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Marinovich Revisited

February 23 2012
Marinovich Revisited

Everybody involved with sports, especially youth sports, has an opinion about Todd Marinovich, or more specifically, about his father: Marv Marinovich. Most of us know, or have been told about, the story as an overbearing father going too far, resulting in Dad turning his talented child into a drug addict through his controlling ways; the Marinovich story is often cited as the classic case of poor parenting and an over-the-top sports dad.

If you Google Todd Marinovich you’ll get over 280,000 results. He played professional football in the NFL as the first round draft pick of the Raiders (chosen ahead of Brett Favre), in the Canadian football league and, finally, in the Arena football league. Marinovich is also well known for his fantastic career at USC, becoming the first Trojan freshman to start in nearly 50 years, where he led to team to a 9-2-1 record, Pac-10 and Rose Bowl championships, and was named college freshman of the year by The Sporting News. Despite his accomplishments as an adult, Todd is best known for his record setting performances in youth leagues and in high school when he received national acclaim.

Marinovich had a very successful high school career as he set a national record by passing for 9,914 yards, including 2,477 in his senior year to become a Parade All-American, winning the Dial Award, Touchdown Club, and the National High School Coaches Association offensive player of the year awards. He started all four high school years at Mater Dei High School (two years) and Capistrano Valley High School, as he became the first freshman ever to start in Orange County. As a youth quarterback, Marinovich was a dominant player setting up his future success. In the view of many, the acclaim Todd received was tarnished by his dad being considered by many as one of the worst sports fathers ever.

Todd’s father, Marv Marinovich, dedicated his life to helping his son achieve his dreams. Now, cynical readers would wonder "whose” dreams they were trying to attain and certainly that’s a valid question. Marv, like the rest of us, wanted what’s best for his children and we use our superior life experience to try to help them make better decisions for school, sports, relationships and, well, basically everything. Marv has considerable knowledge about football, having been a lineman and a captain for the USC Trojans during the 1962 championship season. After an NFL stint, he studied Eastern Bloc training methods and was eventually hired by the Raiders as one of the first strength and conditioning coaches in the NFL. Marv took all of his knowledge and poured it into his son, Todd, saying: "Some guys think the most important thing in life is their jobs, the stock market, whatever. To me, it was my kids. The question I asked myself was, how well could a kid develop if you provided him with the perfect environment.” So, Marv Marinovich set out to create the ultimate NFL quarterback.

Making Todd into an NFL QB was a family obsession. During pregnancy, his mother, Trudi, used no salt, sugar, alcohol or tobacco and as a baby, Todd teethed on frozen kidney and liver, was fed only fresh vegetables, fruits and raw milk, and had a stuffed football with him at all times. In the crib, Marv worked on flexibility, with techniques focusing on speed and agility, using many of the movements that later became the basis of modern core training. Meanwhile, Trudi was playing classical music, mostly Bach and Mozart, and banned cartoons on television, because of the violence, in favor of classic Hollywood cinema. As a kid, Todd never ate a Big Mac, Oreo or Ding Dong, and he brought his own cake and ice cream to birthday parties to avoid sugar and refined white flour. The unusual upbringing, coupled with the high school success, eventually led to national recognition.

Articles began appearing featuring Marinovich, while still in high school, as the "Robo QB: the Making of the Perfect Athlete”. Sports Illustrated followed with an article entitled: "Bred to Be A Superstar”. The articles spelled out the multi-hour, 7-day a week workouts that Todd did with his dad. The workouts were intense, including weight lifting, core training, speed and agility work, and of course, focused quarterback instruction.

Raising Todd created huge friction between Marv and Trudi, leading to a divorce after Todd’s sophomore season and the transfer of high schools. Shortly thereafter, Todd discovered marijuana at his new school. Given the pressure of the national publicity, the divorce and his new peer group, drugs became a regular part of his life. Marinovich would regularly meet friends before school each day, for what they called "Zero Period”, and got high. The story gets pretty bad as marijuana progressed to drinking, cocaine, LSD, and eventually heroin. Todd is very honest about his drug use, its proliferation and how it led to his eventual failures in life.

In 2004, ESPN published a list of the "25 Biggest Sports Flops of the Past 25 Years” and named Todd Marinovich #4. Many like to use the story of Marinovich of the example of an overbearing parent, either sports fathers or theatre mothers, who drive their kids to fulfill their own dreams, destroying the children, their families and all those around them in the process. Of course common wisdom says that it has to be Marv who caused the drug use because of the undue pressure he created for his son. Yet, Todd wasn’t doing drugs by himself during "Zero Period”. It is certainly a fact that none of the other kids Todd did drugs with in high school, or thereafter, had an upbringing even remotely similar to what Marv designed for Todd. During the Recent ESPN documentary, "The Marinovich Project”, Todd was very open about his progression with, and dependence on, drugs and how they contributed to his not living up to the vast promise he showed in high school. All people are complex and teenagers, in particular, have many issues to deal with, including drugs. Despite Sports Illustrated referring to Marinovich as "America’s first test-tube athlete”, the detailed and controlling structure created by Marv cannot be held to blame for Todd’s demise or Todd would be the only drug addict in history.

There are many examples of highly successful athletes, who have had extremely controlling parents, who had triumphant careers in sports or entertainment. Within sports, Tiger Woods, The Williams sisters, Andre Agassi and "Pistol” Pete Maravich have all been dominant, Hall of Fame, performers. Brooke Shields, Drew Barrymore, and even Shirley Temple, all had extremely involved parents managing their careers. Being an involved parent, even an overly involved parent, isn’t by definition bad nor does it automatically lead to drug addiction and horribly disturbed children. Certainly, there have been many significant conflicts between the parents and children during this time, but that is often the case for teenagers no matter how involved the parents are. Andre Agassi wrote in his book "Open” that he hated his father and what Andre was being forced to do playing tennis. The conflict of many of these relationships has been fodder for tabloids as well ringing examples of how not to parent.

Regardless of what the outside world thinks, when looking at these relationships, about how awful the parents are, none of the program is possible without the willing participation of the kids. Even Agassi, while complaining about his dad forcing him to hit 2,000 tennis balls off "the Dragon” every day, he did it, his game improved and he eventually became the best tennis player in the world. While he hated everything that his dad made him do, he eventually embraced what tennis did for him, determined he wanted to be #1, built a team to help him, and accomplished his goals. None of this would have been possible without had dad, but if Agassi didn’t want to hit the balls, and was obstinate enough to stand up to the pressure of his father, he could not be forced to do it and we wouldn’t have ever heard of Andre Agassi.

In the recently released Marinovich documentary, the story is even clearer that Todd was a willing participant. Todd and Marv recounted a conversation they had where they stated that Marv was enthusiastic about teaching Todd to be a great QB, to create the nutrition and workout programs and to continue helping create an NFL success story if Todd was willing to do the work. It was unequivocal that Todd fully wanted the program and nobody would work harder. The story of athletic success and hard work are always coupled. Sometimes the parent helps create a program for kid to follow, like Mickey Mantle being pitched to by his father every day, sometimes the parents are harsh and other times nurturing. There are also times when the kids do it all are on their own, but there is consistently hard work. Regardless, the kids are constantly the drivers of the program because it cannot work, in spite of the parent’s goals or intentions, without the kids wanting, on some level, to do it.

Given that Marinovich met his goals to play in the NFL, it is hard to argue that Marv’s experiment wasn’t a huge success. Despite Todd not reaching the unlimited potential he displayed as a high school, record setting quarterback, he threw for nearly 400 yards in an NFL game, started for two seasons, won a Rose Bowl in college and set an Arena League record with ten touchdowns in a game (on a heroin withdrawal). He also signed a three-year, $2.5 million contract with the Raiders out of college, which is more money than most make in a lifetime. Yet, the vast majority of people want to look for failure, pointing to unfulfilled promise, drug addiction and jail time. I believe that you cannot blame the controlled upbringing for either the failure or the success as ultimately, no matter how much the parent wants to do it for their kids, the kids are responsible; Todd was the one making it all happen both on and off the field. Todd did the work to succeed, he did the drugs to fail, and he paid the price with jail time and has to live with the decisions that he made.

One of the most striking aspects of the ESPN documentary was that the relationship between Marv and Todd is excellent. They do business together training young quarterbacks and they are both comfortable with the way Todd grew up and view things as successfully meeting the goals they set forth. During the process of training Todd, Marv dedicated his life resulting in divorce and lost jobs. Todd ended up in jail with a drug addiction, but has since rehabilitated, gotten married, has a successful business as an artist and has children of his own. There is no blame for either of the men and they have a strong father-son relationship.

While most of us don’t have the knowledge, time or dedication to be so involved with our children, we shouldn’t be afraid to do what we can to help our kids meet their goals. Parents have broader life experiences and, therefore, the ability to see mistakes that their kids might make, but the dreams should belong to the kids. Just as kids shouldn’t cave to peer-pressure, parents need to ignore critics who are unhappy with the way that they raise their kids if the kids are getting what they need. However, with the perspective parents have, they need to also have a reasonable outlook of what their kids really want, what their realistic capabilities are, and also remember that no matter how hard they work, almost nobody plays sports beyond high school and even fewer become professional athletes.

The story of Todd Marinovich is ultimately one of success. Todd met his goals and has a successful life as an artist, business and family man. For Marv, he sacrificed much for Todd, but saw his son play in the NFL and star at USC. He has a good relationship with his son and grandchildren. Nothing is life is ever simple, but there are many examples of successful sports parents. As we head into this New Year, when deciding as a parent how involved you can be with your children and how hard to push them, the ultimate pronouncement will come from the kids and what they’re willing to do. Use your grander life experience to help guide their decisions, but as a parent, the greatest success you and your child will find comes from the long-lasting relationship you can develop together through shared experiences and nothing either of you do should jeopardize that long-term dream.


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