Scrambling for His Life

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.

"I fell in love with pot," he says. "I finally felt comfortable in my own skin. I was one of the guys. I could talk to girls I would never have talked to before."

Thus began a double life. The squeaky clean kid who never ate junk food recalls playing in a basketball game during his senior year at Capistrano Valley High and hearing fans from the other school--some of them football players who partied with him on weekends--chanting: "Marijuana-vich."

"I was supposed to be shooting free throws, but I was really glancing into the stands," he says. "I was trying to see if my father noticed."

Marv was oblivious, maybe because he had never even taken an aspirin, maybe because he did not want to know.

The partying escalated when Todd enrolled at USC, where he started as a redshirt freshman in 1989, his picture in Sports Illustrated. He was a Rose Bowl hero and a kid living away from home, making choices for the first time.

Choosing Jack Daniels over beer. Choosing to get high.

"If I would have kept it to weekends like a lot of the guys, I don't think it would have affected me," he says. "But I wouldn't put the pot down. I smoked through the week. I never smoked on game day, but it was still in my system so it probably affected my decision-making and my motivation. Definitely my motivation."

A pattern developed. In his sophomore season, Marinovich was punished for cutting class and arriving late for a team meeting. His grades plummeted, he argued with coaches.

As drug rumors grew louder, USC officials tested him often, but Marinovich sneaked in someone else's urine. This trick could not salvage his relationship with Coach Larry Smith. Their sideline argument during the 1990 John Hancock Bowl--coupled with the first of several arrests for drug possession--forced a showdown.

Smith ordered his quarterback to straighten out. Marinovich headed the other direction.

"I tried cocaine my last semester and found I could party longer and drink more," he says. "So I started using that."

The Afterglow

Recovering addicts see it as a progressive disease. It can happen over months or years.

For Marinovich, the next step was leaving school. The Raiders drafted him in the first round, which meant a big signing bonus and a house at the beach. That meant, as he puts it, "the party was on."

Just like in college, the rookie showed flashes of brilliance and became a starter. But his inconsistent stretches worried team executives who had quietly asked around USC before draft day and knew of his off-the-field habits.

Late in 1991, the Raiders tested him and detected an alarming blood-alcohol level. Marinovich now admits the team made him check into the Betty Ford Clinic in the off-season, but the 45-day program did little to change a young man raised on tales of the rowdy Raiders.

"Play hard on game day and party hard afterward," he says. "I thought I was doing what the Raiders were supposed to do."

The next season, he accumulated thousands of dollars in fines, mostly for showing up late. His play suffered, he now says, because his brain was too clouded to learn the game's nuances. The Raiders cut him in the summer of 1993.

Truth be told, he said, the game had lost its appeal. Within weeks of signing with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in 1994, he injured his knee and landed in a hospital back home in Southern California. It took only a friend stopping by with a guitar to get him started on a new career.

The band was called Scurvy and it introduced Marinovich to a life of $60 gigs and harder drugs.

This was new ground, more than the rebellion of an angry son, more than the whim of a flake. Marinovich started out smoking heroin and liked it not so much for the initial rush, but for the afterglow.

"I can only compare it to what the womb must feel like," he says. "The outer world disappears and you are completely at ease."

At the time, he claimed to be living the life he wanted, but, at some level, he realized his downward spiral was gaining speed. Each heroin high brought less comfort.

When the band split up in 1997, after another member was busted for possession, only the drugs remained. Marinovich spent a year hanging around, partying. Deputies called to his home to revive an unconscious friend found marijuana plants, which brought three months in an Orange County jail and another stint in rehab.

Even when he launched a comeback in 1999, working himself back into shape, Marinovich never considered cleaning up. So while he tried out for an NFL scout and assured reporters he had left pot and cocaine behind--never a mention of heroin--he secretly planned to head north.

The British Columbia Lions would neither test him nor expect much of him as a backup. Maybe a new city would get him straight.

The opposite happened. Alone and unhappy, he developed a full-blown habit. A teammate confronted him at one point, but, as always, he played it off. His weight dropped to 185 pounds by season's end.

"Emaciated, drawn, just terrible," Marv says. "Basically, he was absent."

The Way Down

Recovering addicts have short memories. They might think they have the problem licked when, in fact, it hangs just over their shoulders.

That is why Garo Ghazarian keeps an old mug shot of himself, looking pale and haggard, in his briefcase. Ghazarian was a criminal defense lawyer who represented his share of drug dealers, then lost everything to a crack cocaine habit.

The last seven years, he has stayed sober and rebuilt his life, consulting with law enforcement and lecturing to groups--often local sports teams--about the perils of drug abuse.

His presentations always begin with the painful details of his downfall. He is a likable fellow, fast-talking and emotional, tears sometimes welling in his eyes as he describes the path that took him from driving a Mercedes to living in a Salvation Army shelter.

"That's me," he says. "I wear my heart on my sleeve."

Last spring, the Avengers invited Ghazarian to their practice facility. Around that time, Marinovich had emerged from 10 hellish days in a hospital detox program and was looking for a fresh start.

The quarterback wrangled a tryout with the Avengers and showed some of his old zip. Team executives considered him a risk but never guessed heroin was part of the deal. Marinovich wasn't about to tell them, figuring he had the addiction beat.

Maybe Ghazarian could have set him straight. But shortly before the lecture, police led Marinovich away from practice, arresting him on suspicion of sexual assault. (The district attorney ultimately found no cause to file charges.) That night, Brock called him and said: "God, I wish you'd been here to hear this guy's story."

Soon enough, Marinovich would get the chance.

The Avengers lost their first four games and inserted Marinovich into the starting lineup in hopes he could provide a spark. Marinovich had already resumed using drugs, believing he could control himself.

A little here, a little there.

"That only lasts a while," he says. "I was on my way down."

He tested positive last May. Brock got on the phone.

'Almost Childlike'

Summoned to his coach's office on a Sunday morning, Marinovich assumed he would be cut. Instead, he walked in on a small group of people that included Marv and his mother Trudi, team owner Casey Wasserman and Brock, plus a man he did not recognize.

"Just give me an hour of your time," Ghazarian said. "I'm just going to talk about myself."

Marinovich sat back coolly as Ghazarian began speaking. As time passed, however, the story drew him in, tugging him forward in his chair.

"Todd's got his head in his hands, mother's crying, dad's not saying a word," recalls Wasserman, a rather clean-cut grandson of legendary Hollywood mogul Lew Wasserman.

"They're talking about heroin and scoring drugs," he says. "Coach Brock and I are thinking we can't believe this."

The meeting stretched for hours as everyone took turns talking. Everyone except Marv, who says, "I had no concept."

Todd and Ghazarian left the room several times to sit on a bench outside. There, they spoke of things they could not share with "normies"--what recovering addicts call people who have never been hooked. A bond formed between the tall athlete and the pudgy 40-year-old who barely knew about football.

"Right from the get-go," Marinovich says, "I knew he had a big, big heart."

Says Ghazarian: "You know what I saw in him? I saw goodness."

By evening, Wasserman saw it too--something indescribable, something in Marinovich's eyes. Brock was touched in ways you might not expect from a bear of a man who played on the offensive line for more than a decade.

"It's almost childlike when Todd is looking at you and he's so sincere," the coach says. "He's an easy guy to pull for."

They told Marinovich they would stand by him and, whether he could play or not, he had a job. Marinovich was stunned. He figures any other team would have kicked him to the curb.

Even more startling was Ghazarian's reaction. By his own account, he is addicted to helping addicts because it reminds him of what he went through, keeps him sober. With Marinovich, he took this to an extreme.

With encouragement from the Avengers, Ghazarian spent all his free time at their practices and games. They paid his way on the road but nothing more. He even appeared in the team photograph, a dark-suited man standing to the side, listed as a "special assistant."

"If people only knew," he says.

Other players noticed the special treatment, which prompted some grumbling in the locker room. Team officials did their best to quell the fires, anything to keep Marinovich with Ghazarian as much as possible.

"Think of the sacrifice Garo has made for someone that he barely knew," Wasserman says. "For some weird reason, he connected with Todd and literally saved his life."

Marv Marinovich becomes uncharacteristically emotional: "Garo is heaven-sent . . . he's giving me my son back."

Humbling Circumstance

Father and son talk more than ever, and not only about sports. Marv says Todd is fun to be around. Todd says time has softened Marv's sharp edges. And there is something else--a younger half-brother, Mikhail.

"Marv asks me things he can do with Mikhail, things that I would have liked to be different," Todd says.

The suggestions are predictable: Loosen the reins, give the kid a chance to be 13. Marv growls: "I do that more with Mikhail . . . sometimes I lose my patience."

The brothers see each other as often as they can. Mikhail knows of Todd's problems only vaguely, though he certainly saw news reports of the December arrest.

Todd had been in and out of methadone treatment when a dealer began calling about an old debt. Against Ghazarian's advice, he went downtown to pay the man. The way he tells it, the transaction took place in his pickup and the dealer left him a going-away present.

"One half of you says to throw it out," Marinovich recalls. "The other half says, 'God, it's in my hand and nobody will know.' "

With the truck still parked, a squad car pulled up. If the police had not arrived, Marinovich assumes he would have gotten high. "They saved me," he says.

Wasserman would not speak to him for weeks. Ghazarian's anger was tempered by understanding, the experience of having seen other recovering addicts slip. He posted bail and hustled Marinovich into another detox program to get the methadone out of his system.

These days, Marinovich stays in a small bedroom off the den of Ghazarian's home, north of Los Angeles. A stereo sits on the floor beside a night stand where candles have melted down. Scraps of paper flutter on the walls, scribbled with sayings such as "I choose to live" and "I am free today . . . just for today."

Marinovich is a dutiful guest, taking out the trash, stringing garden lights in the backyard, playing games of Ping-Pong with his host. Ghazarian says: "It bugs the hell out of him when he loses . . . you can print that."

The circumstance humbles an athlete who once commanded a million-dollar bonus. There are feelings of shame, wondering how he got himself into this mess. But there is also a healthy dose of fear.

The next slip is only a moment, a bad decision, away.

"A daily struggle," Marinovich says.

Sometimes on the freeway, hurrying to practice or a meeting, Marinovich passes an offramp where he used to buy drugs. The urge arises. The exit sign beckons.

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