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From the archives: 'Robo Dad' Marinovich: He raises 'trophy kids'

Sportswriters called his son Todd a "Robo QB" and "the first test-tube athlete."

September 18, 2011|By Lynn Smith, Los Angeles Times
  • Todd Marinovich in 2000 as a backup quarterback for the L.A. Avengers arena football team.
Todd Marinovich in 2000 as a backup quarterback for the L.A. Avengers arena… (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles…)

Technically, the plaques and trophies in Marv Marinovich's office belong to his son Todd, a rising star quarterback at USC. But they are a shrine to the father as well.

After all, it was Marv who knew which vitamin supplements he and his wife should take to conceive a perfectly healthy child. It was Marv who applied Eastern Bloc training techniques, insisting that Todd discipline his mind and body and forgo Big Macs, sugar and hanging out at the beach.

It was Marv who caught flak from in-laws critical of punishments such as forcing the 9-year-old Todd to run alongside the car from Huntington Beach to Newport Beach after the boy had not played his best in a basketball game. Sportswriters call his son "Robo QB" and "the first test-tube athlete."

Of all fathers honored on Father's Day, few have focused their lives so single-mindedly on being a dad--and with such mixed reviews.

Some parents who pay him to train their children at the fitness center he manages in the basement of the Anaheim Hilton and Towers see Marinovich as a model of how to help children succeed in an increasingly complex, competitive world.

Parenting authorities say his methods signal an abhorrent and dangerous trend among upper- and middle-class parents: over-programming their children and depriving them of childhood.

Child-rearing experts say "hot housing," or the forced maturing of young children, has become a frightening national trend in academic and social life as well as sports.

Sue Bredekamp, director of professional development for the Washington-based National Assn. for the Education of Young Children, compared the phenomenon to "trophy wife," a beautiful wife chosen for her image. "They're trophy kids," she said.

Meanwhile, Marinovich, 50, struggles with the knowledge that Todd is slipping beyond his daily control. Now divorced and remarried, he is starting over.

His second son, Mikhail, 2, has jogged two miles with his father and performs push-ups for admiring audiences at the gym.

Mikhail's mother, Jan, is a 6-foot dance instructor. Todd's mother, Trudi, came from an accomplished athletic family. Marinovich won't say that the potential for athlete-producing genes is the first quality he has sought in a prospective mother. But it is "one factor."

Less skilled than Todd, Mikhail has "speed, determination and fast-twitch muscle fiber," says his father. "He's muscular--real lean for a baby. He has exceptional bone structure and symmetry. The main thing is his temperament. He's real aggressive."

The toddler ranks in the 99th percentile in his age group for weight and height. If he wants to be an architect, journalist or dancer, Marinovich claims, that's fine. "I'll get into it, start reading and get well-versed."

But Marinovich says that even at this tender age, Mikhail looks like a linebacker. Coaches are already asking about the boy, he said.

Marinovich traces his aggressive fathering to a day in his childhood when he asked his father whether he thought Marv would become a successful athlete. His father offered only an unsatisfying, "Oh sure. You'll be great."

Marinovich, who became captain of the USC Trojans football team and was an Oakland Raiders lineman, said: "In the years after that, I thought, 'If I'm in that situation, I'll help.' I'll say, 'This is what you have to do.' And not just, 'Work hard, run and lift weights,' but how much, the intensity and how many days."

His children never needed to ask for his involvement. Their training began with leg stretches when they first came home from the hospital. Their back yard was filled with exercise equipment and blocking bags. Marinovich said he spent as much time coaching his firstborn daughter, Traci, as he did Todd. "But you could tell it was not what she wanted. It was more a recreational situation for her."

Despite being quoted repeatedly as saying, "How well could a kid develop if you provided him with the perfect environment?" Marinovich denied that he and his first wife, Trudi, deliberately had set out to produce an athlete.

"We set out to produce a healthy, balanced child," he said.

They started "with the mom taking balanced vitamin supplements and minerals before she was pregnant," Marinovich said.

Their children never ate commercial baby food. Todd teethed on frozen raw kidney chunks for their vitamins and minerals. Refined sugar, animal fats, nitrites, coloring agents and white cake flour were not permitted to be eaten--even at other children's birthday parties.

To develop Todd's coordination, his father had him throw, catch and brush his teeth with his left and right hands. His mother saw to it that he visited museums and played the violin.

In high school, Marinovich called in specialists to teach Todd how to visualize plays, improve his peripheral vision and quicken his reaction time. In one exercise, he bounced a ball wearing distortion glasses while he solved math problems out loud. He worked out every day, including Christmas and Sundays.

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