The Flip of The Flop He had a big body and a bigger mouth. And he was the biggest bust the NFL had known. How did Tony Mandarich reclaim his self-respect after being a national joke?

July 11, 2004

If he had it all to do over again, the big man is saying on his
lunch break between bites of a Reuben sandwich, he wouldn't do
anything differently. ¶ And you think to yourself: Tony Mandarich
can't mean that. This was a guy who made new enemies every day, a
lout whose sheer body mass was exceeded only by his outsized
churlishness. Tony Mandarich was Ryan Leaf with a mullet and more
tattoos. But let the man finish. ¶ "I wouldn't do anything
differently," he continues, "because of the lessons I've learned.
So I wouldn't change it, but I would teach my kids differently."

To find the man whose name remains a synonym for bust, fly to
Toronto and rent a car. Head west to Highway 6, then south. A few
miles past the turnoff for the nudist colony, bang a right on
Fourth Concession Road. Continue past the trailer park, and
suddenly, on your left, appears an emerald oasis. You have found
the Century Pines Golf Club, a high-end public course in West
Flamborough, Ont., which, despite feeling like the Middle of
Nowhere, is actually just 20 miles from Oakville, where Mandarich
grew up. Poke your head into the general manager's office. You
have found Tony Mandarich. And Mandarich, believe it or not, has
found happiness, maybe even wisdom.

Now is a good time to talk. It's 1:30 on a Wednesday afternoon in
June. A tournament is in progress. The shotgun start was a half
hour ago. "For shotguns," says Mandarich, now 37, "you gotta be
here around seven in the morning. It gets crazier and crazier
till everybody gets out. We do a lot of tournaments," he adds,
"but when it's your tournament, it's a hundred extra jobs."

That's right. Today is special. Today is the second annual Tony
Mandarich Celebrity Golf Tournament. Why else would the grounds
be crawling with such luminaries as, well, let's see--we've got
Walter Gretzky, Wayne's dad, along with Oakville's own Donovan
Bailey, formerly the world's fastest man. Indianapolis Colts
kicker Mike Vanderjagt, another Oakville native, is here, as are
ex-NHLers Doug Gilmour and Ric Nattress, plus a handful of
Playboy models.

"We double-cut the fairways," says Mandarich, standing on the
11th tee and fielding a compliment on the course conditions.
"They were out here at four this morning."

It gets back to the G.M. that one of the guys took a turn too
wide and got a couple of the wheels of his cart on one of the
greens. "As long as he didn't do it on purpose, right?" says
Mandarich. "Because then we'd have to kill him."

Everyone on the tee breaks up. This is a fun tournament for a
worthy cause--the John Mandarich Foundation. Tony's older brother
was a star nosetackle who, after playing at Kent State, was
picked by the Edmonton Eskimos in the first round of the 1984
Canadian Football League draft. John played 11 years in the CFL
and won a Grey Cup in '84 with the Eskimos. He's there in a
framed photograph in Tony's office, arm draped around his
"little" brother in the stands at Lambeau Field on the April day
in '89 that the Green Bay Packers made one of the biggest
blunders in NFL history by taking Tony with the second pick of
the draft (behind Troy Aikman and in front of Barry Sanders,
Derrick Thomas and Deion Sanders, who were taken third, fourth
and fifth, respectively).

Two and half years later John learned that he had malignant
melanoma. While his younger brother floundered--both personally
and professionally--John gave ground to the cancer, succumbing in
February 1993 at 31. It was a dark time for the Mandarich family,
Tony in particular. After having missed all of the '92 season
following a severe concussion and a thyroid problem, he was not
re-signed by the Packers.

Having endured these hardships, he harvested little sympathy. The
public will tolerate a boastful superstar who walks the walk. For
millionaire athletes who run their mouths but fail to deliver, a
special brand of scorn is reserved. Seldom has a player so richly
deserved the obloquy Mandarich reaped. But don't take just our
word for it. "I was a jackass," he says. "I was a walking
stereotype of the arrogant athlete."

He was all of that. But let's give the man some credit. He could
be loud, self-absorbed and delusional, but at times he was damned
entertaining. As a senior at Michigan State he drove a
Northwestern defender 20 yards into the end zone before pile
driving him into the turf, after which Mandarich stood over the
player and shouted, "Now stay there!"

He quit school in the spring of his senior year, moved to
Southern California and started pumping iron with Rory
Leidelmeyer, the reigning Mr. America. By then, it seemed,
Mandarich was already losing his grasp on reality. "Why can't I
do what Arnold [Schwarzenegger] did?" he asked SI's Rick
Telander, who wrote a cover story (headlined the incredible bulk)
on Mandarich in April '89. "Bodybuilding. Movies. All of it. I
want to be Cyborg 3."

He was talking this smack before playing a down in the NFL. But
success seemed assured. He was a 6'6", 315-pound glimpse of the
future, a freak who bench-pressed 545 pounds, ran the 40 in 4.65
seconds and promised to revolutionize offensive line play.
Spartans coach George Perles, who'd been a defensive coach for
the Pittsburgh Steelers when they won four Super Bowls between
1975 and '80, said, "As a junior, [Mandarich] could have started
on any of our Super Bowl teams." This was typical of the
white-hot hype surrounding Mandarich in the months before the
draft.

Mandarich held out until five days before Green Bay's opener.
When he did show up, after signing a four-year, $4.4 million
contract, he was 15 to 20 pounds lighter than his weight at the
NFL combine. He'd trimmed down, he explained, to be more nimble
for the added pass-blocking the NFL would require of him.

The time has come, as it must in any Mandarich story, to turn our
attention to the elephant in the room. Mandarich was widely
suspected of taking steroids, and in the NFL, he'd be subject to
random tests. Had he gone off the juice, that would have
explained his deflated physique. Mandarich denied taking steroids
and never failed a drug test. Does he continue to deny that he's
ever taken performance-enhancing drugs?

"I guess I can just continue to say," he replies, "I've never
tested positive."

What is beyond doubt is that he was diminished by the time he
arrived in the NFL. Mandarich contributed little his rookie year.
In his second year he started 16 games but struggled. In one
memorable '90 outing, against Philadelphia, Eagles defensive end
Reggie White rag dolled him around the field all afternoon. "I
can't believe how Reggie was throwing Mandarich around," Eagles
nosetackle Mike Golic told SI. "I'd start to rush, and I had to
watch to keep from tripping over Mandarich."

A second SI cover story on Mandarich ran in September 1992.
Slugged the nfl's incredible bust, it seemed to complete the
downward arc of his brief, bizarre career. The Packers let him go
after that season. His brother deceased, his NFL career
apparently over, Mandarich and his wife, Amber, sought refuge on
the other side of Lake Michigan, building a cabin in Traverse
City, Mich. An avid outdoorsman, Tony enrolled at Northwestern
Michigan College with the goal of becoming an officer for the
state's Department of Natural Resources.

One afternoon during the fall term in '95, his third year out of
football, Mandarich found himself sitting in a classroom. "It was
a crisp September day, the leaves were turning," he says. "There
was a team practicing outside the window. I could hear 'em
smacking helmets, and I was thinking to myself, I'm in the wrong
business."

He hit the weights again. He played racquetball to recover some
of his agility. He went from 250 pounds to 300 in six months,
then called his agent, Vern Sharbaugh. "I think I want to make a
comeback," he said.

Sharbaugh made some calls. The Eagles were interested, but if
Mandarich wanted to work out for them, they said, he could buy
his own plane ticket to Philadelphia. Then they called back. A
scout connecting in Cleveland had a long layover. Could Mandarich
make it to Cleveland?

On a frigid day in late January he drove the eight hours to
Cleveland. Motoring south, he reflected on how far he'd fallen.
"I'd gone from telling the scouts, 'All right, you guys show up
at my school on this date and I'll run for you then,'" he says,
"to driving eight hours to Cleveland 'cause they won't even fly
me to Philadelphia."

Mandarich knocked the scout's socks off. Soon, word of his
workout was on the NFL grapevine. The Colts flew him to
Indianapolis, where he had another great workout. Before the
sweat had dried on his T-shirt, Mandarich recalls, "they offered
me a two-year deal. It was like time just stopped."

Except that, as a person, Mandarich had progressed. "The first
time around," he says, "I created a lot of wreckage. I was a
loudmouth, arrogant s.o.b. The second time around I wanted to
slay some demons. I was going to do my job, do what was asked of
me, keep my mouth shut."

He played three years for the Colts, working his way into the
starting lineup midway through his first season. Quarterbacking
the team that year was Jim Harbaugh. "When he got here," says
Harbaugh, now the head football coach at the University of San
Diego, "he was the antithesis of everything that I'd ever heard
about him. He was humble, and even a little wise. I remember a
moment from the first training camp I went through with him. It
was one of those hot, humid Indiana summer days. We're all just
dying out there, and I look over at Tony, and he's looking up at
the sky." With a gesture that took in field and trees and sky,
Mandarich declared, "All of this--it's like medicine for me."

Even through mounting losses--the Colts won three games in '97
and three more in '98--Mandarich was just glad to be there. He
blew out his right shoulder during his second season with
Indianapolis and retired for good before the '99 season. But he
had proved something to himself and found a measure of
redemption, even as the sporting world, ironically enough, found
a replacement for him as the biggest bust in NFL history. After
the first of those 13-loss seasons, the Colts were awarded the
first pick in the draft. They used it to select Peyton Manning,
leaving the San Diego Chargers to pick Ryan Leaf.

Mandarich had split with Amber in the summer of '98. He put in a
little more than a year as a financial analyst for Morgan Stanley
in Indianapolis but decided it wasn't for him. Four years ago he
moved back to Canada and got into the golf business. Not long
after that he was reunited with an old girlfriend. Charlavan
Watts had dated Mandarich for two years at Michigan State but
broke things off during his junior year, when, as she says, "the
head started getting a little too big."

"A little?" he rejoins.

They tied the knot at Niagara Falls on May 5. The newlyweds--and
the two children each brings from their first marriages, ranging
in age from 6 1/2 to 13--are now sharing the 600-square-foot
house bordering the second hole of the golf course. (The house
comes with the job.) On this evening they are sitting at a round
table in the 12,000-square-foot Century Pines clubhouse, looking
spent. The tournament, which raised $36,000 for the John
Mandarich Foundation, ended 20 minutes earlier. Tony thanked
everyone for their generosity, then spoke from his heart. "To be
honest with you, this is beyond my wildest dreams," he said. "I
never thought I could organize something like this--something
that could really affect people's lives."

By now all the celebrities are gone except Walter Gretzky, who is
helping the wait staff clear tables. A visitor remarks on the
vagaries of life. "It is a perfect world," says Mandarich. "It's
exactly the way everything is supposed to be. It's just never
perfect the way you think it needs to be perfect."

This is wisdom, undeniably, and undeniably hard-earned.

B/W PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER PICK OF THE PACK Clueless in Green Bay, Mandarich (77) wentthrough some changes before finally finding peace at a golfcourse. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY PETER GREGOIRE PICK OF THE PACK Clueless in Green Bay, Mandarich (77) went through some changes before finally finding peace at a golfcourse. COLOR PHOTO: WILLIAM R. SMITH BODY OF EVIDENCE Mandarich's gym work (here, in '89) was notenough to lift suspicions that he was steroid-enhanced. COLOR PHOTO: GREGORY HEISLER PUMPED UP For SI in '89 Mandarich flexed his mouth. COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER MIGHTY FALLEN By '92 Mandarich was a lost cause.

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