The Tale of Todd Marinovitch


One of the things that I struggled with is if you’re good at something, does that mean you were meant to do it?”

-Todd Marinovich

I shouldn’t have to tell you about Todd Marinovich.  You should already know his name, the way you know about Jim Brown or Payton Manning.  Marinovich was supposed to live atop football’s Mt. Olympus.  Had things gone right, his face would have been on cereal boxes, his fingers should have been adorned with Super-Bowl rings, and a handsome bronze bust in his likeness could have been unveiled at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton Ohio.  Todd Marinovich could have had it all but nobody asked him if he wanted it.

Marv Marinovich had cosmic hopes for his talented son Todd since the boy was a baby lying in his crib snuggled against a plush, stuffed football.  When Todd could walk, Marv was already putting him through various drills and exercises, even training him to be ambidextrous.  When Todd was roughly nine years old and showing clear signs of being a gifted driven athlete, Marv revealed his grand plan.  A great athlete himself- he was drafted into both the NFL and AFL after an All-American career at the University of Southern California- Marv pledged to mold his son into a great football player, and if the commitment was there, the boy-wonder would someday become immortal.

For almost the next decade, father and son used an experimental, unorthodox-mildly unethical- and ultimately successful training regimen of mythical proportions that pushed Todd to his very limits.  Todd’s football career became the all-consuming focus.  Marv quantified nearly every facet of Todd’s life.  Aside from blinking, everything else fell under Marv’s purview including diet, social life, sleep and in some cases, breathing.  Football came first.  Marv’s training techniques are proven but his quest for football perfection turned into Ahab’s pursuit of Moby-Dick or perhaps Don-Quixote’s tilts at windmills.  Todd had the training, the pedigree and the talent but it wasn’t enough.

Todd Marinovich was good enough to start for USC as a freshman and was eventually drafted into the NFL by the L.A. Raiders, but the success was illusory and short-lived.  The stress, tensions and expectations from years of training and performing at a high level for powerful people and institutions eventually pulled young Todd beneath the wheel. Everything got too big too quickly, he needed to cut loose.  More and more he turned to a barrage of unhealthy coping mechanisms to vanquish the load of mounting demands in his life.  Todd told his mother while still in college “I don’t want to be Todd Marinovich”.  Todd was headed for a breakdown.

In the end, Todd’s self-destruction was fantastically epic. His father had taught him everything he needed to be a success on the football field but never taught him how to live.

In life,  there should be a journey and an awaking happening.

We are hard-wired to seek out spiritually and growth but when we neglect those vital areas we fill the open void with money or football or business, or academics or power or ego.  We forget what it was that we were supposed to pursue and chase after empty trophies instead.

Over the years, I have asked many students what the big deal is about grades and I often hear variations of the following answer:  “So I can get into high school so I can get into college, then I can get a good job”.   Most schools focus so much preparing for later but they never seem to approach teaching how to live right now.   In the end, 6th grade prepares you for 7th grade and 8th grade gets you ready for high school and on and on down the assembly line where it is clear the schools are churning out employees rather than people.

The problem is that we just might believe in jobs but not ourselves.

We were not made to be this way.  We have a natural desire to grow and learn and transcend but we suckled to the wrong source somehow and now all that energy is channeled into causes, jobs, diplomas and honors. They became ends unto themselves rather than means to a greater end that could have been.

I remember a student being irate over a poor grade that he received in math.  He was so talented and had such a wonderful personality it pained me to see him obsessing this way.  I asked him why it was so important in the main scheme of things – how important could a test grade in middle school be?  He robotically explained that it might affect his placement in honors classes in high school and from there he may never get to become a doctor.   I responded: “Instead of worrying about if you are going to be a doctor, worry about becoming a good person who happens to be a doctor”.  It’s a big difference that will make all the difference.

There are kids like Todd Marinovich everywhere who go through life living out the unrecognized dreams of others, doing something because of expectations rather than because they want to do it. Not all parents go to the same cartoonish lengths as Marv and not all kids spiral out of control the way Todd did but there are plenty of well-meaning helicopter and lawnmower parents who relentlessly steer their children towards their own definition of success.

I get it.  It would be cool if I could just slide into a conversation and tactfully mention how oh, by the way, my daughter was accepted to Harvard or that my son is in some high-brow internship.  I understand the appeal.

Todd explained in an interview with Dan Patrick: “My dad was a fantastic coach but as parent he lacked a lot…he helped me become, you know, the athlete and player that I was, but there’re a lot of other areas to life.” I don’t think he failed because he only lasted a year in the NFL, he failed because never got to find out who he is.

It’s become a societal norm to identify ourselves in one-dimensional ways; we use our jobs, social standing and other aesthetic labels.  We start out by introducing ourselves, by where are from what we do for a living.  We never embrace a more holistic identity.  I don’t think people are reared with this in mind, it’s all about another goal for another time.

Parents want only the best for their children, and often conclude that the best they can do is to ensure that their children earn a living, move out of the house and start a family.  Fair enough,  but we also cannot forget that we should be actively teaching values, kindness, love and how to enjoy life right now.

Alan Watts said:

“In music, though, one doesn’t make the end of the composition the point of the composition.  If that were so, the best conductors would be those who played fastest; and there would be composers who only wrote finales.  People go to concerts only to hear one crashing chord – because that’s the end.

Same way in dancing—you don’t aim at a particular spot in the room; that’s where you should arrive.

The whole point of the dancing is the dance.  Now, but we don’t see that as something brought by our education into our everyday conduct.

That child’s fancy law degree, corner office or board position alone will not get them a millimeter closer to happiness if they should ever forget that there is more to life than earning a living or reaching goals.  Even if they love their work, it won’t matter once they are sitting at the dinner table and have not a clue how to relate to their own family.

We are a world starving for originality (In the US right, now, the top five movies are sequels or adaptations) Have the inner fortitude to blaze a new trail if you need to and break the mold if you have to.  Make sure the path you are on is the one you chose.   Some of the life decisions we make and paths we follow on a daily basis are so formulaic and sometimes so utterly foolish, it is enough to make a thinking person cry.


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