Todd Marinovich, Football’s Cautionary Tale, Is Playing Again at 48


Miller opens his home to players and their empty stomachs around practices. He pointed to a sofa and said, “Over a hundred of them have slept there overnight.”

Miller texts Marinovich often: “How are you going to stay sober for the next hour?”

No players are paid in this league. They “play for the tape,” with the hopes that talent evaluators in paying leagues will give them a shot. Shaine Boyle, a defensive back, and David Williams, a defensive lineman, for example, have played arena football.

Linebacker Jake Sheffield, one of about a half-dozen Coyotes from major college conferences, said teammates have agreed to help Marinovich, who has shown no interest in playing anywhere for a salary, “focus on his sobriety.” (His main source of income these days comes from the occasional paid speech and sale of his artwork.)

For Marinovich’s mother, Trudi, there were more visceral concerns about the Coyotes’ offensive line.

“How are we going to be up front?” she asked Todd. “How are we going to protect my boy?”

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Stephen Wade/Getty Images

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Marinovich led U.S.C. to victory in the 1990 Rose Bowl, but struggled the next season before entering the N.F.L. draft, where he was selected in the first round by the Raiders. Substance abuse problems derailed his pro career, and he was out of the N.F.L. after just two seasons.

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NFL Photos, via Associated Press

Marinovich’s most unlikely ally is Michael Karls, a Coyotes quarterback, who filled in with six touchdown passes in a 54-0 win over the Los Angeles Scorpions. He missed last season with an ankle injury, but intended to return to the Coyotes this year to start. Instead, he has accepted the role of back up and is committed to making Marinovich better.

“My purpose now is to help the next guy,” said Karls, 25, who said he could overtake Marinovich in an open competition. He coaches high school football and harbors no aspirations of advancing to loftier leagues.

The Coyotes are a nonprofit organization that subsists partly on corporate donors. Last year, Marinovich was one of the team’s assistant coaches. Miller, however, thought it would be good for Marinovich, as well as for the team, for him to take another shot at quarterback

The team operates the run-and-shoot offense — popularized in the mid-1970s by Mouse Davis — and relies on a quarterback getting rid of the ball quickly, ideally within 2.5 seconds. Miller, a run-and-shoot disciple, took Marinovich to an audition conducted by Davis.

Davis, 84, voiced no reservations other than saying that an athlete as old as Marinovich would probably wake up sore after operating his high-tempo offense.

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Marinovich (12), with backup quarterback Michael Karls.

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Michael Ares for The New York Times

Marinovich knows about aches and pains. He wears the most protective equipment available, notably a knee brace from the company that supplies an aging quarterback of greater prominence, Tom Brady. In practice, Miller forbids tacklers from making contact with the quarterback, regardless of name or reputation.

But Miller cannot keep Marinovich in a bubble. Last August, a naked Marinovich was arrested in someone’s backyard while in possession of marijuana and methamphetamine. His drug-related offenses have reached double-digits, with some resulting in felony charges.

Handing him a uniform was sure to elicit criticism for gimmickry — the flip-side of a Tim Tebow signing, as Miller puts it. “You are bringing in Tebow without Tim’s moral background, with the baggage,” he said.

If there is a relapse, Miller added: “Everyone will blame us. We’re taking all of the risk.”

Upon hearing about the new guy, some of his teammates watched an ESPN documentary on Marinovich: about how he was drafted by the Los Angeles Raiders in the first round, and how, ultimately his world of talent found him a world of trouble.

The generation gap is unmistakable. To them, John Madden is the namesake of a video game; to him, he was the Raiders coach before Marinovich arrived in Los Angeles for only two seasons.

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Marinovich taking part in a team prayer after practice.

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Michael Ares for The New York Times

Marinovich might remain retired had he not pledged to dial down his extreme competitiveness.

“One thing I’m letting go of is perfectionism,” he said. “I’m beginning to learn to live with imperfection.”

That compulsion for mistake-free play was ingrained early by Marv Marinovich. His father set out to build the perfect quarterback. He had Todd lifting hand weights and performing pull-ups at age 3. As the boy grew older, training intensified to the extent that some experts considered it child cruelty and have blamed his father for the son’s subsequent problems.

“That’s unfair,” said Marinovich, who nonetheless refers to Marv as a onetime “rage-aholic.” “He was doing the best he could with the information he had.”

Marinovich says he rises early, prays, meditates and stretches. Sometimes he plays a few holes of golf. His residence sits alongside a course’s 17th green. Marinovich uses glow-in-the-dark balls to whack predawn, before the flagsticks are installed.

“This might surprise you,” he said, smiling, of his eagerness to master a new sport, “but I have an addictive personality.”

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