In February of 1988, Todd Marinovich had more potential than just about anyone on the planet. So what happened?
Groomed from even before his birth to be the greatest quarterback of all time, the Capistrano Valley (California) High School senior who had set the national high school passing record -- throwing for nearly 10,000 yards in his career -- was already being compared to legends like Jim Kelly and John Elway, and had just nearly every football program of import in the country vying for his services.
Just five years later, after being kicked out of the NFL for failing his third drug test, his career was essentially over.
Did Todd Marinovich ever really love football enough to care about it?
The man who introduced most of us to Marinovich in that February of 1988 isn't so sure.
Doug Loony wrote for Sports Illustrated from 1975 to 1997 and spent several days with the quarterback preparing for the article in which he called Todd "America's first test-tube athlete." As we wrap up this week of looking at the world of kids, sports, and recruiting, we spoke with Loony about the "cautionary tale" that is Todd Marinovich.
HLNtv.com: How did the article about Todd come about?
Doug Looney: I truly don’t remember. I wrote a lot about college football during my time there. That story had a lot more appeal than going down and writing about another Alabama-Auburn football game -- to write about Todd and everything that had been done to develop him into a football player from the time that, actually, he was in the womb.
HLNtv.com: Is that piece something that stands out for you, career-wise?
DL: Yes. The [subjects] that are really unique do stand out. I covered a lot of Michigan-Notre Dame games, Texas-Oklahoma, USC-UCLA... But -- you get a personality like a Todd Marinovich and he ranks right up there in terms of an interesting character. You take a memorable person, and if there’s really a lot of tragedy attached to it, it increases the fascination.
HLNtv.com: Did you have a sense of that tragedy when you wrote about him in 1988?
DL: I did. I’d like to say that it’s because I was so bright, but I’d also like to say parenthetically that I spent tons of time around Joe Paterno and certainly around Jerry Sandusky, and I wish I could tell you that every time I talked to Jerry, I’d think, “Hmm, there’s something a little off with him…” But that didn’t happen. He was just another football coach to me, so you’re not talking to a genius here.
I definitely thought [with Todd] -- and I met him when he was probably about 18 -- he had two things to me that spelled trouble. He had the look of a deer in the headlights, and he was fighting the great expectations. I thought, “Boy, this could spell trouble.” I just thought there was a sense of tragedy there all along and, really, because the thing just seemed so screwy. I wrote a lot about horse racing, too, in the magazine, and the breeding that went into horses, and it was as if we were trying to do the same thing with Todd Marinovich.
Todd’s certainly one of the great tragedies in sport -- not that we haven’t had a lot of them -- but whenever someone has ability and they squander it, that’s sad… It’s a cautionary tale that parents should really be on guard against wanting something too much for a child.
I always got the feel that Todd -- he was going to be a football player, but, boy, he sure didn’t like the stuff that he had to go through: having to deal with the weights, and having to deal with the throwing coach, and having to deal with the psychologist, having to deal with the nutritionist. He didn’t seem like a happy guy. My impression was that he was very wary.
HLNtv.com: And what was your impression of his dad, Marv?
DL: He was a controlling father, no question about it, and kind of a blustery sort of guy, but I developed a kind of affection for Marv. He realized -- and he would get a kind of smile on his face -- he realized all of the things that he and his wife had done to turn Todd into a good football player. In fairness, the Marinoviches tried to do things so it wasn’t football 24/7. They did play classical music for him when he was little, his mother did take him to museums all the time. So they tried to expose him to other things and make him a more well-rounded person. And to that I say, good for them.
But I think expectations can turn out to be a very bad thing. For us to be talking about Todd today with the likes of John Elway, I think he would have had to win three national championships at USC and half a dozen Super Bowls. Then everybody would be saying, “See? It works. Everyone ought to take their little babies and turn them into Todd Marinoviches.” But there’s nobody in America that wants their baby to turn out like Todd Marinovich.
HLNtv.com: You wrote in the article that “failure would be a dreadful blow for both father and son.” Clearly this didn’t go well. Do you have any sense as to how Marv has reacted to this?
DL: I’m sure Marv is a very defeated man by now. I never doubted -- for all of the stuff they were trying to do for Todd’s football playing -- they were essentially pretty much like every other parent in America, they loved him… Todd never had any consistency, and I don’t know how much of that was just totally mental, or was it the drugs speaking, or -- a real possibility now -- did Todd Marinovich ever love football enough to care enough about it?
I don’t know.
HLNtv.com: How do you think the Internet and new media has changed the athletic recruiting landscape since you wrote the article?
DL: Recruiting has always been a big deal. But the Internet stuff has increased the whole operation 100-fold. The problem with how it’s exacerbated itself, is back when Todd was being recruited, they would know about [these kids] as juniors, but their senior year was when it was determined where everybody was going to go. Now it’s so much earlier. They know football players in seventh or eighth grade. Imagine, a youngster is a 10th-grader and all of the sudden he’s told that some coach from USC is there looking at him and thinking he might be a good player for the Trojans. That’s pretty tough for a little boy.
This isn’t what the game was supposed to be. Football was supposed to be a game for the boys to play on Saturday afternoons just to have a little physical activity and get away from their academics. We’ve come a long way from there and I’m not sure it’s all been terrific.
HLNtv.com reached out to Todd Marinovich for inclusion in this article, but did not receive a response. Today, he lives with his family in Southern California and sells his art online in the Todd Marinovich Art Gallery.