Still passing in fight with old demons
INDIO, Riverside County — Halfway through a two-hour practice that began in searing 104-degree heat, the football players formed a sweaty circle in the outfield of a high school baseball park marked with the faintest of yard lines. Arms were raised and hands touched in a standard ritual of team unity.
“One, two, three, family!” came the chant that included No. 12, a weathered man of 48 years, who first joined in such choruses as a young boy.
In the decades since, Todd Marinovich has demonstrated more sides than a hexagon as he drifted in and out of the public eye: high school phenom, object of national fascination in college at USC, NFL failure with the Los Angeles Raiders, surfing/skateboarding dude, drug addict, artist, counterculture figure. Most of all, perhaps, Marinovich is held up as a cautionary tale, widely depicted as a victim of his father’s attempt to engineer a star athlete with intense physical training.
Now, the old quarterback is experiencing a midlife crisis in the lower rungs of football that is as intriguing as it is desperate.
“We knew you’re crazy,” Marinovich says of the reaction from loved ones when he told them he was going to suit up for the SoCal Coyotes, a team in the World Developmental League. “Now it’s confirmed.”
But, in some ways, this makes sense, even as it creates odd scenes like Marinovich being tutored by a teammate half his age. Sports provide the structure, demand the discipline and establish the goals that can benefit a chronic substance abuser.
“I really haven’t known how to deal with life,” Marinovich said.
Marinovich has tried before, with little success, to parlay his talent for throwing a football into happiness and stability. Sixteen years ago, his Arena Football League career concluded with ejections from consecutive games, followed by a suspension for dodging drug tests so he could hide his heroin addiction.
Marinovich might also be in search of family. His father, Marv, with whom Todd reconciled after a harsh upbringing in Newport Beach (Orange County), has Alzheimer’s. Marinovich is divorcing his wife, and time with their two children is limited to weekends outside the summer.
He said he is clean and sober — for now.
On Sept. 2, in his first game since age 15 that Marinovich claims was not in the midst of drug or alcohol use, he threw for seven touchdowns in a 73-0 win over the California Sharks. A sore shoulder kept him out of the Coyotes’ Sept. 9 game.
“This comeback has very little to do with football,” said David Miller, coach and conscience of the Coyotes, a selfprofessed faith-based organization built around family and football.
Miller opens his home to players and their empty stomachs around practices. He pointed to a sofa and said, “Over a hundred of them have slept there overnight.”
Miller texts Marinovich often: “How are you going to stay sober for the next hour?”
No players are paid in this league. They “play for the tape,” with the hopes that talent evaluators in paying leagues will give them a shot. Shaine Boyle, a defensive back, and David Williams, a defensive lineman, for example, have played arena football.
Linebacker Jake Sheffield, one of about a half-dozen Coyotes from major college conferences, said teammates have agreed to help Marinovich, who has shown no interest in playing anywhere for a salary, “focus on his sobriety.” (His main source of income these days comes from the occasional paid speech and sale of his artwork.)
For Marinovich’s mother, Trudi, there were more visceral concerns about the Coyotes’ offensive line.
“How are we going to be up front?” she asked Todd. “How are we going to protect my boy?”
Marinovich’s most unlikely ally is Michael Karls, a Coyotes quarterback, who filled in with six touchdown passes in a 54-0 win over the Los Angeles Scorpions. He missed last season with an ankle injury, but intended to return to the Coyotes this year to start. Instead, he has accepted the role of backup and is committed to making Marinovich better.
“My purpose now is to help the next guy,” said Karls, 25, who said he could overtake Marinovich in an open competition. He coaches high school football and harbors no aspirations of advancing to loftier leagues.
The Coyotes are a nonprofit organization that subsists partly on corporate donors. Last year, Marinovich was one of the team’s assistant coaches. Miller, however, thought it would be good for Marinovich, as well as for the team, for him to take another shot at quarterback.
The team operates the run-and-shoot offense — popularized in the mid-1970s by Mouse Davis — and relies on a quarterback getting rid of the ball quickly, ideally within 2.5 seconds. Miller, a run-and-shoot disciple, took Marinovich to an audition conducted by Davis.
Davis, 84, voiced no reservations other than saying that an athlete as old as Marinovich would probably wake up sore after operating his high-tempo offense.
Marinovich knows about aches and pains. He wears the most protective equipment available, notably a knee brace from the company that supplies an aging quarterback of greater prominence, Tom Brady. In practice, Miller forbids tacklers from making contact with the quarterback, regardless of name or reputation.
But Miller cannot keep Marinovich in a bubble. In August last year, a naked Marinovich was arrested in someone’s backyard while in possession of marijuana and methamphetamine. His drug-related offenses have reached double-digits, with some resulting in felony charges.
Handing him a uniform was sure to elicit criticism for gimmickry — the flip-side of a Tim Tebow signing, as Miller puts it. “You are bringing in Tebow without Tim’s moral background, with the baggage,” he said.
If there is a relapse, Miller added: “Everyone will blame us. We’re taking all of the risk.”
Upon hearing about the new guy, some of his teammates watched an ESPN documentary on Marinovich: about how he was drafted by the Raiders in the first round, and how, ultimately his world of talent found him a world of trouble.
The generation gap is unmistakable. To them, John Madden is the namesake of a video game; to him, he was the Raiders’ coach before Marinovich arrived in Los Angeles for only two seasons.
Marinovich might have remained retired had he not pledged to dial down his extreme competitiveness.
“One thing I’m letting go of is perfectionism,” he said. “I’m beginning to learn to live with imperfection.”
That compulsion for mistake-free play was ingrained early by Marv Marinovich. His father set out to build the perfect quarterback. He had Todd lifting hand weights and performing pullups at age 3. As the boy grew older, training intensified to the extent that some experts considered it child cruelty and have blamed his father for the son’s subsequent problems.
“That’s unfair,” said Marinovich, who nonetheless refers to Marv as a onetime “rageaholic.” “He was doing the best he could with the information he had.”
Marinovich says he rises early, prays, meditates and stretches. Sometimes he plays a few holes of golf. His residence sits alongside a course’s 17th green. Marinovich uses glowin-the-dark balls to whack predawn, before the flagsticks are installed.
“This might surprise you,” he said, smiling, of his eagerness to master a new sport, “but I have an addictive personality.”
Todd Marinovich (12) throws a pass during practice with the SoCal Coyotes in Indio. The former USC standout and L.A. Raiders quarterback, who has long fought addiction problems, is the 48-year-old starter for the World Developmental League team.