One evening last month in Mission Viejo, Calif., quarterback Todd Marinovich of Capistrano Valley High was holding his head in his hands. Marinovich is the owner of the national high school passing record of 9,914 yards, the phenom who threw for more yards his senior year—2,477—than Jim Kelly, Dan Marino or John Elway did during theirs. But 3½ weeks before Feb. 10, national letter-of-intent day—the first day on which colleges are permitted by the NCAA to sign football prospects—Marinovich was one stressed and pressed athlete. Of 104 Division I-A schools, some 100 were most eager to have him, and he was scared about making his decision.
Marinovich slowly raised his head and said, "This is the biggest decision of my life. It means not only where I will play football but, most likely, who I will marry, who my best friends for life will be, where I will live. It means everything. And the one thing I know for sure is I'm too young to make this kind of decision by myself."
He sighed. The phone kept ringing. It was always ringing. And there were always coaches on the other end of the line. They had nothing new to say, but they kept saying it in detail. Marinovich yawned a lot. He got used to fielding at least six calls a night, each lasting a minimum of 20 minutes. This had gone on since October. This was madness. NCAA rules allow a school's representative to visit an athlete's house no more than three times, to make one visit a week to the prospect's school for 2½ months and to pay for just one visit by the athlete to the campus. There are no limits, however, on phone calls or mail.
Yet Marinovich seemed to have made his decision. It would be Stanford. After all, Stanford was his first serious suitor; letters from the school started arriving at the Marinovich home when Todd was a freshman. Stanford also delights in throwing the football. Four years ago Marinovich replaced a poster of Christie Brinkley in his room with one of John Elway, who had quarter backed the Cardinal from 1979 to '82. Elway's dad, Jack, coaches Stanford, and Marinovich wore No. 7, Elway's number. Last summer Marinovich went to a football camp at Stanford, and John Elway worked out with him. He praised Marinovich's throwing mechanics but encouraged him to take deeper drops by using longer steps.
Stanford assistant coach Jimmy Walsh was a huge hit in the Marinovich household. Walsh told Todd, "Everything is in place for you to come." Then Todd made his official visit to Stanford on Jan. 17. He loved it. During the flight home, he thought to himself, "This is the place." Most important, perhaps, Todd's dad, Marv, preferred Stanford for his son. And then at 8:06 a.m. last Wednesday, in the principal's office at Capistrano Valley, Marinovich signed a national letter of intent—to play for Southern California.
The development and recruitment of Marinovich is an intriguing tale, especially because many observers had been saying that whoever got him would get a national title. USC assistant coach Chris Allen, who recruited Marinovich, says, "It's a little too early to talk about him getting us to a national championship, but I do know you can't get there without a superior quarterback. And he's a superior quarterback."
Ah, yes, those old rising expectations, a bugaboo of unspeakable proportions. So what are you shooting for, Todd?
"I hope to be the best quarterback ever to come out of California."
Better than Elway, better than Jim Plunkett?
"Yeah, well, actually to be the best quarterback who ever threw the ball."
"Yeah, I want to play for the Rose Bowl and national championships."
Understand that Marinovich is no braggart but a wondrous athlete with lofty goals. Yet USC knows better than most schools the folly of such gibberish. A few years ago, when the Trojans recruited hotshot quarterback Sean Salisbury from Escondido, Calif., John Robinson, then the coach, hailed him as the next Elway. If you don't recall Salisbury's doing much for Southern Cal, you've got the right guy. Then there was Ryan Knight, one of the top schoolboy running backs in the land in 1983. He was supposed to be the Trojans' next Heisman Trophy winner. Oh well, recruiting national championships is a dicey business.
What's fascinating about Marinovich, a 6'4½", 212-pound lefthanded redhead, is that he is, in a real sense, America's first test-tube athlete. He has never eaten a Big Mac or an Oreo or a Ding Dong. When he went to birthday parties as a kid, he would take his own cake and ice cream to avoid sugar and refined white flour. He would eat homemade catsup, prepared with honey. He did consume beef but not the kind injected with hormones. He ate only unprocessed dairy products. He teethed on frozen kidney. When Todd was one month old, Marv was already working on his son's physical conditioning. He stretched his hamstrings. Pushups were next. Marv invented a game in which Todd would try to lift a medicine ball onto a kitchen counter. Marv also put him on a balance beam. Both activites grew easier when Todd learned to walk. There was a football in Todd's crib from day one. "Not a real NFL ball," says Marv. "That would be sick; it was a stuffed ball."
Meanwhile, Todd's mother, Trudi, worked on the region above the neck by playing classical music (lots of Bach and Beethoven) and jazz (plenty of George Shearing and Woody Herman) in his room. Cartoons were forbidden because they were too violent. Instead, Trudi tuned her son in to old movies like Hitchcock and Agatha Christie thrillers to spark his intellect. She dragged Todd along with his sister, Traci, now 21, to museums. To this day, when Trudi makes an unexpected turn in the car, Todd says, "Uh-oh, Mom's taking us to another museum."
Eventually Marv started gathering experts to work on every aspect of Todd's physical condition—speed, agility, strength, flexibility, quickness, body control, endurance, nutrition. He found one to improve Todd's peripheral vision. He enlisted a throwing coach and a motion coach and a psychologist. These days 13 different experts are donating their time in the name of science.
Tom House, the pitching coach for the Texas Rangers and a computer whiz, has analyzed Todd's form and found that while his balance is perfect, his arm is 4.53 inches too low throughout his delivery. Todd, who listens to everyone, is working on it. This Team Marinovich is the creation of Marv, who was a two-way lineman and a captain at USC in 1962, a marginal pro in the AFL with the Raiders and a sometime assistant coach for the Raiders, the Rams, the Cardinals and the Hawaiians of the defunct WFL.
Though Marv owns an athletic research center—a sort of high-tech gym—his true occupation has been the development of his son, an enterprise that has yet to produce a monetary dividend. And the Marinovich marriage ended last year after 24 years. "All Marv has done," says a friend, "is give up his entire life for Todd."
Which is fine with Marv. Father and son now live in a one-bedroom apartment. Todd has the bedroom, and Marv sleeps on the sofa in the living room. On weekends Todd visits Trudi, who has moved back in with her parents in Newport Beach.
"I think I'm a tyrant," says Marv. "But I think you have to be to succeed. The best thing about it is my relationship with my son. We wanted to have the healthiest possible mom and the healthiest possible child. It's fanatical, but I don't know if you can be a great success without being a fanatic." He pauses and then continues, "I suppose it was a little overdone."
Maybe. Todd has obviously not had a normal childhood, but he's a surprisingly normal teenager for one who has never permitted beer or even Coca-Cola to cross his lips. And in spite of multihour workouts seven days a week for nearly all his life, Todd is carrying a 3.2 grade point average at a first-rate school. So he has something to fall back on should he—perish the thought—not turn out to be the second coming of Elway. Nevertheless, failure would be a dreadful blow for both father and son. Todd bristles at the suggestion that he was forced into this obsessive existence. "There is no way somebody could be made to do all this stuff," he says. "I choose to do it."
With six months to go before Todd dons the cardinal and gold of USC, the returns are far from complete on whether Marv has succeeded in creating the perfect quarterback. To pick a few nits, some observers think Todd might be a tick slow (4.7 in the 40) or not quite agile enough. Marv puts a different spiral on the situation, saying, "Todd has the background, heredity, environment and opportunity. I just don't think he can fail. His limiting factors are the blocking, the receivers and the ability of his coaches." Indeed, Marv has yanked Todd off teams three times because of what he viewed as coaching ineptitude.
To handle the recruiting blitz, Todd had narrowed his choices to six schools by early January. His priorities were location, offensive style, winning tradition and supporting cast. The contenders:
•Arizona State. Marinovich loved the warm, dry weather, the Sun Devils' rabid fans and coach John Cooper. Todd was far closer than anyone knew to heading for Tempe. Then, in January, Cooper left to take the Ohio State job. Oddly, Cooper never called to try to lure Marinovich to Columbus. Arizona State later shot itself in the recruiting foot when quarterback coach Mike Martz told Marinovich the Sun Devils already had a passer, Bobby Valdez, "with your same abilities and potential." Worst of all, Arizona State dragged its feet on hiring an offensive coordinator. Marinovich is a drop-back passer. What if the new guy runs the wishbone?
•BYU. It was a big early favorite. Marinovich loved the Cougars' quarterback tradition embodied by Gifford Nielsen, Jim McMahon and Steve Young. Todd did have some misgivings about the quality of play in the WAC, but BYU blew it when coach LaVell Edwards failed to visit Mission Viejo. That gaffe left the impression that BYU simply didn't care enough to send its very best.
•Washington. Marinovich was highly impressed with coach Don James, who came by the apartment. He liked Seattle but was concerned about its distance from home and the fact that the Huskies couldn't promise it would not rain on game day for the next five years.
•Miami. The Hurricanes got excited late. Still, Marinovich was infatuated with Kelly, Kosar & Testaverde U. "A pro team in college," proclaimed Marv. But the 'Canes inexplicably adopted what Todd felt was a haughty attitude, as if they were doing him a big favor by just talking with him. That, along with the cross-country location, doomed the fledgling affair.
•Stanford. It had all kinds of pluses. A small minus was that El way Sr., who was the first coach to come visit, had looked at junior-year films of Todd but not of his play as a senior. Marv and Todd had the feeling that Elway had not done his homework. Another difficulty was that, for a young man who wants to play in the Rose Bowl and for a national championship, the Cardinal is a long shot. Stanford's last Rose Bowl appearance was 1972, and it hasn't won a national crown since 1940.
•USC. The Trojans should have been a lock all along: Marv and Trudi went to USC; Trudi's brother, Craig Fertig, a former Southern Cal quarterback, is an assistant athletic director there now; and Traci is a senior at USC. Still, the Trojans were always sixth on any Marinovich list, maybe because Southern Cal was too close to home. Todd wanted to know if the Trojans would throw the ball. Coach Larry Smith said, "We can't just pitch to the tailback and win. We have to throw it."
The tide turned in USC's favor when Marinovich made his official visit to the campus on Jan. 30 and 31. He was impressed with the size of the offensive linemen on the squad and those being recruited. Marv didn't raise a fool. The clincher, though, was the walk Todd took with Smith through the storied tunnel that leads to the Coliseum floor. The 92,500-seat stadium was empty, but a recording played the stirring USC fight song, Conquest. Another recording bellowed the sound of cheering, and the scoreboard flashed WELCOME TODD MARINOVICH. Suddenly all that Trojan blood ran hot. "It was a decision made from the head and from the heart," says Trudi.
The next day at a brunch at Smith's house, Todd told the coach he was leaning toward USC. Then several days before signing day, Smith and Allen showed up at Capistrano Valley. Principal Tom Anthony summoned Todd from his art class. En route to the office, Marinovich spotted a teammate, linebacker Matt Hamry, and said, "This could be it. Coach Smith is here, and he wants an answer."
Then he walked past the sign, "Capistrano Valley: As Good As the Best, Better Than the Rest," and into the principal's office. Todd chatted with Smith and Allen for 15 minutes before telling them that he wanted to phone his dad. Smith and Allen stepped outside. Clearly shaken, Todd said, "They want me to give them a decision."
Said Marv, "Then give them one. Why are you calling me?"
"I want to go to USC."
"I'm behind you 100 percent."
Todd called the two coaches back into the room and said, "I'm coming." That was it. Everyone shook hands—"about 10 times," says Todd. And it was a done deal. Telling Walsh and Elway of Stanford the news a few hours later was a severe gut check.
But why USC? "I don't know," says Marinovich. "There's something about it. Deep down, I think I always wanted to go there. Once I said it out loud, I knew it was right. But thank god I won't have to make this decision again."
With that he picked up his subliminal motivational tapes and headed for his room. The phone was ringing.