The Marinovich Project

Wow, I remember Robo QB well. I recall my high school buddy, the only USC fan in Findlay, talking up Todd Marinovich. My buddy was always ahead of the game on college football recruiting and he hated the Big Ten. He would tote out stories about Marinovich as proof of how much the Pac 10 would supposedly dominate the Big Ten in the future. This was maybe 1984, when Marinovich was probably a high school sophomore.

In 1989 I saw Marinovich play live. I attended the Notre Dame vs USC game that year on a rainy Saturday with my wife. I can picture  it like it was yesterday. We had two tix in the north end zone and it was a great game. Marinovich had three TDs (I don’t remember that stat specifically, but I verified it). ND won and I can remember thinking, “This kid is going to be good.”

He was good, but he was a serious headcase. Remember though, this guy was raised by his dad to be a QB beginning at age four, so despite the head problems (and the pot and booze), he was able to be relatively successful. His dad was one of the first strength and conditioning coaches in the NFL (Raiders) and used all (and I do mean all) of their free time to train Todd for the quarterback position.

By 1992 Marinovich had achieved all of his dreams, he was the Raider’s starter and had made his dad proud, but he still wasn’t happy. He felt empty. He says:

If you’re good at something, does that mean you were meant to do it?

The Raiders cut him shortly thereafter for failing a drug test. He was a recreational drug user, but soon after being cut he became a full on heroin addict. He told his side of the story to ESPN while sitting on the beach on an overcast day, wearing a baseball hat without a logo, talking directly to the camera. I was moved.

It’s a familiar story in sports and eerily reminiscent of a similar story in the golf world. When Marinovich made those comments above, the first name that popped into my head was David Duval. Here’s what Duval said after winning a major (from Breaking the Slump, by Jimmy Roberts):

“Vijay (Singh), Mike (Weir), and a bunch of family members were on the plan,” remembers Moore. “After awhile, everybody else fell asleep, and David and I were drinking champagne from the Claret Jug. I remember as we were landing, the sun was coming up, and we were pulling into Toronto and David says to me: ‘I would have thought it would feel better than this.’”

Duval termed it his “existentialist moment.”

“I started to think: ‘That’s it? That’s all there is?’” he recalls.

Unlike Marinovich, after reaching the top of the mountain, Duval’s life didn’t spin out of control into a drug-fueled cesspool, but his golf game went into the tank. Like Marinovich though, the trip back down from the mountaintop led to Duval meeting the woman of his dreams, starting a family, and coming to terms with a family trauma from his childhood (Duval’s brother drowned). In both cases, the ending is somewhat uplifting.

Marinovich is now an artist in Southern Calinfornia and has a wife and two kids. His art looks like it’s mostly portraits themed in sports and entertainment. He’s been clean since 2009 and has come to terms with his childhood and his dad. Todd and his dad continue to collaborate on art projects to this day and are actively involved in each other’s lives.

This was a solid sports doc by ESPN. I don’t like ESPN and I try to avoid the world wide leader for anything but live events. I rarely watch Sportscenter, never go to ESPN.com, don’t have the app, and haven’t watched Gameday in years. But they’re difficult to avoid if you’re sports fan. They’ve done some wonderful work on these sports documentaries and this one was well worth the 90-minute investment.

That being said, I’m always on the lookout for the spin. The cynic in me asks questions. Did ESPN sugarcoat the relationship with his dad to make it more touching? Marinovich’s website just went up; is this all about marketing?

I’m choosing to believe in the genuineness mostly because of Marinovich’s solemn and even-keeled retelling of things. He drew me in with his apparent humbleness. Great stuff.