Tucked away in a pine grove about 20 miles northwest of Green Bay, amid the sprawling dairy farms and cornfields of Wisconsin, is the small log cabin where Tony Mandarich lives. A seven-foot grizzly-bear skin, a trophy from a 1991 hunting trip in the Yukon, is nailed to one wall of the cabin's living room, and a stuffed and mounted six-foot black bear, bagged in Ontario in '90, towers beside the fieldstone fireplace. His Harley-Davidson Fat Boy motorcycle is parked in the driveway, and a monster truck, which Mandarich and his wife, Amber, drive in races throughout the state, is behind the garage. There are no obvious signs that Mandarich is a pro football player, an offensive tackle for the Green Bay Packers—and that's the way he wants it.
"A lot of people would have bet their bottom dollar that I would have been in the Pro Bowl three times by now," he says, "but instead I'm known as one of the biggest busts in football. Day after day there are articles ripping me. I try not to read them, but when teammates say, 'Man, did you see what they wrote about you today?' then I'm curious. If you keep reading about what a bust you've been, after a while you start to believe it. The truth hurts.
"If someone had told me before the NFL draft, 'You're going to make all this money, but you'll have to pay the price with your pride and integrity and subject yourself to an enormous amount of stress,' I'd have said, 'Screw it!' I wouldn't have played football."
The second player picked in the 1989 draft, Mandarich, a brash two-time All-America from Michigan State, was trumpeted as one of the best offensive line prospects ever to come out of college. In those days Mandarich was a superman of sorts: At 6'6" and 315 pounds, he ran a 4.65 40-yard dash, had a 30-inch vertical leap, sailed 10'3" in the standing broad jump and bench-pressed 225 pounds an impressive 39 repetitions in front of NFL scouts. He flaunted his 54-inch chest on the cover of this magazine (April 24, 1989), and he kissed his magnificent 22-inch biceps for the Canadian sports network TSN.
September 27, 1992
But after Tony the Terminator dropped out of Michigan State and got rich quick by riding a wave of hype into the NFL, his superhuman powers mysteriously evaporated, and he emerged as a pro with the ability of a mere mortal. Now, in the final year of his four-year, $4.4 million contract with the Packers, Mandarich is a pale, sullen and soft 295-pounder on the brink of falling out of the game.
To borrow a phrase from Saturday Night Live bodybuilders Hans and Frans, Mandarich has performed in Green Bay more like a "girlie man" than a Schwarzenegger. He has lacked the strength and technique to stop pass rushers, and he candidly admits that even with hard work and a lot of luck, he'll probably never amount to anything more than an average NFL lineman. "I couldn't believe how bad he was," says one Packer insider of Mandarich's play in 15 starts last season. "He looked afraid. He lacked confidence. He's not a strong, tough guy anymore."
"Mandarich was all a facade," says former Chicago Bear All-Pro defensive tackle Dan Hampton, who played against him. "The Packers got the prize, unwrapped it and saw that he wasn't the same—physically and emotionally—as what they had seen in college. He's pathetic."
"The hype was bigger than what he really was," says former Green Bay general manager Tom Braatz, who drafted Mandarich. "There isn't anybody that good. Maybe he was more in love with weightlifting than football. At this point there is no indication that he'll ever make it to the Pro Bowl."
There's good reason to wonder if Mandarich will even regain a spot in the starting lineup: A series of illnesses over the summer has placed his playing career in even greater jeopardy. He says he contracted giardiasis, a parasitic infection, when he drank from a stream on a black-bear hunt in Alberta in May. He says he could barely cat or work out, and, as a result, he dropped 30 pounds, to 280, in three weeks.
When he reported to training camp in mid-July, Mandarich still felt weak. After a few practices Mike Holmgren, the new Packer coach, abandoned his idea of switching Mandarich from right tackle to right guard, because Mandarich didn't have the strength to handle the inside power game. Since right tackle had been given over to newly acquired veterans Tootie Robbins and Harvey Salem, Mandarich was shifted instead to left tackle—a positive move because it was the position he had played at Michigan State, and yet a risky decision because left tackle is the most important pass-blocking assignment on the line.
But Mandarich wasn't going to play any position with authority until he at least got his strength back. He says the team doctors were lackadaisical in their attempts to determine why he remained so sluggish, so he demanded to be tested for mononucleosis and AIDS. He says both tests came up negative, but he remained concerned about his condition. Then on Aug. 8, in the third quarter of Green Bay's first preseason game, Mandarich suffered what was thought to be a mild concussion when he and Kansas City Chief defensive end Brent White banged helmets as they fell to the ground. Four days later, while Mandarich was attending a Packer offense meeting, the headaches and dizziness he'd suffered since the collision became so unbearable that he whispered to linemate Ron Hallstrom, "You've got to drive me to the hospital now, or I'm going to pass out."
According to Mandarich, a neurologist at the hospital said that he had suffered a moderate to severe concussion. After two days of tests in the hospital, Packer team physician Clarence Novotny told Mandarich that he was also suffering from hypothyroidism, an underactive-thyroid condition that can leave a person feeling mentally and physically sluggish. "Between my preseason physical in May and the beginning of August, my thyroid level cut in half," Mandarich says.
Although Green Bay general manager Ron Wolf says doctors have told the team that this thyroid condition is "99.55 percent hereditary," Mandarich says he isn't aware of any hypothyroidism in his family history. Then again, Mandarich's parents, Vic and Donna, are Croatians who escaped the communist regime of Yugoslavia in 1957 and later gained Canadian citizenship, and they have no detailed family medical records.
Initially the illness frightened and depressed him, says Mandarich, who withdrew from training camp and retreated to his cabin. He would sit alone listening to Guns N' Roses, take long rides on his Harley, fire his handguns in his yard and practice bow hunting by shooting at a target placed among plaster statues of a bear, two deer and the Virgin Mary. Sometimes, when he was with Amber and their 17-month-old daughter, Holly, he would break down and cry. "You can only push a dog so far, and he's going to snap and break down," Mandarich says. "I was worried the Packers were going to say, And now he's sick? The hell with him!"
Placed on injured reserve when the season started, Mandarich isn't eligible to play until Oct. 4. He says that his body is adapting to the drug Synthroid and that his thyroid levels are normal. He has resumed weightlifting and conditioning workouts. "I just want to get healthy," he says. "I don't care where I play or how long it takes me to get into the starting lineup. I have to get my strength, weight and mind back. I hope the Packers don't give up on me."
They haven't yet. Wolf is anxious for Mandarich to return to practice and get caught up at left tackle. Ken Reuttgers is the starter at that position, but he missed a total of 17 games the past two seasons because of hamstring and knee injuries. "I'm really pulling for Tony to come back and stake his claim," Wolf says.
Mandarich's recent illnesses are just the latest chapter in a storied decline that began in mid-March 1989, five weeks before the NFL draft, when he and Amber moved to the Los Angeles suburb of Whittier. They had headed west to devote themselves to the discipline of bodybuilding under trainer Rory Leidelmeyer, then a reigning Mr. America. Leidelmeyer had been Mandarich's weightlifting and diet guru during Mandarich's last two years at Michigan State.
But once in California, Mandarich was obsessed with becoming a celebrity. Taking an advance on his future earnings from his agent, Vern Sharbaugh, Mandarich bought a $31,000 Corvette convertible and an $18,000 Bronco; he also rented a spacious condominium and filled it with plush furniture. He spent most of his time turning himself into a larger-than-life character. "We tried to train between limousine rides and newspaper, magazine, radio and TV interviews," Leidelmeyer says. "It was ridiculous."
Mandarich marketed himself as an outlaw offensive lineman, and it was an easy role for him to play. He had a tattoo on his left ankle (a green Michigan State S with the inscription NEVER SURRENDER to commemorate the Spartans' 1988 Rose Bowl appearance), he trained to heavy-metal music, and like his role model Axl Rose, the lead singer for Guns N' Roses, Mandarich wore black leather jackets and wrapped do-rags around his head. What's more, rumors that anabolic steroids had aided in the development of his distinctive physique had been rife during his last two seasons at Michigan State.
Before the draft Mandarich, Leidelmeyer and Michigan State officials repeatedly denied the steroid allegations and emphasized that Mandarich had passed the drug tests he was given while at Michigan State. Nevertheless, Mandarich raised some eyebrows when he disclosed in one predraft interview, "I'm not saying I wouldn't use steroids. I might. I'll do whatever it takes to be the best."
That wasn't the only gem to roll off his irreverent tongue around the time of the draft. Here are some others:
•"Most of the offensive linemen in the NFL are fat-asses, 20 or 25 percent body fat. I'm 11.4 percent."
•"Green Bay should not be called a city. A village, maybe."
•"Sex is better for someone my size. I'm an athlete. I have good agility. I think I'm good." How much agility do you need? "How many positions do you want?"
In the wildest manifestation of all this hype, boxing promoters Shelly Finkel and Dan Duva tried to arrange a $10 million fight between Mandarich and Mike Tyson, the heavyweight champion at the time. Mandarich used the prospect of a Tyson bout as a negotiating ploy with the Packers.
By the end of July 1989 Leidelmeyer was tired of Mandarich's shtick, and the two ended their friendship. "Tony was actually phoning Axl Rose in his limousine," says Leidelmeyer, "wondering if he could get to a big concert where he could walk on stage with Axl on his shoulders. I finally told him, 'You've got to get your act together. The money's fine, but if you can't perform, what does it all mean?' "
When Mandarich finally signed with Green Bay on Sept. 5, 1989, just five days before the start of the season, the Packers got the first indication that he was not the player they thought they had drafted: Mandarich showed up 15 to 20 pounds lighter than advertised. He explained away his weight loss by saying he needed to be lighter to make it as an NFL pass blocker and that he hadn't worked out much because he was frustrated by the contract negotiations.
"The media made me bigger than what I was," Mandarich says. "I created the image too, because nobody knows offensive linemen, and I thought I had to sell myself. But I didn't realize how powerful the image was, or that I could get lost in it. At the time I thought, I hope none of this comes back to haunt me. But it did. It still does. I have nobody to blame but myself."
When he finally got Mandarich in uniform, Lindy Infante, Green Bay's coach at the time, thought he could best use Mandarich's prowess as a run blocker by moving him from left tackle to right tackle. With Mandarich having missed the entire preseason, that move only made his transition to the pros more difficult, and he wound up playing primarily on special teams as a rookie.
Mandarich started all 16 games at right tackle for the Packers in 1990, but he displayed poor balance, lousy footwork and a lack of aggressiveness. When he was offered blocking tips, he shrugged them off. By the end of the '90 season Mandarich had become a laughingstock in the NFL. Philadelphia Eagle defensive end Reggie White thoroughly embarrassed Mandarich in one game. "I can't believe how Reggie was throwing Mandarich around," said Eagle nosetackle Mike Golic after the game. "They're basically the same size, and Reggie treated him like a toy. I'd start to rush, and I had to watch to keep from tripping over Mandarich."
Packer fans and the local media, who had been expecting the second coming of Hall of Fame tackle Forrest Gregg, were all over Mandarich. His teammates scrutinized him just as closely, and a few became fascinated with him. "The offensive linemen followed him around," says one former Packer of the players' curiosity. "They had read so much about him, they were like groupies."
Teammates still tell stories about Mandarich and his pals, center James Campen and guard Keith Uecker (who's no longer with the team), spitting on one another every chance they got, in the locker room, on the practice field and on the way to dinner at training camp. "They used to throw up in their hands and throw it at each other," says a Packer. "It was the most grotesque thing I'd ever seen."
But nothing about Mandarich was more mystifying than his body. Mandarich is a walking mural. He has five tattoos on his arms—two elaborate designs celebrating Guns N' Roses, the Harley-Davidson logo, an Alaskan brown bear and a strand of barbed wire that wraps around his right biceps—plus the one on his ankle. However, the man who used to parade around the Michigan State weight room bare-chested now seems reluctant to remove his shirt. Packer teammates say Mandarich doesn't even like to shower at the team's facility, because they believe he has gynecomastia (enlarged breast tissue), a condition often associated with steroid abuse.
While Mandarich sticks to his career-long claim that he has not used steroids—he and the Packers both say he has never failed an NFL drug test—several teammates suggest otherwise. "He outright admitted it," says one former Packer of steroid use. "He talked about what he had done in the past. I don't think he did it in the NFL. He would talk about what he took, the amount and kinds of steroids." Another former Packer says that players asked Mandarich about his diminished physique when he first joined the team. "We all took one look at his body and said, 'What the hell happened to you?' And he said he'd gone off steroids because of the random testing in the NFL."
In fact after it was announced that Mandarich had hypothyroidism, one of the first things many in the league wondered was whether there was a connection between that condition and steroids. A doctor who is a leading expert on the relationships between disease, steroids and other drugs, and who requested his name not be used, says there is no direct link. He adds, however, that the abuse of any drug can cause a gland to malfunction. He also says that if a patient isn't forthright about past drug usage, it would be possible to make a diagnosis of hypothyroidism, based on test results, when the patient was actually suffering from something else.
"I've had six tests," Mandarich says. "I know [hypothyroidism] is what I have."
Those who know him best say the underlying reason for Mandarich's failure is his fragile psyche. Because his self-esteem was wrapped up in his massive muscles and his football success, his confidence was shattered when he could no longer manhandle defenders. The more Mandarich was slammed in the press, the less he worked out. And the worse Mandarich felt about himself, the more he withdrew from the team. Finally, he lost his sense of purpose. "Tony remembers what he was, and he's afraid that he can never get there again," Leidelmeyer says.
The Packer front office and coaching staff will be watching in the coming weeks to see if Mandarich has any fight left. Indeed, Mandarich says he needs to find that out himself. "It would be tough to walk away from football at this point, regardless of the season I have," he says. "There are too many unanswered criticisms. I really want to prove a lot of people wrong. And I need to prove to myself I can be a success."