Still pass­ing in fight with old demons

San Francisco Chronicle - - FOOTBALL - By Mike Tierney Mike Tierney is a New York Times News Ser­vice writer.

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.”

Photos by Michael Ares / New York Times

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.

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