The Many Lives of Todd Marinovich
From football legend to drug addict and now artist and devoted father and husband, Todd Marinovich's story is one of Orange County's most spectacular falls from grace – and greatest tales of redemption.
To see more of Todd Marinovich’s artwork,
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Todd Marinovich materializes one hot and windy morning outside Alta Coffee on the Balboa Peninsula, skateboard in hand, backpack in tow. Tall, lanky and tan, he’s clad in board shorts, flip-flops, baseball hat, and black sunglasses – a uniform straight out of Newport Beach central casting. If I didn’t know better, I’d scan past him, blended in as he is with the lifestyle and surroundings, another local enjoying the unseasonably warm weather before the summer crowds invade the beach. But I do know better, and I know that his story, while it began on these very streets, has taken him on a journey even he couldn’t have ever imagined.
Marinovich grew up here, on the Balboa Peninsula, a few blocks from the Balboa Ferry. His was not your typical childhood. Those who followed high school and college football in the late 1980s will remember him as the “Robo Quarterback” whose father, Marv Marinovich, had engineered since the time he was in the womb to become one of the world’s greatest football players. And it worked – sort of. At the time most kids are testing their sea legs and learning to walk, Marv had Todd steadying his little body on a balance beam. When he was little more than a toddler, Todd was being trained to run for miles on the sand to build his endurance. He teethed on frozen kidneys. And when Todd’s vision appeared to be affecting his throwing motion in middle school, his father hired a specialist who recommended that Todd wear prism glasses. Marv obliged, making him wear the corrective lenses while standing on a balance beam in a dark room, simultaneously bouncing a ball and reciting multiplication tables.
Although Marv once ranked number two on a list of worst sports fathers by an ESPN columnist, his unorthodox methods got the results he was looking for: Todd was making sports history from the moment he stepped on the football field at athletics heavyweight Mater Dei High School, where he became the first freshman to start a varsity football game. When his family moved, he played for Capistrano Valley High School in Mission Viejo, where he shattered the all-time Orange County passing record and the national high school passing record during his senior year – a record that stood for more than two decades.
Colleges came calling – big names like Stanford, USC, BYU, Arizona State, and University of Washington, to name a few. Although Marinovich took the selection process seriously, noting the impact it would have on his future football career, his family loyalties lay with USC, where his father had been Trojan captain and played as a lineman for the 1962 championship team and 1963 Rose Bowl. A fanatical athlete who over-trained himself right out of an NFL career as a lineman, Marv later focused his physical conditioning ambitions on studying Eastern Bloc training methods, eventually getting hired by the Oakland Raiders as the team’s first strength and conditioning coach. The techniques he learned were the same that he used to train Todd from the time he was born on July 4, 1969. In a 2009 interview with Esquire magazine, Marv’s motivations were plainly stated: “The question I asked myself was, ‘How well could a kid develop if you provided him the perfect environment?’”
Today, at 44 years old, Todd is living the experiment. He’s just hopped off his skateboard, right on time, laid-back and nomadic in the way he appears through the heat waves shimmering on the asphalt. His frame still has traces of his athletic glory days – tall but proportioned and confident in his movements. Upon closer examination, it’s apparent he’s lived a little, the once baby-faced athlete with thick red hair giving way to deep-set facial lines, a close-cropped head shave and weathered hands that were the crux of his celebrated though short-lived quarterback career. He’s rooting around in his backpack, eventually locating a crumbled $20 bill, which he uses to pay for an iced tea.
This is and isn’t the Todd Marinovich that many people remember, or at least want to remember. After an impressive first season at USC, where he was the first freshman quarterback to start the first game of the season since World War II, and led the Trojans to win the 1990 Rose Bowl against the Michigan Wolverines, he was named 1989 College Freshman of the Year by a number of outlets. Heisman Trophy speculation swirled. President Ronald Reagan invited him to his home in Los Angeles after a legendary game against Washington State, when Todd led what became known as “The Drive,” a last-minute 91-yard march downfield for a touchdown and a two-point conversion that won the game.
All along, the pressure was relentless, and Todd, unequipped to handle his newly discovered freedom from his father’s unyielding influence, began to unravel. He was skipping classes and butting heads with his coaches, but more problematically, drugs were playing an increasingly large role in his off-the-field recreation. By the end of the year, he had been arrested for drug possession. “It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when things went wrong,” says Todd, 20-plus years after Newport Beach police picked him up on Balboa Peninsula with marijuana and half a gram of cocaine in his pocket.
This wasn’t his first interaction with drugs, by far; since high school, he’d been dubbed “Marijuan-ovich” by those who knew of his proclivity for getting high, and for getting drunk and partying through the weekend after big games. Recalling what would be the beginning of his spectacularly destructive descent into drug addiction, his eye contact is evasive. He flips through a magazine, examining the artwork and pictures of skateboarding tricks. But then, after a pause, his blue eyes come up from under the lid of his baseball hat and meet mine. “I know it didn’t happen overnight. I believe there’s a line and once it’s crossed, there’s a problem. It was just unstoppable, until it almost killed me.”
The easy villain is his father, Marv – the man who many believe robbed his son of his youth, callously ignoring the boy’s sensitive personality and artistic leaning, and ruthlessly pushing him to his physical limits. But the story is more complicated than that. There was his parents’ divorce while he was in high school, and the fact that alcohol and drugs were easy social facilitators for the boy whose mother, Trudi, once described as “terrifyingly shy.” Although Todd vividly remembers the feelings his father instilled in him – fear, mainly (“For years, when I was in the presence of my dad, I really stayed about the age of 11 no matter how old I got. He just had a really dominant persona – it was so powerful. It brought on feelings that I don’t want to do with my children") – he still has great affection for the man who introduced him to the value of sports and the dedication required to succeed at anything at a high level. “I loved football, without a doubt,” he says. “When people say, ‘He was forced,’ there were times, yeah, I was, but there’s no way I could have spent the hours that I did if I didn’t [love the sport].”
Marv, now 74 and living near his younger brother in Santa Cruz, is suffering from dementia. Todd visits him as often as he can. “Who knows – I don’t know how long he’ll be remembering me,” he says, looking down once again, searching for the right words that don’t come. “It’s such mixed emotions.”
In spite of his drug arrest earlier that year, the Oakland Raiders picked Todd Marinovich in the first round of the 1991 NFL draft. His drug use, a known entity to those who spent time with him, was becoming progressively worse, growing to include not only pot and cocaine, but amphetamines before games, and later, LSD, since it didn’t show up on drug tests. After a short stint as starting quarterback for the Raiders, Todd was forced into rehab after he failed a drug test using a friend’s urine that contained four times the legal limit of alcohol. Two failed drug tests later, his NFL career was ended during the Raiders training camp for the 1993 season.
But really, things had only just begun to go wrong. Todd tried to return to playing football in Canada, but blew his knee out on the first day of training camp. If his bad luck had ended there, he would have been better off; instead, during his recovery, a friend introduced him to heroin, and a junkie was born. He miraculously still managed to play football for the Los Angeles Avengers in the Arena Football League in spite of severe heroin addiction and periods of withdrawal, but several further arrests for drug possession later, his football career was officially over by 2001. “Somewhere down the line I just went too far, and it can't ever be the same after that,” says Todd of his years of heroin abuse. “You can’t rewind. I was just sick – physically, mentally – sicker than I could have ever imagined in my wildest dreams. It was a death march. The thing about substance [abuse] is that it does work for a while so it’s hard to think there’s an issue until there really is an issue. And then it’s too late.”
Todd remembers one thing clearly from that period: when his mom changed the locks on her house. It was life-shattering, and ultimately, life-saving. “I wouldn’t have even thought that would be the eye-opener,” he says. “Until that happened, I would have never stopped and tried to think about re-evaluating everything. [My drug abuse] affected so many people: my sister, my mom, everybody I came into contact with, positively and also negatively. [My family] didn’t give up and in time I found myself in gratitude.”
Still, recovery never actually ends. “It’s an all-day deal,” says Todd, resignedly, scrolling through what look like art murals on his phone.
When Todd was in a heroin-induced haze, closer to the land of the dead than that of the living, he wasn’t imagining his future beyond his next high. He couldn’t have envisioned a family of his own, a career of his own choosing, a life without drugs or football.
His life now is all of those things. He met his wife, Alexandria, during one of his court-ordered drug rehab programs, “in the waiting room at good old Orange County probation,” he says, chuckling. They married four years ago and now have two children: a son, Baron, who turns five this month, and daughter Coski, two. They are the center of his universe. “It’s truly a gift,” he says of having children, struggling to put his feelings into words and noting the limitations of the English language. “Whenever I have trouble verbalizing, that’s when I think that I’m talking about something with some realness to it, you know what I mean? Anything I would try to say would just fall short. Really, it changed my whole world.” Baron, he says, looks like his wife, “but he’s me, totally – super shy, really creative but really sensitive, almost hypersensitive.” Coski, on the other hand, looks like him but has his mother’s personality. “She’s just unbelievable, she is cuh-razy,” he says, moving his finger in a circle by his temple. “All personality – it’s amazing how different they are.”
Even still, it’s hard to escape his past. One cruel reminder of his years as an addict came exactly one year to the day before his daughter was born on July 19, 2011: His best friend since he was 16 years old, Marco Forster, died of a heroin overdose. “He had nine years sober and that – just that number – gave me a sense of security,” says Todd. “It reminds you that what you have is so fragile and it’s so scary. It was crushing news for me, by far – like, here we go again. How do you heal?”
Todd is trying, paying tribute to his friend – a “mirror image” of himself – by giving his daughter Marco’s nickname, Coski. “There are a lot of really cool similarities between the two so that is really special,” he says. “It’s heavy stuff but I feel grateful to be a part of it because it was bigger than I was, for sure.”
And then there was the ESPN documentary, The Marinovich Project, that was shown after the Heisman Trophy presentation in 2011. An in-depth look at his upbringing and stunted football career, the film could have been a harsh reminder of all that Todd has tried to move on from, but he sees it differently: as an opportunity to reach audiences of all stripes. “People connect with the film in so many different ways,” he says. “I hear from so many people, from mothers to athletes to addicts to people who just did what the old man said or followed in the family footsteps and just hated it and decided to do something different. But yeah, it does seem like a lifetime ago, for sure.”
In one of Todd Marinovich’s paintings, entitled Dirty Bird, it is 1990, and Todd, dressed in his USC uniform, is on the grass of a football field, having just been sacked by UCLA’s defense. A UCLA player reaches down to help him up and Todd gives him the middle finger.
The painting is based on an actual photo that ran in UCLA’s school newspaper, Daily Bruin. It’s symbolic on many levels, the story of an athlete, determined to win and compete, and of a man who thought it better to go it on his own, shunning help in any form, especially from those he perceived, realistically and imaginarily, to be the enemy.
Art, according to Todd, was instrumental in saving his life. It’s also something he has loved for as long as he can remember, doodling at every chance, periods for him when time would become a non-factor, with the moments passing while he remains in a sort of freeze-frame, oblivious to the outside world. It’s like football in that way for him – how time stood still and created a world in which he was confident and in control of the pass, or now, the canvas and the brush, the colors and the message. “That is magic for me, the process of it,” he says. “I love being creative and expressing it in any which way I want. I think it’s really imperative that we do that; I can’t speak for others, but it’s more than imperative that I do it. Just for my own well-being.”
His painting has branched into sculpture and privately commissioned murals in homes and public spaces. He sells art through his website, Todd Marinovich Gallery, much of which has a sports theme. He still follows USC football. He’s drug-free. His relationship with his parents is good. And he’s got his family.
Back on the Balboa Peninsula, he skateboards down to the Newport Beach Pier, jumping in the water on a whim. “Getting wet at the pier. Had 2 do it sorry,” his text reads, when I find myself waiting for him at the Fun Zone for a photo shoot. When he finally shows up, he’s ready to perform. “I’m very coachable,” he jokes.
In this, the umpteenth chapter of his life, after a childhood robbed and decades more stolen by drug abuse, he’s lived more than most. And learned. “I used to play football, now I paint,” is how his website sums it up.
More or less. Yes.