The Ballad of Todd Marinovich
Exhibit A in the Modern Age of Crazy Sports Parenting is usually the oddball relationship between Marv Marinovich and his son, Todd. As the story famously goes, when the ex-Oakland Raider and personal trainer found out he was going to have a baby boy, he started in the womb the training and feeding of young Todd, using the Eastern Bloc training methods he studied. After his birth July 4, 1969 (while your humble blogger was still in the womb, not being fed a diet of carob), everything in Todd’s life was trained to make him what was later called “robo-QB.”
Just as famously, Todd made his way to USC and a first-round pick of the Raiders, but flamed out quickly because of drug addiction and other personal problems, cementing Marv as a unanimous choice for one of the worst sports parents of all-time. (Further cementing Marv’s status is that with his second wife he had another son, Mikhail, whom he tried to develop, with a few variations, into a robo-linebacker. Mikhail is a reserve at Syracuse, where he’s made his fame opening a hookah bar and getting arrested. Oh, and Mikhail is an aspiring model, too.)
The assumption is that Todd’s downfall was some sort of passive-aggressive rebellion against his father trying to make him into a quarterback machine, a less destructive (at least to Marv) way than say, the monster killing Dr. Frankenstein, to show his displeasure with his creator.
After reading Mike Sager’s piece in the latest Esquire on Todd Marinovich, I’m rethinking a few of my own assumptions — although his story still stands as the unintended consequences of crazy sports parenthood, or crazy parenthood in general. It’s a reminder as a parent that whatever ambitions you have for your child, however you try to steer them, no matter how overbearing and focused you are, and no matter if you indeed are doing what is best for your child, that child is a human being who can — and perhaps should — veer off your course at any moment.
Actually, I wish this story were more about Marv, because Todd himself is just another boring junkie. He was clean as the story was reported, but the story notes a February relapse into addiction, while Todd handles with much more maturity than he had in the past — he calls his parole officer to report his violation.
What has me rethinking some of my assumptions is that for all of Marv’s effort in making sure Todd ate and trained right, he appeared to make no attempt to shield his son from the party-hearty lifestyle a star athlete can get away with.
From the story, picking up after Marinovich, as a freshman, opens the season as the varsity’s starting quarterback:
After the final gun, Todd stood with his parents. His new teammates drifted over and surrounded him. “When I was growing up, the term my mom used was ‘terrifyingly shy,’ ” Todd says. “That’s why I always loved being on a team. It was the only way I could make friends. It was really amazing to have these guys, these upperclassmen, come over. And they’re like, ‘Hey, Todd, let’s go! Come out with us after the game. It’s party time!’ “
Todd looked at Marv. The old man didn’t hesitate. “He just gave me the nod, you know, like, ‘Go ahead, you earned it.’
“We went directly to a kegger and started pounding down beers,” Todd recalls.
For what it’s worth, the story notes that it was Todd’s goal to start as a freshman. Was he just under Marv’s thrall? Maybe, maybe not. But you can’t always assume with a perceived crazy sports parents that the kid is being dragged along for the ride.
Later in high school, Marinovich’s parents divorced — and the leash loosened.
Then the January 1988 issue of California magazine hit the stands with Todd’s picture on the cover. The headline: ROBO QB: THE MAKING OF A PERFECT ATHLETE. A media onslaught ensued. They called Todd the bionic quarterback, a test-tube athlete, the boy in the bubble. All over the world, people were talking about Todd’s amazing story. In truth, he was leading a double life.
“I really looked forward to giving it all I had at the game on Friday night and then continuing through the weekend with the partying. It opened up a new social scene for me — liquid courage. I wasn’t scared of people anymore,” Todd says.
At Mater Dei, Todd had also begun smoking marijuana. By the time his junior year rolled around, he says, “I was a full-on loady.” His parents had divorced just before his transfer, and he was sharing a one-bedroom apartment with Marv near Capistrano. “Probably the best part of my childhood was me and Marv’s relationship my junior and senior years,” Todd says. “After the divorce, he really loosened up. It was a bachelor pad. We were both dating.”
For all his personal troubles, one thing Todd does nowhere in the article is blame Marv. Below a photo of the two men, Todd looking more like bald Ron Howard than the flowing red-haired god of his youth, Sager concludes the piece:
From the driver’s seat, sensing his good mood, I ask: “How much effect do you think that Marv and sports and all contributed to you turning to drugs?” I’d been saving this line of questioning since our first interview, six months earlier. “If you look at your life, it’s interesting. It appears that to get out of playing, you sort of partied away your eligibility. It’s like you’re too old to play now, so you don’t have to do drugs anymore. Has the burden been lifted?”
Todd looks out the windshield down the road. The truck bounces. Thirty full seconds pass.
“I don’t know how to answer that,” Todd says at last. “I really have very few answers.”
“That’s kind of what it seems like. A little.”
“I think, more than anything, it’s genetic. I got that gene from the Fertigs — my uncle, the Chief. They were huge drinkers. And then the environment plays a part in it, for sure.”
He lights another Marlboro Red, sucks down the first sweet hit. He rides in silence the rest of the way home.
Despite having a fiancee with a baby on the way, and how he handled his February relapse, and the faraway end to his athletic career, Todd appears to have a hard time breaking his addictions. After the Esquire piece was written, Todd was arrested for missing a Drug Court hearing and will sit in jail at least through May 4, when he has a hearing on his case. There is a good chance Marinovich will spend his 40th birthday in prison.