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Ex-NFL QB Todd Marinovich gives up heroin for art

ADVANCE FOR WEEKEND EDITIONS FEB. 10-11 - FILE - This Sept. 15 1990 file phoshows University Southern Californiquarterback Todd Marinovich

ADVANCE FOR WEEKEND EDITIONS, FEB. 10-11 - FILE - This Sept. 15, 1990 file photo shows University of Southern California quarterback Todd Marinovich (13) being pressured by Penn State linebacker Eric Ravotti during the second quarter at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Right from the first time, that very first time heroin entered Marinovich's body, it took him to the place he had been seeking for most of his life. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon, File)

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Right from the first time, that very first time heroin entered Todd Marinovich’s body, it took him to a place he had been seeking most of his life.

A place as far away as possible from the reality of being Todd Marinovich, the boy raised to become the NFL’s greatest quarterback.

“Complete,” Marinovich starts, sucking in a deep breath and exhaling loudly, “I don’t want to say numbness, because there’s a feeling of euphoria, so you’re not numb, but you’re numb to the negative feeling for sure.

“It’s just a warmth, and almost puts you in a place where you believe that’s your natural state,” he continued. “And the thing is, then you’re chasing that natural state that you think that you want to be at, and then it’s just a complete cycle that you get in that’s just vicious.”

For those under age 25 it’s now beyond memory, but there was a time when Marinovich was football’s Next Big Thing, with hype attached to him that would rival an Andrew Luck or Cam Newton.

From birth, he had been groomed by his father, Marv Marinovich, to be a star athlete. He was fed a strict diet that forbade him from having candy or any other sweet foods and drinks in order to stay pure, to keep his body in perfect condition. He grew up, under his father’s tutelage, training alongside pro athletes. It was like he was already one of them.

But the pressure of living up to those expectations may have become too much for Marinovich, a genuinely talented QB. Drugs soon entered the mix, and he started his escape from himself. First he tried marijuana, then mushrooms, then on to cocaine and ecstasy, and then heroin. Lots of heroin.

“I probably lost a decade,” said Marinovich, who played for Southern California in college and the NFL’s Los Angeles Raiders. “Yeah. Where I don’t even recall much of it. It’s just a blur. In and out of jail. Bad.”

From “Robo QB” as a kid to “Marijuana-vich” as a college student to plain old junkie as an adult.

Now, it’s time for the clean Marinovich, the professional artist, surfer dude and family man.

The man he wants to be. Not the man his father wanted him to be.

“I get a definite new chapter,” the 42-year-old Marinovich said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press from his home in Newport Beach, Calif., where he now makes a living through his artwork — which is on view at www.toddmarinovich.com. “Because I get to be a dad and pursue something that I’ve always been passionate about, and that’s art.

“But I am more than grateful that I am just still breathing.”

Marinovich was born and raised in Southern California, and excelled at several sports. It was his father who taught him the value of hard work, no shortcuts. But Marv Marinovich also sometimes forgot he was dealing with a boy and not a man.

“(He treated me) like an All-Pro, which is crazy,” said Marinovich, who eventually started sneaking away to McDonald’s with friends and having doughnuts with his mother and other relatives.

All, of course, without the knowledge of his father.

Marijuana smoking got to be a habit in high school, with the younger Marinovich already a star player and hanging out with the older kids on the team. Soon it became part of his daily routine, and he added cocaine and ecstasy to his repertoire by the time he was majoring in fine arts at USC — even though the school had a drug-testing program for the football team.

Because of that, he needed to find a way around those tests.

“My first drug test at ‘SC, I didn’t even know Todd,” said Mike Salmon, a former NFL defensive back who was a year behind Marinovich in college. “He stands next to me and says, ‘Can you pee in this for me?’

“I’m kind of star-struck. He looks at me with this big smile. Then, after, I realized the magnitude of what I did.”

Marinovich’s pot-smoking ways were just about the worst-kept secret on campus. Almost the entire student body referred to him as “Marijuana-vich,” and of course his teammates knew, too.

“Sure we did,” said Brad Leggett, a former USC and NFL center who was a few years ahead of Marinovich. “Did we know how significant or how often? No, not at all.”

Marinovich went to USC in 1988, but sat out his first season. In 1989, quarterback Pat O’Hara was hurt in preseason practice, pushing Marinovich into the starting role as a redshirt freshman.

And his teammates, many of whom had just gone through a 10-2 season under quarterback Rodney Peete the previous year and were expected to do even better, were already weary of Marinovich and his partying antics.

“We told Todd if we find him out on a Thursday night, because we know Thursday night was the big go-out night, we were going to shave his head, thinking that that was going to keep him under, or keep him focused or whatever,” Leggett said. “But never did I know that things were as serious as they were that he was doing.”

The school wasn’t blind to what was going on, either. Besides the very visible bust-up Marinovich had with then-head coach Larry Smith at the very end of his second season as quarterback, he was being watched by USC. A few months after Marinovich decided to leave for the NFL, the Los Angeles Times reported that USC players were regularly cheating on their urine tests.

“Everyone knows he did the drugs,” Salmon said. “There’s some magical way he stayed eligible.”

Regardless, his off-the-filed exploits didn’t affect what was happening once the game started. The 6-foot-5 lefty with the flaming red hair and No. 13 on his shirt was a prototype quarterback, standing tall in the pocket and looking to complete the pass.

At USC, he seemed like the real thing, with the Trojans going 9-2-1 in 1989 and beating Michigan in the Rose Bowl, a game that was Bo Schembechler’s last as coach of the Wolverines.

“He was a great teammate,” said Salmon, who was also a friend of Marinovich’s and once helped put him in rehab. “The guys that played with him would go to battle for him.”

But after two seasons on the field, Marinovich was arrested on drug-related charges and his college career was over.

Turning pro and going to the Raiders wasn’t much easier, however, because more money made it easier to buy drugs. And the arrest landed Marinovich on the NFL’s substance abuse list before he had played his first down in the pros.

“It was kind of a bum deal. Even though I wasn’t even really part of the NFL at that time I was treated like I had violated their substance abuse policy,” Marinovich said. “The normal guys were being tested like twice a year. I was being tested like three-to-five times a week.”

That prompted an attempt to stay clean. A chance for Marinovich to kick his habitual use of drugs and concentrate on his future as a professional football player, the future he had been reared to live.

“It was tough. It was completely tough,” Marinovich said. “It didn’t last long.”

By 1993, after two years in the NFL, a third failed drug test put him out of the league forever. And after a brief stint in Canadian football, where Marinovich injured his knee in practice, he returned to California to surf and soon turned to music, playing guitar in a band called Scurvy.

The heroin went hand-in-hand.

“One thing led to another and the band was kind of simultaneous with the heroin use,” Marinovich said. “It was just like the other drugs, experimenting with it and it grabbed a hold of me.

“It was just too easy. Anything that good and that easily attainable, you better look out. There’s got to be a downside, and I found out what that was all about.”

Marinovich started by smoking heroin, but soon turned to needles. These days, after more than three years off drugs, he can even laugh about how he made the decision to inject the drug straight into his veins.

“It’s sick, but I think how it was laid out to me was, ‘You’re wasting it. You’re completely wasting it. You’ll get five times the amount that you’re getting smoking it.’

“I was like, ‘All right, let’s give it a shot. Literally.’”

Several more arrests and an attempt to get back into the game in Canada and then arena football followed, all while Marinovich was dabbling in art and going in and out of rehab.

He said several factors contributed to him dropping his habit, but one of the more memorable sights was a look his mother gave him.

“She was one of the last people in my life at the time,” Marinovich said, “and as we all know, a mother’s look is worse than anything she could say.”

His new life has roots in the old one. When his father, himself a former USC and NFL player, first started training him to be a superstar and controlling his almost every move, Marinovich turned to art.

“When I was involved with sports or doing art, they were really similar in the fact that it brought me right into the moment,” Marinovich said. “Always doodling when I should have been paying attention in class.

“I knew from an early age that the two real classes, so to speak, PE and art, were never long enough it seemed like they were over right when they began. I kind of knew then that it was with that route I’d be most happy.”

Many of the items he sells have to do with two of the things he loves the most, sports and music. He has portraits of Joe Montana, Terry Bradshaw, Ken Stabler and other former football players mixed with paintings of George Harrison, Keith Richards and Bob Dylan.

But one of the more revealing pieces is a self-portrait drawing of a gaunt, dark face staring intently right back at the observer.

“I did that when I was all messed up. That was very accurate. That came from my head at the time, obviously how I felt,” Marinovich said. “It was definitely an accurate reflection of how I looked at the time.”

He’s still thin, but now he spends his time thinking about his wife, Alix, and two young children — his son Baron is 2½ and his daughter Coski is 6 months — rather than his next fix. He’s even forged a strong relationship with his father.

“When I look back to the early days, I just learned to accept my dad for who he is. He’s not changing,” Marinovich said. “He sees it, that he probably pushed a little too hard.

“We all made mistakes. I’m not holding on to that. There’s just no sense in it.”

Football has also come back into Marinovich’s life, mentoring young quarterbacks in Orange County and again going to games at USC, where Marinovich is still remembered for leading the Trojans over Michigan in that 1990 Rose Bowl, ending a two-game losing streak in “The Granddaddy of Them All.”

Although he never made it to the Super Bowl, Marinovich isn’t bitter about how life turned out.

“I wanted to play in a Rose Bowl, and I got to experience that. There was nothing like it,” Marinovich said. “At a pro level, I just wanted to play with the best guys, and I got to do that.

“But I’ve had a lot of peaks and valleys,” he said laughing, “for sure.”



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