Just a few, short months ago, at the beginning of the 1990 college football season, Southern Cal's glamour-boy sophomore quarterback Todd Marinovich was spoken of as a Heisman Trophy candidate. Everybody agreed he had the size, the arm, the strength -- and as we'll see -- the breeding for greatness. Over the weekend, though, Marinovich went from the starting lineup to a police lineup, after being jailed and charged with cocaine possession.
It's always disturbing to hear about somebody being arrested for drugs, let alone a young person with such obvious gifts. But in this case the situation is doubly affecting because of the weird, regimented circumstances of Marinovich's upbringing and the inescapable notion that his recent self-destructive behavior may be an act of rebellion.
Marinovich wasn't simply encouraged by his parents to become a quarterback, he was literally bred to become one. His father, Marv, a co-captain of the 1962 USC national champions, was obsessed with making Todd into the best quarterback of all time. Marv Marinovich, who runs a fitness center in Anaheim, Calif., often said his goal was to create the "perfect environment" for an athletic child. Toward that end Marv charted strict parameters for his son's life, prescribing exactly what he would eat, exactly how he would train and exactly what young Todd would want out of life. Marv was a frightening cross between a Little League father and Dr. Frankenstein. In a recent Sports Illustrated story, Douglas Looney observed that "in most ways, Marv didn't have a life. He had Todd's life."
When Todd was one month old Marv was already working on his son's conditioning, stretching his hamstrings. Todd was doing push-ups before he could walk. When he entered USC, Todd had never eaten a Ring Ding, Big Mac or french fries. Nor had he sipped a Coca-Cola. He avoided sugar and refined white flour. When Todd went to birthday parties as a kid, he brought along sugarless ice cream and a bag of carrot sticks. Along the way Marv employed 13 various coaching specialists -- from biochemists to psychologists -- to develop Todd in every phase of quarterbacking, mental and physical. The 1989 USC press guide makes a point of quantifying that the gurus instructed Todd in "speed, agility, strength, flexibility, quickness, body control, endurance, nutrition, vision, throwing motion and psychology," as if such bionic engineering were laudable. No wonder when he got to USC, Todd was called "Robo QB."
All was apparently serene in high school, but the wiring began to unravel when he reached college. By then Marv and Trudi Marinovich had divorced, and by the beginning of Todd's sophomore season Marv was having difficulty keeping the leash tight. "I had a captive audience," Marv said. "I told him what to eat, when to eat, when to go to bed, when to get up, when to work out, how to work out. Now, I have a hard time getting him on the telephone. . . . Things are just beginning to slip."
After redshirting his first year, Todd became the first freshman quarterback ever to start at USC. He had a fine year, leading the Trojans to the Rose Bowl -- in the annals of freshman efficiency his 1989 season was second only to Bernie Kosar's 1983 debut at Miami -- but he could hardly live up to his advance billing. At one point he confessed poignantly to his mother: "I wish I could go somewhere else and be someone else. I don't want to be Todd Marinovich."
By all accounts Todd didn't progress much in his sophomore season. Reports surfaced that he wasn't well liked by teammates. And his squabbles with the USC coach, Larry Smith, were well documented. Smith suspended him for one week when Todd failed to attend class in October, then the two got in a shouting match on national TV after Smith yanked him during the John Hancock Bowl; lip readers had no difficulty seeing Todd scream, "I'm out of here!" A few days later there was a report he would enter the upcoming NFL draft.
Smith suspended Todd from the squad after he missed a team meeting and failed to register for spring classes. Todd has since registered, and Smith has said Todd can be reinstated to the team next fall if he improves his academics. But their relationship is strained, if not poisoned.
On top of all this comes this cocaine charge. Hopefully, he's innocent. But it seems clear that Todd Marinovich is troubled. He was a fine, 3.4 student in high school; he should easily be able to do college work. A pattern of behavioral lapses such as missing class, missing meetings and blowing up at the coach is disturbing. Possession of drugs, if true, is devastating.
Todd Marinovich is responsible for Todd Marinovich. But it seems that Marv Marinovich's obsession to create a petri-dish quarterback inspired this melodrama. Todd didn't have anything resembling a normal childhood. Not for one second was he free to be his own person. Being arrested for drugs is a nightmarishly exaggerated form of rebellion. But if your whole being is someone else's laboratory experiment, at some point you resent it.
We're all hopelessly familiar with the psychological crises of our athletic prodigies, our skaters, gymnasts and tennis players. Burnout is the accepted term applied to champions who walk away sad and early, such as Tracy Austin and Andrea Jaeger. But there are many who never reach that romantic level of accomplishment because their psyches are too fragile, and they become clinically depressed, even suicidal. An alarm ought to go off when we see those towheads posed in the crib with a hockey stick or baseball bat in their hands. The terrible risk parents run in pushing a child is that they push beyond the limit. It's a delicate balance. Todd Marinovich may have been broken. We look at the remaining sweet innocents of the sports world and hold our breath.