Mikhail Marinovich tries to break the family pattern
That first year in high school did not go well.
The big, unruly teenager fought with his mother so often that she kicked him out of the house, depositing all his clothes in garbage bags out front. Staying with his father wasn’t much better.
“That lasted about a week,” he recalled. “My dad ended up coming after me. I locked the door to my room and jumped out the window.”
No one seemed terribly surprised. They knew that Mikhail Marinovich was the youngest son of a troubled Southern California sports family.
A columnist once ranked his father, Marv, a gruff former lineman for USC and the Oakland Raiders, among the worst sports parents in history.
Marv earned that distinction for the way he raised Mikhail’s older brother, Todd, starting him on a training regimen in the crib, giving him frozen chunks of kidney to teethe on for nutrition. Todd grew up to be a mercurial star for the Trojans and Raiders; his career evaporated in a haze of drug use.
To a lot of people, it seemed that a young Mikhail was merely upholding the family tradition.
“Back in grammar school, I had kids whose parents told them not to hang around with me because my dad was this and that and my brother was a drug addict,” he said. “They knew I’d mess up.”
They all came to the USC game on Saturday, two dozen family and friends scattered around the Coliseum. Marv had seats close to the field. Others sat by the end zone and Todd was higher up, at the 30-yard line, with a ball cap tugged down over his head.
“Big game,” he said. “We’ve been looking forward to this for a while.”
They came to watch Mikhail play at defensive end for Syracuse University.
Five years after leaving Southern California for the East Coast, the youngest Marinovich has become a leader for the Orange. “He’s really been extremely reliable,” Coach Doug Marrone said. “I love having him on our team.”
Marrone realizes it might sound odd to use words such as “structure” and “discipline” in describing Mikhail. The young man remains something of a character with his handlebar mustache and six-shooters tattooed across his chest, but the coach insists he “has matured quite a bit.”
That means keeping his grades up as he works toward a degree in communication and rhetorical studies. It means settling down at 23, marrying his high school sweetheart.
The transformation required help from a handful of people who stuck by him over the years, believing he could make good despite all evidence to the contrary. It required a sense of hope in a troubled kid whose situation appeared hopeless.
“There are plenty of guys out there who have talent but messed up in life,” Mikhail said. “At some point, I knew I’d have to get things straightened out.”
Looking back on the friction with his mother, Mikhail is philosophical: “I can’t say it was all me or all her. We just weren’t getting along.” As for life with Marv, well, given what happened with Todd, that was a long shot.
The story is well known. After retiring from football in the 1960s, Marv got into the business of training athletes, his rigid approach modeled after former Soviet bloc coaches. His first son became the ultimate test case.
Todd insists he wanted his dad’s help. Some believe Marv — big, intense, volatile — went too far and was responsible for Todd’s rebellious nature in college, his subsequent struggles with marijuana and heroin.
By the late 1980s, Marv was divorced and remarried to Jan Crawford. When they had Mikhail, he meant to change.
“He had mellowed,” Todd recalled. “Not only from age but learning from past experience.”
But after he split up with Jan, his younger son grew wild. Mikhail got into fights and rarely did homework, dropping out of Bishop Montgomery High School in Torrance as a freshman. His last name was a burden.
“He took heat from everybody,” said Marc Spizzirri, a family friend. “I watched officials in games give him a hard time, teachers, other players.”
Spizzirri invited Mikhail to live with his family. It was supposed to be a temporary arrangement, just long enough for father and son to start counseling.
“We were thinking 90 days,” Spizzirri said.
There always was something about the Marinovich boys — both Todd and Mikhail — that made people want to believe. A hint of goodness lurked beneath the trouble.
The Spizzirris saw it and ended up letting Mikhail stay long-term, even though Marc was wary. “I was taking a risk having this kid with my children,” he said. Mikhail had doubts too.
“I knew what living with them meant,” he said. “It was not an easy road to go down.”
His new family enrolled him at JSerra Catholic High School in San Juan Capistrano and set strict rules. Candace Spizzirri kept him at the kitchen table most nights doing homework. “Anything was better than living with my dad,” he said.
Not that the transformation was instant. There were more fights, and a classmate recalls him as less than friendly.
“The first thing he ever said to me was, ‘Who are you and why are you sitting at my lunch table?’ ” Courtney Burton said.
The Spizzirris focused on one issue at a time — asking Mikhail to stop punching other kids, for instance. His behavior and grades slowly improved. A talented basketball player, he tried football, and with Marv’s help developed as a pass rusher.
“It was my senior year,” Mikhail said. “I remember dad saying, ‘You’re good.’ ”
A new kind of kid had emerged.
“I started to realize,” he said, “that I was doing OK.”
In summer 2007, shortly after Mikhail graduated from high school, police caught Todd skateboarding on the Newport Pier at 1 a.m., carrying a small amount of methamphetamine, a metal spoon and a hypodermic needle.
It was the latest in a string of arrests, and Mikhail, who adored his big brother, had grown frustrated. Maybe the best Todd could offer was an example of what not to do.
“We discussed my issues,” Todd said. “I most definitely did not what him to experience what I did.”
The following winter, Mikhail enrolled at Syracuse, hoping to put some distance between him and his family name. He had another reason for heading east: Courtney, the classmate he had offended at lunch, was now his girlfriend and living in New York City.
You know who he’s related to, her parents told her. You’d better be careful.
Weeks after arriving at Syracuse, Mikhail and a teammate got drunk and broke into a sports equipment room. Then came more headlines when he and another player used family money to open a hookah bar off campus.
It was a nice place with leather couches and flat-screen televisions, and customers lined up outside the door, but the coaches told him to close it down.
So did Todd, who reminded his little brother: “There’s a target on your back. Everyone’s looking for you to stumble.”
Todd had to leave Saturday’s game early, but everyone else stuck around — Marv and Jan, the Spizzirris, Courtney and her family — waiting outside the locker room. Marv wore an orange Syracuse shirt.
There was cheering when Mikhail emerged, even though his school had lost. They held a reunion beside the team buses, oblivious to the rumble of idling engines, the stench of exhaust.
“We don’t get that many chances to see him,” Jan said.
The Marinoviches are still sorting out their lives, but things are looking better. Marv, standing off to the side, said: “There was some difficulty. I think it’s a matter of growing up.”
As for Todd, he married a woman he met in rehab and they have two children. An art major at USC, he has done paintings that will be part of an exhibit at the downtown Ground Floor Gallery next month.
“Through the years, we could have given up,” he said. “It’s all about perseverance.”
The future seems especially bright for Mikhail, who made three tackles, deflected a pass and recovered a fumble against the Trojans. His size and speed should give him a shot at the NFL next year.
In the meantime, he has continued to pull himself together off the field.
His marriage to Courtney — her parents now approve of him — has helped. Just as important, Mikhail and Todd and Marv seem to have found a way to accept each other for who they are, to find some positive in a troubled past. That is important to Mikhail.
“In regards to life,” he said, “I like where I’m at.”
Outside the Coliseum, there were smiles and hugs, even a few tears. Before Mikhail left to climb on the bus, everyone crowded together.
They wanted to take a family picture.