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Scrambling for His Life

Todd Marinovich Reveals a Secret: He Has Been Hooked on Heroin for Several Years

April 13, 2001|DAVID WHARTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For a long time, Todd Marinovich hid his addiction to heroin. The lanky quarterback had dropped out of football to play guitar in a bar band, so hardly anyone noticed the weight loss, the drain of color from his already pale complexion.

Even when he returned to the game, venturing to the Canadian Football League two years ago, Marinovich kept a junkie's schedule.

Up early to get high before practice. Sneak off at lunch for another injection. Then, with afternoon meetings done, "go home and use until I went to bed."

The CFL does not test for drugs and he was careful not to cause any messy abscesses with the needle. On the practice field, he had the talent to get by.

"How can you play as an addict?" he says. "I don't know. I don't know. I had been playing so long, it was second nature and I probably could have played in my sleep."

Besides, his addiction found places to hide in the glitz and chaos that have always swirled around him.

Born into Southern California folklore, he was a "test-tube athlete" whose father had him do stretching exercises in the crib, literally raising him to play quarterback. The prodigy led USC to a Rose Bowl victory and became a rookie sensation with the Los Angeles Raiders.

When his behavior grew odd, when his hair grew long and he boasted of surfing naked, people figured he was rebelling against a regimented childhood. Brushes with the law, rumors of wild parties, bad endings with both hometown teams--all were similarly categorized.

Marinovich was getting back at his father, they said, by frittering away his talent.

The extent of his reliance on drugs and alcohol did not begin to surface until he returned from Canada in 1999, eyes dull, 6 feet 5 inches of skin and bones because he had lost 30 pounds. Challenged by loved ones, he denied everything but could see fear in their faces.

The lying and sneaking were about to end.

A New Schedule

The turning point came last spring when Marinovich signed with the Avengers of the Arena Football League. The team soon tested him and found traces of heroin and marijuana.

There was a confrontation. Family and coaches huddled in an office at the practice field, talking at him for hours. He promised to go straight but was arrested in December with a small amount of heroin, caught minutes before he could shoot up.

Now, in a deal with prosecutors, he keeps to a new kind of schedule: Up early for a Narcotics Anonymous meeting before practice. Hurry downtown each afternoon for a drug test. Another meeting at night.

At the same time, the Avengers--who begin the season Saturday at San Jose--see some magic left in that 31-year-old arm, the way those feet move in the pocket. He passed for 45 touchdowns last season, 10 in one game. Imagine what he might do sober.

The team is taking that chance, though Coach Stan Brock muses, "You go to sleep and think, 'Is Todd in bed?' "

Most nights, Marinovich drags himself home after rushing around in his pickup truck, among the few possessions left from his NFL money. No time for parties or girlfriends. He feels hopeful but says the truth can be hard work after "so many years of lying."

Never before has he spoken about the heroin. The effort shows in wrinkles that form at the corners of his eyes. His face still appears boyish when he allows himself to smile, but his strawberry hair is sheared in a severe way, shaved close to the scalp.

"I realize now it's life or death for me," he says. "When I was in my addiction, I did something every day for it . . . I scored drugs. That's what I have to do today, go to any lengths like I did before, but now in a positive way."

That includes facing not only himself, but also his father.

Robo QB

Marv Marinovich is intense, not the type to easily show affection. Once a lineman for USC and the Oakland Raiders, he was already in the business of training athletes when Todd was born and felt it only natural that he put those skills to use with his son.

"Everything I did with Todd," he says, "I did with love in mind."

The teething on frozen chunks of kidney for nutrition. A training regimen modeled after former Soviet Bloc methods. A dozen or so experts enlisted to help with the boy's physiological and psychological development, prompting the media to dub him "Robo QB."

"Through it all, [my father] did everything he could and used all his resources out of love to help me reach a goal," Todd says. "Somewhere along the way, people misinterpreted thinking it was his goal."

Todd wants to be clear on this point. Yes, his father could be difficult. Yes, he harbors some resentment about the way he was raised. But he insists his adult problems can just as easily be attributed to something else.

Early on, teachers noted his painful shyness. As a freshman in high school, he hit upon a solution: Invited to parties with older teammates, Marinovich began drinking beer and, soon after, smoking marijuana.

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