aptitude for hair, but that’s not what I wanted to do. It's more about the people part of it. And that helps catapult your career.

Players are going to go through a roller coaster post-career, and at some point, you just need to shake it off and go take a lap and regroup and try something else.

Q
What was your proudest moment playing football?
A

When I was in my 20s and was playing football, there are moments like running into Three Rivers Stadium and playing the Pittsburgh Steelers as they came off a Super Bowl victory with Terry Bradshaw and Lynn Swann – That was unbelievable.

But my proudest moment came 35 years after I finished playing. A guy I had played with in New England, Sam “Bam” Cunningham, a running back. He was inducted into the Patriots Hall of Fame, and they had an alumni open mike to tell stories. So, I get up and talk about what I’m doing now, and John Hannah, arguably the best offensive lineman ever to play football, gets up, puts his arm around me and says, “This guy played the game the way it was supposed to be played.”

Knowing that guys I played with and highly respected thought of me that way – I came into the league a nobody, and to know that they respected me on that level, that overshadowed any accomplishment I received on the field.

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