Todd Marinovich Goes Deep

The ex-NFL superstar on life, death and everything in between

Deep in an industrial complex on Costa Mesa's west side, small-business owners open warehouse doors, deliverymen hustle and workers bang away on all manner of fabricated products. The ashen structures mirror the gray sky, which seems to hover at roof height; the day's only color is the buildings' blue trim. At first, the only sound is from a pair of merchants speaking to each other in front of their offices, but then comes the rising sound of rock & roll from a corner warehouse; a small sign in the window reads, "Gone surfing."

Inside and unbeknownst to most of his neighbors, a former football prodigy—whose rise to fame as a University of Southern California and Los Angeles Raiders quarterback was nearly as fast as his descent into the abyss of drug addiction—is milling about in the space he lovingly refers to as his art studio. He can't hear a knock at the door over the roar of Dinosaur Jr. A text message does the trick. Moments later, the music fades and a thunderous greeting erupts from within.

"Whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat up!"

Marinovich sits next to a painting he’s reworked four times
Tim Melideo
Marinovich sits next to a painting he’s reworked four times
Marinovich: The obsessive artist 
at work
Tim Melideo
Marinovich: The obsessive artist at work

The door opens, and there stands the tall, lanky frame of Orange County's eternal golden boy, Todd Marinovich. His pale-blue eyes brighten between the etched lines on his face; he is decked out in loose-fitting Levi's with paint stains in a couple of places, unlaced blue Chuck Taylors and a green thermal shirt with patches on the elbows. With the laid-back cadence of an Orange County native, he extends a pale, freckled hand and welcomes his guest into his artist's den, then turns and ambles back to work. These days, he has lots of it.

In December, ESPN Films released the documentary The Marinovich Project, directed by Andrew Stephan and John Dorsey, which prominently featured Marinovich furiously painting what accidentally turned out to be the centerpiece of his gallery debut in Los Angeles the next day. Within a week of its airing, Marinovich, a Newport Beach resident who had been making ends meet by painting houses and cleaning boats in the harbor, had sold $20,000 in art.

Now he reclines in a high-backed chair upholstered with faded green cloth in the back of the studio, where the story of his life is told through emblems mounted on the wall or placed in shadowed pockets. There are the old-school pro-football helmets hanging above the back door, the surfboard standing in the corner, the paintings and sculptures. Looking toward his office, one sees the blown-up photo of a young Marinovich, his red mane cascading down his USC Trojan uniform, near a playpen for his toddlers.

He's a dad now, married, and at perfect peace with where he has been and where he has arrived. "That's the one thing about my whole deal," he says. "I got to experience a lot of shit, and that's what life is. The more I can experience, there's more to me I have to offer. [Experiences] are all not bad. They're all not good. They just are. That's what those jail experiences are. They're not all bad, and they're not all fuckin' good. There were times when I laughed the hardest in jail. I don't know why. But it's all part of my experience."

His balding pate covered by a faded, navy-blue cap with dark sunglasses propped on top, Marinovich crosses his legs, inhales a Camel Wide cigarette, sips from a can of Dr. Pepper and scratches at the remaining red hair on the sides of his head. He points up at the painting that most recently changed his ever-evolving life.

"That whole story was rad," he says. "Do you have time for it?"

The directors emailed Marinovich with an idea: walk toward the camera and paint whatever you want on a piece of Plexiglas in front of it, giving the effect you are painting on the camera lens. Marinovich had only the faint inspiration to create a football player holding a helmet and morphing into a kid. In his mind, it wasn't materializing, and he grew increasingly frustrated.

But the filmmakers had another perspective. They told Marinovich the painting should be the feature piece in his gallery show in Los Angeles. He thought they "were bullshitting," but when he walked to the other side of the room and saw how the light had fired through the Plexiglas, the acrylic painting took on a new life, with bold hues of orange and yellow exploding into life. Having worked for months on a feature piece, Marinovich scrapped that plan and worked 24 hours straight on the new one. He titled it The Alchemist.

Marinovich was now on his way to making a living as an artist. Requests for prints of his works, which often feature sports and music legends, came in from art collectors everywhere, and Marinovich is still answering email inquiries from December. (You can view his work at

"I knew I had one shot, and millions of people were going to see it," he says. "Exposure is a once-in-a-lifetime dream. So I said, 'This is my chance,' and I delivered. I was stoked."

* * *

Marinovich's story—well, the first half of it anyway—has been told a thousand times.

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