Painting outside the lines
Former USC robo-QB Todd Marinovich battles drug addiction with a paintbrush
Todd Marinovich dusted off a large plastic bin he found while clearing out the garage of his family home in Newport Beach, Calif. Inside were about a thousand news clippings that his late grandmother had collected from newspapers and magazines over the years. The articles detailed his intense athletic training as a child, his national record-setting high school years playing football in Orange County, the Rose Bowl victory over Michigan in January 1990, the last-second touchdown pass to lead USC over UCLA during the '90 season in what remains one of the most exciting games in the crosstown rivalry, and his first-round selection in the 1991 NFL draft by the then-Los Angeles Raiders.
Alongside those highlights any grandmother would have kept, there were articles on his drug addiction, suspensions and nine arrests. Virginia, his mother's mother, hadn't saved just the positive moments in his life. She kept everything.
He loved it.
Marinovich took a handful of the articles, the good and the bad, and threw them down on a blank canvas. He cut the headlines off other articles and sprinkled them over the 24-inch by 36-inch page. With no image in mind, he took out his brushes and acrylic paint, began reading the headlines and put down what they made him feel.
The result is a powerful painting titled "Crown." The clippings and headlines surround an angular red face, mouth agape in agony, with piercing blue eyes rolled slightly back in a head adorned by a crooked gold crown.
A focus on art helped Marinovich, 42, finally kick a drug problem that had afflicted him most of his adult life and sabotaged a promising and highly publicized football career.
"Art is healing," Marinovich said. "Tapping into it and expressing parts of my life that were painful, joyous, the whole gambit. Words never did it for me. I try to do the most I can with them, but I'm much more comfortable expressing how I feel through art."
Marinovich's rekindled interest in art coincided with his rehabilitation following a 2007 conviction for felony possession of a controlled substance. He had the option of completing a rigorous rehab program or spending two years in jail.
Painting provided an outlet for his emotions and a reason to be excited about facing days otherwise dominated by therapy sessions, urine tests and meetings with his probation officer. He completed the three years and three months of court-ordered rehab June 29, which he sees as officially closing the door on that chapter of his life.
The new chapter begins with him as an artist, a husband to wife Alix, and a father to 2-year-old son Baron and 4-month-old daughter Coski. Painting began as a cathartic experience and a way to tap into one of his earliest passions. He never thought he would sell anything.
After he gave away some paintings to friends, word of mouth spread and a friend of a friend offered to buy one. He started posting his finished works on Facebook and more sold. Now it's his main source of income. He has sold about 40 paintings this year and regularly posts new pieces to his online gallery, where signed and numbered prints also are available.
In October, he had three paintings and two sculptures exhibited at Groundfloor Gallery in downtown Los Angeles, the first time his work has been shown at a professional gallery.
"Todd Marinovich is on a personal artistic journey, which is evident in the content of his paintings," said Terri Martin, an art critic and historian for the Glendale News-Press, after taking a look at his online gallery. "The promise of his potential is apparent in his piece titled 'High Voltage,' which has the psychological drama of Robert Rauschenberg with a little of his literal messaging. This one abstract piece communicates universally, a goal which is common to most mature artists."
Holding a paint brush, Marinovich finally feels like he found his calling. Many of his paintings are abstract in nature, flowing from all he has endured in what seems like multiple lives.
Marinovich loved art as a child. The first time he remembers ever really getting into trouble was because of a drawing he did in kindergarten. His mother had taken him to see "Jaws" when it came out in theaters. Back in class, he took his crayons and drew the movie's poster with a great white shark rising up toward a nude woman swimming on top of the water. The drawing caused a commotion, and his teacher pulled him aside, demanding he put a swimsuit on the woman.
"I really didn't grasp the problem but I saw the reaction," Marinovich said. "I knew then that there was something special to this art form."
Marinovich talked to his parents about wanting to be an artist, but his father, understandably, told him there was a reason for the phrase "starving artist."
Marv Marinovich had a plan and system in place before Todd was born to turn him into a football player. A captain of USC's 1962 championship football team, one of the first strength-and-conditioning coaches in the NFL for the Raiders, and later a prominent trainer with his own athletic research center, Marv put Todd on a strict diet and training regimen beginning when he was still in the crib. He wanted to see what heights a child could reach growing up in the perfect athletic environment. The media couldn't get enough of the story, nicknaming Todd "Robo QB." While still in high school, he was featured in a Sports Illustrated article titled "Bred to be a Superstar," which famously proclaimed that he had never eaten a Big Mac, enjoyed an Oreo or drank a Coke.
It wasn't true, but it made a good story. He now admits that his mother and grandfather would sneak him the occasional junk food. When he reached high school at Mater Dei in Santa Ana and then Capistrano Valley in Mission Viejo, he would go with friends to McDonald's like normal teenagers. His father didn't know about these excursions. At home, the diet was real.
"Not many people got as much publicity as I did during my whole career," Marinovich said. "But the way I was looked at like a freak show made me feel uneasy. The freak-show theme overshadowed what I was doing on the field."
High school also was when Marinovich started smoking marijuana daily before classes. In college, away from the watchful eye of his father, the drug use escalated. Following his redshirt sophomore season, he had his first arrest for cocaine possession. With his future at USC uncertain, he left for the NFL.
The Raiders selected him with the 24th overall pick in the 1991 NFL draft, ahead of Brett Favre. The drug use continued, and he would pass drug tests by using the urine of friends. He got off to a promising beginning by throwing for three touchdowns when given the chance to start the final regular-season game of his rookie season, then struggled in a first-round playoff loss. He started seven games the next season but lost his starting job after throwing three interceptions in 10 passes. In training camp prior to the 1993 season, he failed his third drug test and never made it back to the NFL. He finished his career with 1,345 passing yards, eight touchdowns and nine interceptions.
His time in the Canadian and Arena football leagues also was marred by drug use. The day he picked up a signing bonus for his second season with the Los Angeles Avengers, he was arrested for buying heroin. He was suspended from the team in 2001, and that was the end of his playing days.
Marinovich doesn't regret how his football career turned out. He regrets that he focused so much on football while neglecting his artistic side. The peak of his enjoyment for football occurred in high school and college. He had a lifelong goal to play in the NFL, but once he got there, it didn't feel that it was what he was meant to do.
The drug abuse could easily be dismissed as a rebellion against his strict upbringing and the pressure to be the perfect athlete. Marinovich sees it as a combination of factors. There was a history of addiction on his mother's side of the family. He faced psychological or social-anxiety issues, often not feeling comfortable in his own head or around people unless he was high.
"A lot of people probably think Marv was too tough on him and that was what caused the situation," Marv Marinovich said. "I think, as a parent, I did the best job I could possibly do. I've looked back on it and wondered if I was too hard on him or too strict. Is there something I could have changed and it wouldn't have brought this on? I don't think so. I think it's just something that's going to happen."
Although it wasn't nurtured like his athletic talent, Marinovich's artistic side comes from Marv. Todd followed in his father's footsteps by majoring in fine arts at USC. He said he felt more at home in the art department than in the locker room.
When he left USC, Marinovich received a bill for the walls to be repainted at his university apartment. He had spray-painted a mural on the living-room wall depicting Led Zeppelin's "Swan Song" record-label logo of a falling angel.
He doodled the occasional drawing from time to time but mostly ignored his artistic side during his drug addiction. After committing to recovery and embracing art, he found a mentor in Bob Abbott, an artist who also owns a sort of artists' retreat in Fallbrook, Calif. Abbott welcomes artists of all kinds, letting them stay in cottages on the compound and offering suggestions and encouragement.
"I have a lot of artists come out here and almost need to be looking at a picture to paint," Abbott said. "Todd is not like that. He paints a lot like I do, where it completely flows out of your mind. He gets lost in a painting. He's had some dramatic stuff in his life. I have paintings of his sitting at my home that are very powerful. The torment, you don't see it that often. It's like the soul is there."
Brought up to seek perfection in the structured world of football, his every movement scrutinized, Marinovich found freedom in art.
"Bob taught me that there are no mistakes in art," Marinovich said. "You try to be too careful, too clean and between the lines, and it doesn't work out. It relates back to what I used to do in sports. Now I think mistakes are great."
Marinovich does most of his painting outdoors behind the house in which he grew up, a block from the ocean in Newport Beach. A wooden worktable with a sign that reads "Trojan Fans Parking Only" holds his art supplies on a covered patio. He lays a canvas on the ground, halfway into the alleyway that leads to the garage, so he can kneel over it to paint.
The house is owned by his mother, Trudi. Marinovich said it was after his mother told him she was done with him, following years of his letting her down with his drug abuse, that he got the proper motivation to make a change. His No. 1 fan writing him off was rock bottom. When Marinovich showed he was serious about rehabilitation, Trudi invited him to move back in. She had been living alone in the house since Marinovich's grandmother and uncle, former USC quarterback Craig Fertig, passed away.
It was amazing how quickly Marinovich's life changed after he got clean. He was reintroduced to Alix, who had grown up three houses down from his mom's place, and they married on St. Patrick's Day in 2009. Marinovich and his family share the first floor of the house, and Trudi lives on the second floor.
Todd and Marv never had a true falling out, but they had difficulty relating because Marv -- the ultimate nutritionist -- couldn't understand why anyone would treat his or her body the way Todd abused his body via drug use. They bonded over an art project, a 9-foot abstract sculpture made of redwood that took 14 months to complete. Marv grew up on a ranch with redwood trees, molding chunks of redwood into sculptures in his youth. During the project, they were always on the same wavelength and never had an argument. As they chipped at the sculpture, they also cleared away any animosity between them.
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Todd named his daughter, Coski, after the best friend he lost to drug addiction. Marco "Coski" Forster died of a heroin overdose exactly one year to the day before Marinovich's daughter was born July 19. Marinovich and Forster had been friends and often partners in drug use since meeting as teenagers at Capistrano Valley High.
In the past year, Marinovich has taken to painting portraits of classic rock musicians such as Lou Reed and David Bowie in honor of Forster, with whom he once had a rock band named Scurvy. Forster's death serves as a reminder of why Todd must not relapse.
"Being the hard-core junkie I was, most of them don't make it out alive," Marinovich said. "They're either dead or they're sober today. I chose the latter. I used to do heroin, coke, crystal meth, crack, LSD ... it got bad. At the end, I'd do anything you had. Since I put that down, my life has turned around. It's the hardest thing I ever had to do. Every day I'm not sticking a needle in my arm, I'm winning."
Marinovich doesn't know where art will take him. He still battles self-doubt, just as he did when throwing a football. The difference is that, for the first time in his life, he's enjoying the journey.
All those experiences that influence his art will also impact how he raises his children.
"I will expose my kids to athletics, but I'm not going to instill in them that it's the only way," Marinovich said. "That's where I draw the line. It's not the only way, and I'm proving that with art. My son loves to draw with crayons and he's good. It's in the genes, but it needs to be nurtured. That's one thing I'll do, nurture that artistic side."
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