FEATURE: The greatest NFL riches to rags story you've never heard of 4 years ago

FEATURE: The greatest NFL riches to rags story you've never heard of

The biggest waste of talent in NFL history.

“Todd was the best quarterback in that draft, and that included Brett Favre.” 

17 Nov 1990: Quarterback Todd Marinovich of the USC Trojans celebrates after the Trojans 45-42 victory over the UCLA Bruins at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. Mandatory Credit: Stephen Wade /Allsport

This was the sentiment echoed by Mike White – the quaterback coach of the LA Raiders – during the 1991 NFL draft.

Trusting White’s testimony, the bad boys of the NFL took a chance on the bad kid of American football.

Todd Marinovich was 24th pick in the first round of that draft; Brett Favre was 33rd in the second, as outlined in the brilliant ESPN 30 for 30 documentary, The Marinovich Project.

That statistic alone is the most succinct example of the ability of the man labelled ‘Robo QB’ by an adoring media in the late 1980’s. But by August 1993, with the above relationship tarnished completely, Marinovich left the NFL and would hardly ever play again. There were no injury problems.

The Todd Marinovich story is one of excess. On the one hand, there was the incredibly intensive training regime from his cradle which left no room for error. On the other, there was the young superstar who, with a very different lifestyle, was the antithesis of the one controlled by his father. To understand his journey is to understand that influence.

Essentially, Marv Marinovich was a failed footballer who became obsessed in determining the cause of his premature retirement. Marv put all his energy into finding how to best utilise a footballer’s body through training and diet. His guinea pig was to be his infant son, who literally began training before he could walk. One could already envision the danger signs.

17 Nov 1990: Quarterback Todd Marinovich of the USC Trojans celebrates during the Trojans 45-42 victory over the UCLA Bruins at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. Mandatory Credit: Stephen Wade /Allsport

However, the Marinovich Project is a complicated affair. Just when the story seems to be predictable, a curve ball is thrown.

Todd, for instance, actually loved playing football throughout his childhood and always maintained an affinity with the sport. Additionally, despite his clearly overly intense nature, Marv’s methods were extremely successful. His revolutionary approach at the time was incorporated by the NFL’s official training program and his son was the major benefactor.

Todd was representing major high schools at age levels far older than his, totally excelling in every rank thanks to his amazing and unrivalled left-arm throwing at quarterback.

However, garnering national attention and a one-way ticket to superstardom would come at a cost. Marinovich was destined for greatness at a tender age because he had sacrificed a childhood in order to achieve his and his father’s dream. Even though his development greatly exceeded that of his peers, something had to give.

That something was moving to USC and playing elite college football, the importance of which is difficult to overstate to the uninitiated. This was also the commencement of the devastating second period in Todd’s young life – the moment he escaped his family situation and truly explored the definition of extra-curricular activities. It was this exploration of the good life which started the gradual and significant erosion of his extraordinary standing in the game.

4 Oct 1992: Quarterback Todd Marinovich of the Los Angeles Raiders looks to pass the ball during a game against the New York Giants at the Los Angeles Memorial Stadium in os Angeles, California. The Cowboys won the game, 13-10Mandatory Credit: Ken Levin

The Marinovich Project is a fascinating documentary examining the career of a natural winner who won nothing. It is the story of a player who endured a life’s worth of training and commitment by his late teens, only to be left completely disillusioned by the ultimate reward.

It's the tale of a popular yet vulnerable Californian who, after leading the Raiders to victory against the New York Giants, had nothing left to give and began to purposely orchestrate his downfall with the regular use of amphetamines before games.

Marinovich would later nearly make it as a rock star, only to fall to the same vices which led to his terrible off-field reputation. This is an ode to a freak talent who briefly returned to football with the LA Avengers in 2000, threw an incredible ten touchdown passes in one game against the Houston Thunderbears, but was secretly only playing so he could afford to fund his devastating and well hidden heroin addiction.

This was an increasingly desperate and lost soul surviving with the use of a remarkable autopilot system built up over the years. His brief comeback at the turn of the millennium could never endure.

Ultimately, however, this is a documentary about a father-son relationship. The remarkable full-circle contradiction of a boy who was desperate to escape from the grasp of his over-bearing father, to a man who is today full of loving admiration for his elderly parent, who he now views as more of a friend than a father.

Marinovich, though, is a different character these days. This is a guy who now leads a healthy and happy life as an artist and is at ease with his troubled past. He is almost mythical in his presence and his life reads like the work of a celebrated fiction novelist.

The Marinovich Project is a must watch for any fan of the NFL, any sports supporter; in fact, anyone who is interested in the human condition. It is a film that has a running theme, a pertinent and existential question proposed by our protagonist himself - just because you are good at something, does it mean you have to do it?

A terrific documentary.