Months before the 1991 NFL Draft, University of Southern California football player Todd Marinovich was in trouble. The star quarterback’s growing struggle with drugs had contributed to poor play and absences from classes and meetings, eroding his relationship with his team. Head coach Larry Smith suspended him at the beginning of January, though this didn’t scare him straight. Just days later, he was arrested for cocaine possession. Despite these events, Marinovich followed through with a plan to leave college two years early and turn professional. The media made him into a punchline, with one newspaper predicting, “he’s a fourth-rounder without cocaine, a 10th-rounder with it.” But recruiters still had faith in the player’s potential. The Los Angeles Raiders selected Marinovich in the first round with the 24th overall pick, ahead of future passing legend Brett Favre.
Marinovich’s drug problems only worsened, and he failed to excel in the league. The Raiders cut him before the start of the 1993 season. He would never play in the NFL again. Sound familiar? On March 11, 2016, the Cleveland Browns released quarterback Johnny Manziel in the wake of a similarly troubling series of personal mishaps. Marinovich, now sober and working as an artist in California, was asked to give his insight into the Manziel situation. “I had no chance. Does he? I don’t know,” he told USA Today.
Marinovich and Manziel are comparable in many ways. Both men excelled at the college level, regularly part of Heisman Trophy speculation and in command of signature wins and plays that generated national hype over their NFL prospects. Each earned a reputation for indulgence, gained early entry to the pros amidst much fanfare and scrutiny, and heavily damaged their careers within two years of being signed. It sounds like history repeating itself, a quarter of a century apart. But it’s not their similar fates that distinguish them in cultural history. These quarterbacks, raised and trained under oppositional, Cold War-esque philosophies, represent a bygone era of sports culture.
The quarterbacks’ nicknames provide the best symbolism for this argument. Early on in his fame, Todd Marinovich was dubbed “Robo-QB” and “The World’s First Test-Tube Athlete” because of his fascinating and unusual upbringing. Marv Marinovich, Todd’s father, hoped to mold his son into “the perfect quarterback” by enforcing a strict athletic training program from infancy. The child teethed on frozen kidneys and performed leg exercises in his crib. Young Todd even brought his own unprocessed foods to birthday parties because he was not allowed to eat regular cake or ice cream. As he got older, mental techniques were added to his regimen, such as solving math problems while catching a ball on a balance beam. “Something ran afoul of this human lab experiment,” wrote the Orlando Sentinel after his cocaine arrest. Some suspected that Todd’s drug use was his way of finally asserting personal control in his life.
Newspapers also recognized that Marv’s training methods carried a distinctly “Eastern bloc” style. Sports were a significant component of Soviet-American rivalry. In weightlifting circles, for example, the American side became obsessed with learning the “secret” to Soviet success in the sport. Some trainers believed (or themselves started) rumors that the Russians were forcing kids to lift at gunpoint and endure grueling eight-hour training sessions. The Eastern bloc was also said to have placed greater emphasis on mental conditioning than American programs, giving rise to the “robotic” stereotype. In bringing this style of training to an exclusively American sport at the exact moment of the Cold War’s end, Marinovich gained unprecedented public attention for being a sheer oddity.
In contrast, “Johnny Football,” Manziel’s affectionate moniker, conveys the stark opposite of a steely Eastern bloc cyborg. His family background invoked the quintessential postwar American dream. Manziel’s great-grandfather, Bobby Joe Manziel, was a Syrian immigrant and boxer whose friendship with heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey led to a fortuitous investment in an oil field. The Manziels became Texas oil barons in the style of TV’s Ewing family, and were well-known in the local vicinity for their wealth and notoriety. The Manziels were “All-American” before Johnny picked up a football for the first time.
During the Cold War, Americans looked to football, especially at the home-grown high school and college levels, as a way to “confront the Soviet challenge.” According to sports historian Kurt Edward Kemper, football became “a cultural force that not only embodied national distinctiveness and patriotism but also toughness, discipline, [and] self-deprivation.” The sport, when viewed as a reflector of regional values and identity, also seemed to reinforce the notions of capitalism, liberty, and democracy. As a member of an immigrant family that utilized capitalism to its fullest, “Johnny Football” seemed to be the perfect Western bloc candidate for the Cold War gauntlet.
But there was just one problem – in a post-Cold War society, there was no longer a home for Manziel’s brand of Americanism. An article appeared on Deadspin in August 2013 that maligned the Manziel family’s rise to riches as “crooked and dishonest.” Called “The Long Con: How the Manziels Conquered America,” the piece outlined alleged crimes that generations of the family committed and got away with because of their privilege and influence. Similar media portrayals followed, and as Manziel gave them more fodder with his addiction antics, observers jibed, “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” These attitudes are evocative of contemporary ideals such as the Occupy Wall Street movement.
The two quarterbacks may well have been more well-received if their careers had been launched in earlier decades. Today’s sports fans and journalists neither understand nor desire a return to the values that governed athletics from 1946-1991. Marinovich and Manziel were anachronisms before they even began to play. This fact should not absolve the players of personal responsibility for their failures, but it seems likely that cultural perceptions of them have hindered their chances for redemption. While the Robo-QB was able to find his “human” side through art, time will tell if Johnny Football can become the humble character that the public craves.
Kurt Edward Kemper, College Football and American Culture in the Cold War Era (University of Illinois Press, 2009).
“What’s Wrong with Todd Marinovich?” Moscow-Pullman Daily News, February 1, 1991.