Mike Sager’s 9800-word profile of Todd Marinovich for the May 2009 edition of Esquire is an impressive work. It details the rise and fall of Marinovich from prep star, to USC standout, to NFL washout, to drug addict and convict. The quarterback’s story has so many plot twists, so many highs and lows, it almost seems too melodramatic to be true.
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Sager doesn’t hide where the story is going. By the sixth paragraph, he shares the stats of Marinovich’s fall: “nine arrests, five felonies, a year in jail.” The story isn’t about surprise; it’s about the question many of us who watched his career have wondered: “what the hell happened to that guy?”
He starts out by showing us where Marinovich came from, his family influences, and the pressure that his infamous father put on him since birth:
With the birth of his own two children, Traci and Todd, came the perfect opportunity for Marv to put his ideas into practice. “Some guys think the most important thing in life is their jobs, the stock market, whatever,” he says. “To me, it was my kids. The question I asked myself was, How well could a kid develop if you provided him with the perfect environment?
For the nine months prior to Todd’s birth on July 4, 1969, Trudi used no salt, sugar, alcohol, or tobacco. As a baby, Todd was fed only fresh vegetables, fruits, and raw milk; when he was teething, he was given frozen kidneys to gnaw. As a child, he was allowed no junk food; Trudi sent Todd off to birthday parties with carrot sticks and carob muffins. By age three, Marv had the boy throwing with both hands, kicking with both feet, doing sit-ups and pull-ups, and lifting light hand weights. On his fourth birthday, Todd ran four miles along the ocean’s edge in thirty-two minutes, an eight-minute-mile pace. Marv was with him every step of the way.
With this, we get a better sense of how Marinovich became known as the “Robo-Quarterback,” the child born, raised, and, some say, engineered, to be an elite professional athlete. We also see, very early on, that all that pressure had a price.
One effective technique Sager uses is to present a story or a scene, framed in the larger context of what we know is part of the larger story about the man, such as this story about one of his high school games. Sager takes Marinovich’s memory by ties it to elements of the story that are yet to come:
Todd fought for breath. His head was ringing, his vision was blurred, he wanted to puke. Later he would recognize the symptoms of his first concussion. Marv’s conditioning was designed to train the body and the mind to push beyond pain and fear. Throughout his career, Todd would be known for his extraordinary focus and will — qualities that would both enable and doom him. Two years from now, the left-hander would lead a fourth-quarter rally with a broken thumb on his throwing hand. Five years from now, he would throw four college touchdowns with a fractured left wrist. Sixteen years from now, he’d throw ten touchdowns in one game, tying an Arena Football League record, while suffering from acute heroin withdrawal.
This is very effective. He breaks up the mostly conventional chronolical narrative with connections like this that underscore for the reader how Marinovich’s childhood and formative experiences would shape him later in life.
Sager also makes subtle, telling observations as he talks with Marinovich. Not long after detailing the rigid diet and nutritional regiment Todd’s father imposed on him since birth, we get a little scene like this from a a pop warner game that provides contrast:
He’d just cleared the line of scrimmage when Goliath-boy stepped into the gap and delivered a forearm shiver very much like the one that had gotten Marv ejected from the Rose Bowl. Todd crumpled to the ground. Blood flowed copiously from his nose.
The whistle blew. As Todd was being cleaned up, Marv convinced the coach that Todd needed to go back in the game. Immediately. At quarterback.
Todd stood over center, his nose still bleeding. Part of him felt like crying. The other part knew that it was the last few seconds of the scrimmage and the team was down by only a few points. For as long as he could remember, no matter what sport he played, he always had to win.
He took the snap and faded back, threw a perfect pass into the back corner of the end zone. “That has always been my favorite route,” he says now, sitting outside a little coffee shop on Balboa Boulevard, drinking a large drip with six sugars and smoking a Marlboro Red. He tells the story from a place of remove, as if describing something intimate that happened to someone else. “I remember seeing the ball. It was spiraling and there was blood just flying off of it, splattering out into the air.”
When the catch was made, there was silence for a beat. “And then I remember the parents cheering.”
So much is packed into that anecdote aside from what happened on the scoreboard. We see the overbearing nature of his father. We see the vulnerable, scared kid inside Todd; but also the fiery competitor. He remembers the parents cheering, but not, it seems, his own happiness. But the most telling detail is that as Marinovich tells this story, he’s smoking and drinking a coffee with six sugars; a stark contrast from the boy described a page earlier as being sent to birthday parties with carrot sticks and carob muffins.
More than anything else, what strikes me about this piece is its scope. This is clearly not a profile put together after a few hours at a table with Marinovich. It’s evident that he spent a lot of time with the quarterback, asking countless questions and pressing him for what he thought and felt at a given time. The end product is dense and loaded with not only what happened to Marinovich, but what he was thinking at every step of the way.