- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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Despite being a two-year starter at defensive end for one of the Big East's best defenses, Syracuse's Mikhail Marinovich operates in relative obscurity.
That's pretty amazing given his last name and family history. And that's a major reason why Marinovich came to Syracuse, which is about as far away as you can get from his Southern California home and still play major college football.
"At home, I'm recognized a lot but sometimes not for the best reasons," he said. "So it was good to come out here and really make a name for myself."
His surname carries some seriously negative connotations. His father is Marv Marinovich, one of the NFL's first strength coaches who became infamous for trying to engineer the perfect quarterback with his first son -- and Mikhail's half-brother -- Todd Marinovich.
Marv studied Eastern Bloc training methods and went to disturbing lengths to control every aspect of Todd's life. He forbade his son to eat any junk food, sugar or processed dairy products, began stretching Todd's hamstrings at age 1 and hired a battery of coaches to work on his every physical skill. Sports Illustrated dubbed Todd "the first test-tube athlete."
Todd starred at quarterback at USC and was drafted in the first round by the Oakland Raiders, but he eventually rebelled from his strict upbringing and struggled with drug addiction for nearly 20 years. He's become a cautionary tale, and Marv has been labeled one of the worst sports parents of all time.
Mikhail is 18 years younger than Todd but saw what his sibling went through. As with Todd, Marv was very restrictive with Mikhail's diet and showed no mercy as Mikhail practiced for hours at Little League sports.
"Some things were great, while other things weren't as much," Mikhail says. "He tried his best to get me the tools I need to succeed, and I am grateful for that. He lightened up on me a little. It wasn't as bad as Todd."
Still, Mikhail decided that wasn't the life he wanted, and his rebellion came earlier. He left his dad's house when he was young and ended up moving in with the family of some friends in Orange County for most of his high school career.
"He had no place to go, and he needed a place to stay while he and his father worked some things out," said Marc Spizzirri, a classic car dealer whose kids knew Mikhail from a local gym. "What was going to be a couple of months turned out to be four years."
Marinovich needed some guidance. Spizzirri's wife worked with him every night at the kitchen table to help boost his grades. Spizzirri says the 6-foot-5 Marinovich was a "man among boys" whenever he played a sport, but no football, basketball or track and field season ever went by when he didn't earn at least one lengthy suspension. He had trouble respecting authority, and his family legacy hounded him.
"Because of his last name, people wanted to see him fail," Spizzirri said. "He had to overcome coaches, other kids and parents yelling things at him. He got into a couple of fights on the basketball court because of his name. Even referees used to give him a hard time. He just couldn't catch a break."
Marinovich was a standout wide receiver and linebacker who turned heads at both USC and UCLA camps. But because he didn't play enough in high school to create much game film, he went to prep school. That's how he ended up on the East Coast at Milford Academy in New York, which led him to Syracuse.
His career with the Orange didn't start off so smoothly. As a freshman, he was arrested for breaking into an equipment room at Manley Field House. He also opened a hookah lounge off campus with kicker Nico Rechul. They sold the place after a wave of bad publicity and disapproval from their coaches followed.
"People always talk about starting their own business, so we thought, 'You know what, why not?'" he said. "It's something I can put on my résumé. It was a good experience; it just didn't come at the right time."
Lately and luckily, Marinovich has become known mostly for his play on the field. He has started every game since the beginning of 2009 and has helped form a solid pass rush along with counterpart defensive end Chandler Jones. Syracuse, which is looking for its seventh win Saturday against Louisville, has the second-stingiest defense in the Big East. Marinovich had never played end before he went to Milford.
"There they just told me to run to the quarterback, and I didn't have any idea what I was doing," said the junior, who has 17 tackles and 1.5 sacks this season. "I've really molded my game here and have focused a lot in the past year on my technique."
Because of the distance, Mikhail said he doesn't see his family very often. But he tries to keep in regular contact with Todd, who is now sober and working as both an artist and football instructor back in Southern California.
"Most of what we talk about isn't about football," Mikhail said. "I learned a lot by seeing what happened to him and what drugs can do to somebody. But it teaches me that if you really want to succeed and do the work, anything's possible."
Todd was derisively called "Robo QB" because of his upbringing, but no one would accuse Mikhail of being robotic. Besides his brief hookah lounge enterprise, he's also done some modeling. He was introduced into that by his high school sweetheart, Courtney, whom he married two weeks before fall camp started this summer.
He comes across as a bright, funny and colorful guy with many outside interests -- "I don't like to live things dull," he says.
"He's now become a very responsible person with outstanding character," Spizzirri said. "If you would have asked me if that was possible seven or eight years ago, I would have said the odds were strongly against that."
The odds of a Marinovich going across the country to play football and not causing a media storm must have seemed pretty low, too. But Mikhail Marinovich is adding a new chapter to his family's story.