Building the Perfect Player

updated 12/08/1986 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/08/1986 01:00AM

Todd Marinovich takes the snap and drops back to pass—perfect. He sidesteps the rush and rolls out to buy more time—perfect. He spots his receiver, then guns the ball some 50 yards downfield—perfect again. In fact, maybe this kid's a little too perfect, like they say in those spooky movies. Maybe he's some kind of Stepford quarterback. It's unnatural how natural he looks.

Breathe easy, fans. Seventeen-year-old Todd Marinovich wasn't bred in a pod, intended to replace some weaker-armed look-alike. On the other hand, he didn't get to be the very model of high school quarterbacking efficiency by growing up what most people would think of as normal. He was brought up to be just what he is, a star, the fulfillment of both his dreams and his father's. Though Todd is still a junior and can't be recruited by colleges until late next year, scouts are already circling like vultures over Capistrano Valley High School in Orange County, Calif. In three years of scholastic football, Marinovich has thrown for 6,769 yards and 56 touchdowns. "He's already one of the best prospects in the West," says Jack Reilly, offensive coordinator for the University of Utah. "He's got the size, he's got the arm, the feet, the quick release."

In sum, the 6'4" Marinovich has it all, including a pit crew of high-powered "consultants" keeping the kid in tune to be Friday night's hero. "I've always been fascinated by how an athlete can get the maximum possible performance," says Todd's father, Marv, 47, a former Oakland Raiders lineman and Los Angeles Rams fitness coach and scout. Marv is a principal cog in Team Marinovich and spends up to 18 hours a week hoisting weights with his son. Backing him up in his quest to build the ultimate frost-free quarter-backing machine are Dr. Michael Yessis, an expert on Soviet bloc physical training techniques; movement specialist Kevin McNair, whose job is to get Todd's running up to speed; throwing coach Bill Cunerty and sports trainers Gary Tuthill and Andy Shore, who do all they can to keep Todd in one piece and functioning smoothly.

Todd, of course, is hardly a passive participant in all this. In addition to daily football practice during the season, he spends from four to five hours a day getting better and better in every way. His work habits are well known, as is the master plan to which he conforms. So when Todd walks onto the field for a game, opposing fans have been known to shout not "Sis! Boom! Bah!" but "Stuff the bionic bastard!" Others have called him a Frankenstein, a sensitive issue with Marv. "I didn't start out to build a monster," he once explained to a reporter. "This is my son we're talking about. And I want the best for him."

That's how Todd sees it too. "I'm no different than anyone else," he says. "I'm not a robot. I'm a normal person. My dad just cares about me." So does Trudi, his mother. If it was Marv who first placed a football in Todd's crib, it was Trudi, a health food devotee, who placed his tiny feet on the nutritional straight and narrow. "When he was teething," she once recalled, "I had him suck on a piece of frozen kidney rather than bagels or biscuits." When he got older and started going to birthday parties, Todd looked on from the sidelines while other kids were gorging themselves on cake and ice cream. "I made sure he didn't feel out of it," says Trudi. "I'd bake him little cupcakes free of any sugar or preservatives, and he'd take those with him."

By the time Todd was 4, Marv had him up on a balance beam to improve his agility. At the age of 8, he was playing flag football. When he was 11, Marv sent him to a vision development specialist to speed up his reaction time. There, in a darkened room, wearing prism glasses that distorted physical images, Todd would bounce a ball while solving multiplication problems aloud—a test of coordination he easily mastered. These days his exercises are no less esoteric. Under the tutelage of Dr. Yessis, he improved his vertical jump five inches by doing leg squats and lunges and is able to throw a football 70 yards as a result of throwing-motion exercises done with heavy hand weights.

As intriguing as such a regimen might seem to armchair quarterbacks with sons of their own, there is a cautionary message: For anyone but Marinovich, it would be very costly. Nearly all the experts who work with Todd have waived $100-an-hour fees to help him achieve a potential that seems practically limitless. "I do it because I've known the Marinovich family for years," says throwing coach Cunerty. "I like being around Todd, and I like watching him develop." For his part, Todd not only has the physical tools for playing the game, he is as determined to succeed as his father. "My dad never forced me to do anything I didn't want to do," he says. "I play because I love it." In his freshman season, as proof of his dedication, he took down his treasured Christie Brinkley poster and replaced it with an inspiring view of Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway.

Conventional wisdom would have it that Marv Marinovich, an anonymous lineman in his own playing days, is living dreams of glory anew through his son. This theory Marv dismisses with a wave of his hand. "I fulfilled everything I wanted to athletically," he says. "I'm not looking to achieve something through Todd. We have a great relationship. Few guys can actually coach their sons. I'm very aggressive and have very high standards. I know what his capabilities are. So when he's not doing what I think he can do, I let him know."

The evidence seems overwhelming that Todd is equal to the task that Marv has laid out for him. What would have happened if Todd were a klutz? His mother, who separated from Marv in 1985, ponders the question as she fixes a pregame lunch of fresh fruit, yogurt and nuts. "Todd's never been punished for failing," she says. "The only time I've seen him punished was for not trying." Yes, once, at the age of 10, Todd was actually caught dogging it at basketball practice. "Marv made him run the four or five miles home," says Trudi. "He was used to long-distance running, but he arrived home in tears. Marv," she adds, "is a driven person."

Given his priorities, though, he has never had to drive Todd to work—not even to a part-time summer job. Summers, after all, are when Todd is busy working out eight to 10 hours a day, getting ready for the football season to come. And though he is a fine student, with a 3.7 grade point average, he has little time to pursue drawing or painting, which he enjoys. He has also had to make sacrifices socially. When he transferred last year from Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana to Capistrano, which has a stronger football program, he left behind nearly all his friends, including his first girlfriend. "That hurt," says Todd. "I still miss her a lot. But," he emphasizes, "I chose Capo. They have my kind of offense and they have a great coaching staff. They throw a lot."

Does such dedication seem extreme? Not to Dr. Yessis. "If you want to be mediocre, you don't have to worry," he says. "If you want to play football—or piano for that matter—the higher you go the more of a sacrifice you have to make." Child therapist Susan Caldwell, on the other hand, sees risk in such intense concentration. "Putting all your emotional cookies in one basket is dangerous," she says. "And so is equating self-worth with performance."

Overall, in fact, Todd seems remarkably well adjusted. "It's not Todd's social development I'm worried about," says one college coach. "It's Marv's." The elder Marinovich put his own career on hold several years ago, leaving the family treading water financially. But no obsession goes on forever, and Marv's will have run its course, he promises, as soon as Todd chooses a college. "Next year, and that's it," he says. "I want to get back to work." And after that? "Todd feels he has the talent to get him to the NFL," says Marv. "Whether he does or not, nobody knows." Would the father feel his time had been wasted if the son should fall short of his goal? "Not at all," says Marv. "I'm really enjoying all this, and even if it wasn't for a specific goal, I think it's a very special father-son relationship."

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