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The Prodigal's Return : Surfer, Snowboarder, Fisherman and Artist, Todd Marinovich Wants to Be a Quarterback Again

April 15, 1994|ELLIOTT ALMOND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It wasn't the Sundays. Todd Marinovich, surfer, painter, idiosyncratic quarterback who once dyed his bright red hair black and surfed naked, could handle the hulking 350-pound men whose livelihoods depended on leaving him crumpled under their massive bodies during games.

It wasn't the fun days. Marinovich found the challenge of bonding with 10 well-trained teammates who counted on him to be an overpowering tonic, as overpowering as victory itself.

"It was everything (else) that goes along with being a starting quarterback in the NFL (that) I was glad to be away from," Marinovich said this week, talking publicly for the first time since the Raiders released him Aug. 31.

"Not Sundays. I could do that Sunday thing forever."

But when does forever end? It ends unceremoniously on a practice field during the heat of Southern California's summer. It ends in frustration and disappointment, and yet undeniable relief. It ends after 19 consecutive football seasons. It ends quickly, quietly, far from the public eye.

It ends with a beginning.

Without so much as a word, Marinovich disappeared into the hinterland--surfboard, snowboard, rod and reel, video camera and art supplies in tow. He decided it was time to find out what he had missed by playing football since he was 5 years old.

"If the Raiders didn't release me, I don't know if I would have released myself," he said. "I was at the point where it was almost a pleasure (to leave). It was therapeutic, every month and every day of it."

His family, although disappointed, encouraged him to find himself, to travel a new, adventurous path. If he returned an artist, fine. If he returned a surfer, well, that was all right too.

So off he went . . . to Aspen, Colo.; Jamaica, South America and Hawaii. He spent peaceful days fly-fishing on Colorado rivers. In the Rockies, he reflected on a career that was shaped at Santa Ana Mater Dei and Mission Viejo Capistrano Valley high schools, then continued at USC for two tumultuous seasons before the Raiders selected him 16th in the 1991 draft.

Back home, Marinovich concentrated on painting for the first time. Before, there was the pressing need to train. The art always suffered.

"I could get as creative as I wanted, without any obstructions like I've had my entire life," he said. "And if there was a killer swell that came in, I could (surf) and put the art aside for a while."

That's all he had to worry about.

"That was nice," he said.

And now Marinovich has returned. At 24, he is ready for another shot at the NFL. But is the NFL ready for him?

A quarter of the NFL teams needed starting quarterbacks during the off-season. All seven made changes, none that included Marinovich. And with spring mini-camps coming up, it is getting late to learn a new system. Yet, Marinovich says he will decide where to play by June.

"That's the great thing about what I do," he said. "There's just not a lot of people who can do it. And I don't think there are that many good ones."

Marinovich, who started seven games in his second full season with the Raiders, has the potential to develop into an outstanding quarterback. But it never quite happened in Los Angeles, where Raider officials hinted that his off-field behavior, not his ability, was the reason he was demoted to third string and then released.

Marinovich's release did nothing to help an image already tarnished by his well-chronicled battles with Coach Larry Smith when both were at USC. When the Raiders, of all teams, gave up on Marinovich, others had to wonder.

"I can't believe (Raider owner) Al Davis would cut a great player," said Larry Lacewell, director of college scouting for the Dallas Cowboys. "If Charlie Manson could throw the ball, he'd keep him."

Said another NFL insider: "The Raiders are considered to be the most tolerant franchise when it comes to personal peccadilloes, troubled lives, and if he couldn't make it with them, where could he make it?"

Marinovich says little about why he was released. Before the Raiders told Marinovich he was gone, Davis tried unsuccessfully to reach Todd's divorced parents, Marv and Trudi. It was a courtesy from an old friend. Instead, Davis found Todd's grandfather, Henry Fertig, in the press box at the Coliseum.

"I've known Todd since he was a kid," Davis told Fertig. "He used to play with my kid. (But) I'm going to cut him. He's been missing meetings, not doing what he is supposed to do."

Fertig asked if the problem was drug-related. Rumors had shadowed Marinovich since January of 1991, when he was arrested for possessing cocaine and marijuana. The charges were dropped after he had completed a one-year counseling program for first-time offenders.

Davis said drugs weren't a problem.

"His situation was whether or not he was going to be able to make himself responsible to the profession and to his career," said Steve Ortmayer, director of football operations for the Raiders.

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