Todd Marinovich Goes Deep
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.
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 www.toddmarinovich.com.)
"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.
The teenage phenomenon, bred by his obsessive father to become a professional quarterback, became the talk of sportswriters around the nation in the late 1980s, as the highly recruited, prototype gunslinger out of Mater Dei and, later, Capistrano Valley high schools. Towering at 6-foot-4, lean and strong, with a machine-like training regimen on the field and in the weight room, Marinovich was viewed as his father's football-throwing, Frankenstein's monster of a son.
Soon, the articles and video reports revealed a rebel son whose story spiraled quickly to a drug-infused nadir. He lost his starting spot on USC's roster, popped speed and Vicodin before Raiders games, and exited the National Football League two years after his splashy debut, flailing through unremarkable stops in the Canadian Football League and the Arena Football League. In all the photos and film clips, Marinovich appears as a wild-eyed jock or a mean-mugging arrestee, a classic underachiever, a wasted talent.
To those looking for a quick story, Marinovich isn't a fascinating Gen X bohemian; he's a failed baller. But spend 10 minutes with the now-42-year-old man, and one realizes his matter-of-fact humor, sideways grin, and enthusiasm for music and art got lost in the calculated editing. Ask him about his love for Uncle Tupelo, the iconic alt-country band from Illinois, and he leaps to the stereo and blasts Son Volt, which was founded by the former's Jay Farrar. Settling back into his chair, he bobs his head and lights a cigarette while reminiscing about seeing Uncle Tupelo live in the early 1990s.
"I had been a fan, but not like my best friend Marco," he says. "I hadn't heard music like that, for one, and I instantly related to my core, like, this is where it's at. 'Cause I've done some traveling from playing and stuff and met people from all over the country, and you wouldn't think that people from the Midwest could identify with your experience. It, like, hit the nail on the head for me."
Indeed, these days, Marinovich seems more nostalgic for past concerts than he is for old glories on the gridiron. There was the three-day backstage bacchanalia at the Forum in Inglewood—throbbing with booze, whores and drugs—at which he used his fame to party with Ron Jeremy, Metallica's James Hetfield and Misfits drummer Chuck Biscuits. "A lot of drinking. And women. And the substances to keep you going for three days," he recalls. "That was out of hand. Fun days those were."
At some point, Marinovich swiped an autograph-adorned linebacker's helmet, added his signature and handed it to Hetfield. "James put that thing on all fuckin' night, except for the stage," he says.
Asked if he got to see porn legend Jeremy's equipment, Marinovich exhales a cigarette smoke-choked laugh. "Haven't we all?" he asks. "I was taking a lot of drugs through the years of concert-going. A Pink Floyd show on acid: Everyone should experience that."
During a set at the Los Angeles Sports Arena, Marinovich was tripping hard when a green laser beam from the back of the stage shot out in his direction, fixing itself next to his head. Floating in a sea of sweaty stoners who were either screaming lyrics or falling deeper into a comfortable numbness, Marinovich naturally wanted a taste of the laser. "I couldn't help chewing on it," he recalls. "It tasted minty."
From a nearby shelf, he grabs an acoustic guitar, a present from his mother-in-law. Marinovich, who played in the short-lived band Scurvy in the mid-1990s alongside his aforementioned best friend, bassist Marco Forster, plucks at the strings and tunes the guitar. Then, a petite, blue-eyed woman in her late twenties, wearing blue jeans tucked into her black boots, walks into the warehouse.
Alix Marinovich, Todd's wife, is also his scheduling manager. On this day, she arrives at the warehouse to caravan with her husband to a nearby auto mechanic; Marinovich needs some work done on his Ford F-150 pickup truck. Soon they are on the road, Alix following behind in an ancient Chevy Blazer borrowed from a friend. With Everlast's "What It's Like" playing on a radio, Alix describes the Todd she knows.
"He's a great husband and amazing dad," she declares. "He is very mellow, and I think we balance each other very well. I'm more straightforward and say exactly what's on my mind. He has certain personality traits that help me and make me the person I am today."
After dropping off his truck, Todd hops into the back of the Blazer, next to a child's seat. He says Alix couldn't resist his baldness, and he landed an outing with her. He took her to get fitted for a bra at Fashion Island, where his mother, whom he refers to as "a boobologist," owns a shop where Alix still picks up free bras and panties.
The couple were engaged for about a year before they got married on March 17, 2009, when Alix was pregnant with their son, Baron, who was born that June. Todd figured getting married on St. Patrick's Day was the best way to remember his anniversary. But he also finds meaning in specific dates. He was born on the Fourth of July. His second child, a daughter, was born on July 19, 2011, one year after the death of Forster, who had relapsed into drugs. She bears his friend's nickname, Coski.
Alix says she met her future husband in what local loadies call "Harbor Drug Court," otherwise known as the Harbor Justice Center in Newport Beach. After making his move on her in a probation office, Marinovich asked Alix into a more private area so he wouldn't have to endure the possible embarrassment of getting shot down when he asked for her phone number.
"I had no clue who he was, and it didn't matter to me," she insists. "I love him for the person he is today."
* * *
Back at his studio, Marinovich rummages through materials as he shakes a can of spray paint. An obsessive artist who has the typical difficulty of not knowing precisely when a piece is finished, he has a backlog of commissioned work he must finish. A man in Indiana, whose home Marinovich described as a contemporary museum, invited him to fill a room with original paintings.
As a kid who wanted to play pro ball, Marinovich was constantly told he needed something to fall back on. At the same time, the adults in his life always dismissed creative arts as a non-viable career path. "I don't think people are encouraged creatively enough," he says. "There's so much criticism early on, and it turns people off. You know, that was something that was passed down to me—you can't survive through art. Sometimes you hold onto those things when you're little. They're ingrained."
He almost proved the critics right when he threw away his football career, struggled as an artist and musician, and wound up in jail more times than he can count thanks to his drug addiction. Marinovich, who has been arrested on myriad drug violations over the years, says he doesn't know what his rap sheet looks like, but that it took him about a decade to get off probation. To celebrate, he took Alix to Costa Rica.
"Being a name, it's like a Catch-22," he reflects. "There were a lot of times when it was helpful, and there were times it was hurtful. There was no middle ground. It was extreme. There were times people would go out of their way to help me, and there were times where they were going out of their way to fuck me, and that's reality. When I was going to jail sober, that was a whole different trip."
Two days later, outside the Balboa Peninsula home his mother owns, where he and his family live, Marinovich is loading his acoustic guitar and several paintings for a June 2 gallery show in Los Angeles into a blue Lincoln Town Car that appears to be more than 20 years old. Windows are stuck halfway up, and buttons are missing throughout. The passenger's-side visor hangs limply. Given to him by a college teammate, the car has a handicap sticker on the license plate. He calls it "the hoopty."
Dressed in dark-blue jeans cuffed at the bottom, black Chuck Taylors and a white T-shirt covered by an oversized green sweater, he settles into his seat with a yogurt drink in-hand. As he drives south on Pacific Coast Highway, Marinovich recalls the old haunts, party spots and people who colored his life. As Forster's music plays through a wireless speaker propped on the dashboard, he talks about kicking his own addiction, inspired by his best friend, who had been clean for about eight years prior to relapsing and dying of heart failure. Marinovich's last hit of heroin was in 2009, after getting a hook in Santa Ana.
Now, he has a family to live for; he looks out his window and shakes his head. "I didn't think it could be done," he says. "I thought everyone else was bullshitting, but I knew he wouldn't bullshit me. Death is . . . fuck . . . I don't like it."
The hoopty rumbles along the Newport coast, with the draft of brilliantly painted sports cars and lumbering SUVs blowing through the open windows. Marinovich inhales a Camel Wide and says he still feels as though he's 10 years old around his aging father, Marv, who is no longer the physical specimen he still pictures in his mind. The sun dissolves the morning clouds, and moments pass with only the sound of Forster singing softly about the Pacific Ocean.
"There's some really freakin' cool parts of Orange County," Marinovich says. "It's the crowds. . . . It's not like it was. I sound old when I say that. My grandmother would say it's the Rose Bowl and it brings all the Midwesterners out here and they stay, and it's fucked it up for everybody."
In the less-fucked-up days, as it was for a lot of Orange County natives, Marinovich had his fair share of orange fights in the groves. His battlegrounds were in the foothills of Orange and Tustin. Then there were the days of "heaven" in Holy Jim Canyon in the Santa Ana foothills near Trabuco Canyon, where he and his friends got high on mushrooms. Driving past Laguna Beach's Thousand Steps Beach, he laughs about spending summer days blitzing through cases of beer and toking up with friends because the cops "wouldn't haul their asses down" to the sand. And who hasn't hoped to find a naked bombshell emerging from the water of San Onofre State Beach's clothing-optional Trail 6 strand, only to discover a collection of waddling codgers spreading their glory before the sun?
It was during his time at Mater Dei that Marinovich attended one of his first keg parties, questioning the point of drinking games, when the reality of keg parties was to get drunk. But he noticed the girls were "getting sloppy drunk because, if they're not playing, they're sipping their shit." He also swallowed a quarter.
At around 16 years old, after a trip to Tijuana, Marinovich returned to his father's Mission Viejo apartment and promptly lost his virginity in his dad's bed. Up to that point, the introverted Marinovich, who says he was never GQ-quality, had only gotten to first and second base with the girls. All that would change with fame, and Marinovich, who has traveled the globe and tasted countless women, including the four stewardesses he once met on a Raiders road trip to New Orleans, rates Orange County as world-class in terms of per-capita female pulchritude.
"I consider myself lucky when it comes to the whole experience with the ladies," Marinovich says. "[The fame] was always a factor. They would be curious about all the attention on the dude in the bar. . . . I don't know if I'm dealing with the life of fate, but it was meant to be with Alix and having two kids at 39. I wasn't the safest at practicing sex. Something bigger is coming into play."
* * *
Stopping near a house he once rented in Dana Point, Marinovich's mood changes. His voice grows quieter as he recalls the days just after he blew up his NFL career, a time that slowly if inexorably seemed to be progressing toward using the needle, a final destination on a path he says probably began with the pain-killers he shot up after high-school games. Heroin, for him, was like a mother's womb, a warm and safe space he never wanted to leave. But if heroin was the womb, his life was little more than a botched abortion. With sucked-up cheeks and a body that had shriveled into a skeletal, pasty frame, Marinovich saw his own ghost taunting him to walk across the threshold of death.
"I was actually looking into the mirror and had collapsed all the veins in the arms, and I was going for the jugular," he says. "Seeing myself in the reflection, hitting this bottom, that was the worst. It almost turned my stomach. And I [had] always said that'll never happen to me—and there I was."
Later, in Vancouver, during a stint as a backup quarterback with the B.C. Lions of the Canadian Football League, he walked into a head shop and saw orange vials on the floor. He had discovered what he describes as the Amsterdam of Canada, where addicts could indulge all manner of vice uninhibited. His high of choice: China White heroin, a variety of the drug that was less expensive and kicked the ass of the black-tar heroin to which he was accustomed.
Strung-out to the point of getting loaded before, during and after games—he once shot up during halftime—a friend convinced him to return to California, where he was hospitalized. It was in Vancouver and Dana Point that he suffered the worst heroin withdrawals of his life, agonies that drove him to ponder suicide. "It's an ache to the bone, and it really concentrates in the legs, bone-chilling chills from hot to cold," he says. "You never get comfortable. And then come the runs. You just piss out your ass. It's like the flu times 100. I thought I was a tough guy. I felt like a pussy."
According to Marinovich, the third day of heroin withdrawal is the worst; if you make it to day four, you're on your way to recovery. "I had a lot of day threes," he adds.
He drives past a rehabilitation house in San Clemente that, without elaborating, he credits for providing a turning point in his life. "Addiction is a disease of the spirit," he says. "As a 22-year-old man, I was looking around, like, 'What am I doing here [in rehab] with guys in their 40s and 50s who lost everything?' I know this new generation is doing the same thing."
Stopping at a Starbucks, an older, clean-cut man looks up from his laptop and tells Marinovich he loved the ESPN documentary. Marinovich says he feels like a movie actor when people say that. On the road back home, fighting the urge to piss, he unsuccessfully searches his pockets for his Camels, then bums a smoke. He pulls a cigarette from the box, but he accidentally snaps the filter off.
"We can fix this guy," he says. He rolls the end of the cigarette like a joint, gives it a good lick and fires it up. Then he talks about partying with B-Real from Cypress Hill, how the stoned rapper could both de-seed his weed and roll a blunt using just one of his giant hands. "I never had skills like that," he says.
After picking up a cheeseburger, fries and a soda at TK Burgers in Newport Beach, where the young female clerk sports a USC Trojans shirt, Marinovich drives the hoopty home, parks on a side street and leans back in a chair outside his front door. Through his darkest days, he says, he always knew he was going to make it. To Marinovich, there are no big deals, and sometimes the worst of times can be the best thing to happen to a person, such as going to drug court and meeting the love of your life.
He talks about old teammates, including Chester McGlockton, the intimidating defensive tackle who played 12 seasons in the NFL and in four Pro Bowls. When McGlockton came into the league with the Raiders, Marinovich invited the warm-hearted man from North Carolina to live in his Manhattan Beach home to get acclimated to the Southern California lifestyle. He fondly recalls drinking wine coolers with his friend, a bear of a man who died of a heart attack last November at the age of 42.
Less than two weeks after Marinovich reminisces about McGlockton, Junior Seau, Marinovich's Trojan teammate, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest. He was 43. Book-ended by both tragedies, Marinovich, munching on fries, gazes out onto Balboa Boulevard and utters the most profound of ironies.
"My life makes sense," he says.
This article appeared in print as "Going Deep: Ex-NFL superstar Todd Marinovich on life, death and everything in between."
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