Tony Mandarich Is Very, Very Sorry

Two decades after insisting to SI that his massive physique came from eating and weightlifting, the former NFL tackle comes clean about the drugs he used as the sports world turned a blind eye
March 08, 2009

TONY MANDARICHand I are in a crowded weight room in Scottsdale, Ariz., barbells clanging,people grunting, mirrors reflecting. You'll excuse me if I feel severe déj√† vu.Two decades ago, in the spring of 1989, we were in a gym like this one—samesounds, same vibes—doing essentially the same thing: He was lifting, I waswatching and writing and occasionally doing a little lifting of my own. ¬∂ Thatfirst time was at the Powerhouse Gym in East Lansing, near the Michigan Statecampus. Mandarich was a ripped 6'6", 315-pound senior All-America offensivetackle, the only college player ever to be named to John Madden's All-Maddenteam.

I was benching agentleman's 175; he was benching 540. He would soon be the second pick of the1989 NFL draft, taken by the Green Bay Packers just after the Dallas Cowboyschose Troy Aikman, but before Barry Sanders went to the Detroit Lions, DerrickThomas to the Kansas City Chiefs and Deion Sanders to the Atlanta Falcons.Those four are, or will be, in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Mandarich isattempting to emerge from the hall of shame.

"Why can't Ido what Arnold did?" he asked me back in the day, do-rag on his head,Appetite for Destruction by Guns n' Roses blasting from his car speakers."Bodybuilding. Movies. All of it. I want to be Cyborg III."

Now, havingagreed to meet me again, two decades later, he says quietly, "Unbelievablethe way time has gone by." He pauses. "I'm sorry, Rick. The phrase Iwas wrong was not in my vocabulary back then. But I was wrong. I conned you. Ilied to you about not using steroids. I was a jackass. I don't want to be likethat anymore."

What had come outof our session in 1989 was my April 24 cover story for Sports Illustratedentitled The Incredible Bulk, with SI's editors declaring Mandarich the bestoffensive line prospect ever. In Gregory Heisler's cover shot, Mandarich posedbare-chested against the setting sun, a sun that was, in retrospect, going downsymbolically on an age of innocence.

Mandarich, achemical monster with 22-inch biceps, was not only taking steroids but alsoinjecting other workout freaks around the gym, who called him the Doctor. Helifted weights almost nonstop, recovering swiftly from workouts because of thejuice, and he developed ingenious if not comical ways to beat the amateurishcollege drug tests he was obliged to take.

Mandarich's NFLcareer would be a dud; he played three seasons for the Packers and, after afour-year layoff, three seasons with the Indianapolis Colts, starting a totalof 63 games. Along the way he did two things: He quit using steroids because hefeared getting caught by the NFL's testing, and he flowered into an alcoholicand a painkiller junkie. The renunciation of steroids cost him his beef. Theaddictions cost him his dignity.

Now clean, soberand juiceless, he tells the whole story in a new book, My Dirty LittleSecrets—Steroids, Alcohol & God: The Tony Mandarich Story, to be releasedthis month by Modern History Press. "At the age of 42 I have developed aconscience," he writes.

That's nice. Buthe lied to me. Lied to everybody. He gamed the system to his advantage. I knewhe was using steroids (he now admits he also used human growth hormone), butall I could do was hint at my suspicions. I used the word drugs in the firstsentence of that story, even if only referring to the large quantities ofcaffeine Mandarich downed before lifting. I called him "the man fromtomorrow" and an "offensive-tackle creature."

He had neverflunked a drug test, I heard over and over. He was defended by his parents; hisolder brother, John, now deceased but then a nosetackle for the EdmontonEskimos of the Canadian Football League; the Michigan State head coach, GeorgePerles; the Spartans' strength coach, Dave Henry; several teammates; and by hisagent, Vern Sharbaugh.

"I got thesteroids just by word of mouth," Mandarich says. "Put the word out in agym, and it's like talking to a concierge, somebody will say, 'Here you go.' Itwas that easy."

AS MANDARICHprepared for the draft, his lifting partner was fellow Michigan State studentRob (Buck) Smith, a fired-up, 5'4" ball of muscles. Now it's Wendy Keimer,a bodybuilder with long blonde hair, a dark tan and triceps to die for. Todaythey are working on arms, and as Keimer yells at Mandarich to keep pumping, hesighs, "I'm too old for this."

But he isn't. Ashe'll admit after doing close-grip rack benches with 315 pounds, "I feelcomfortable in the gym environment." And why not? Even now, when Mandarichcan't come close to his career-best 585-pound bench press, the comfort oflifting remains.

Mandarich didn'tstart on his junior varsity team in Oakville, Ont., even though he was 6'3"and 220 pounds. Once when he was 13, his mother, Donna, a tall, stout woman,body-slammed him for insubordination. "I don't know if she or Reggie Whitemanhandled me worse," Mandarich says with a chuckle. It was his belovedbrother who got him on steroids after Tony moved in with him for a year whileJohn was a senior at Kent (Ohio) State and Tony was a high school senior.

By 22 Tony ranlike a deer, blocked like a truck and preened like a rooster. "I had tunnelvision," he says. "I wanted to be a new kind of offensive lineman, gofirst in the draft, make millions. Your SI story did it. I saw 50 copiesdisplayed across the top shelf at the airport—me and my steroid-fueled muscles.That fed my arrogance. I thought, You're doing things right!"

Right before the'89 draft, Mandarich moved to Southern California to train. When he complainedone day about how sore he was, a trainer, whom Mandarich refused to identify,said he had something to help. "Roll up your sleeve," Mandarich recallshim saying. "I thought, No big deal. A shot on your upper arm. But hegrabbed my wrist. I said, 'What are you doing?' He was going to shoot thisstuff into my vein, like a drug addict. He said, 'Trust me.'"

That first shotwas the prescription narcotic Stadol. In 15 seconds Mandarich was flooded withpleasure and peace. "That first one is the best one," he says."That's the one you chase."

And chase it hedid, downing pain pills like candy during his years in Green Bay, conning atleast 10 doctors in four states into writing him prescriptions for painkillers,even hiding syringes in his jockstrap and taking bathroom breaks duringpractice to shoot up. There is a lump in the crook of his left arm, a bulge inthe large blue vein between biceps and forearm. "That's where I shot,"he says.

His lowest pointmay have come when his brother was near death from cancer in the winter of1993. Tony drove off on a 16-hour round-trip to pick up pills for himself thathe'd persuaded a doctor to prescribe. When he got back, John was dead."Painkillers were more important to me than holding my brother's hand as hedied," Tony says.

The addictionsruined his first marriage and left him depressed. He was emotionally arrested,he tries to explain, and needed to grow up. Rehab and Alcoholics Anonymousfinally got him straight. Fourteen years later he hopes his book will helpothers, even as it helps him wipe his own slate clean and show that there ishope even for "a bust, a loudmouth, a no-good liar at the very bottom, likeme."

Mandarich'ssecond wife, Charlavan, who dated him for two years at Michigan State, and withwhom he shares four children (two from his first marriage, two from hers), saysshe has seen great change in Mandarich during their five-year marriage; he hasbecome humble and calm and spiritual. They work extremely hard and closetogether at their web-design and Internet marketing business. Char almost mistsup describing her husband—"a brilliant, gentle, white light, a beautifullight," she says.

BUT CHARACTERreversal doesn't undo collateral damage. I wrote so many steroid stories in the1980s that his fraud is like salt in a wound. Through the SI cover storyMandarich indirectly abetted the growth of the steroid culture among youngathletes, and his chemically induced strength and rage helped him humiliatemany clean players he competed against.

"There'sdamage done," agrees Jim Irsay, the Colts' owner and a big fan of theMandarich who played fairly well for Indianapolis. "But his story is one ofthe great stories of redemption. There was a massive price he paid. But itshows that everyone is salvageable. For you, well, everyone should rememberthat when you forgive, you become free."

Fine. But I'mstill angry. I'm angry at George Perles too. Were there 15 steroid users on hisbowl teams at Michigan State, as Mandarich alleges in his book? "Tony was agreat player, a great kid, a great leader," Perles, a member of theschool's board of trustees, says when I reach him. "I wouldn't know aboutsteroids."

In 1989 Perlesclaimed Mandarich was strong because he ate so much and worked so hard. Theformer coach likewise is clueless about the drug tests Mandarich and his matespassed with ease. "The NCAA did all the testing," Perles says."They're the ones you should talk to."

Better to hearMandarich describe it: "[For] the Rose Bowl in 1988, we were tested twoweeks before on campus, and then we heard there was going to be a second test[in Pasadena]. I'd already gotten back on Anadrol-50, a steroid which makes yousignificantly stronger within a day or two, and now I'm freaking. I'm in thislarge 24-hour store, about midnight, brainstorming, thinking how am I going tobeat this test?

"In the petarea I see this rubber doggy squeaker toy. I get that, then I go to anotherarea and get a small hose, and in the medical area I get some flesh-coloredtape. I'm like the Unabomber getting supplies. Back home I rip the squeakersout of the toy, tape the hose into one end and experiment by filling the thingwith water. At the Rose Bowl I taped the toy to my back, ran the hose betweenmy butt cheeks, taped the end to my penis, and covered the hose tip with bubblegum. I had gotten some clean urine from somebody else. The tester stood behindme, couldn't see anything, and when I removed the gum everything workedfine."

At the Gator Bowlthe following year Mandarich customized a squeezable glue bottle to replace thedoggy toy. "A quarter twist of the cap, no leak, no moving parts—it wasalmost too easy," he says.

But that's allover now. At least for Mandarich. The steroid world keeps expanding, withtesters lagging behind the cheats. I show him the SI article I wrote in 1988with South Carolina football player Tommy Chaikin, in which Chaikin detailedhis own steroid abuse. "I can relate to the mind racing," he says."I can relate to the anxiety attacks. I can't relate to the near-suicidalpart. I was much more homicidal than suicidal." He stops. "Really,Rick, I am sorry."

I have finishedwith my gentleman's 175 at Mountainside Fitness, same as two decades ago, andMandarich has finished his iron work. When we join Char and her 14--year-olddaughter, Ani, at a budget Chinese restaurant, I see that this modern familyworks well, that Tony is a sweet, self-deprecating guy. I ask Ani what shethinks of the big galoot in the sweat-stained Michigan State T-shirt andbackwards cap. She says that she'll never abuse substances after hearing herstepfather's stories. That's good. It's a start for those of us whoremember.

Mandarich was not only taking steroids but alsoinjecting other workout freaks, who called him THE DOCTOR.

"Painkillers were more important to me thanHOLDING MY BROTHER'S HAND as he died," Mandarich now confesses.

NOW ON SI.COM

BREAKING NEWS, REAL-TIME SCORES AND DAILYANALYSIS.

BACK IN TIME
Read Rick Telander's 1989 cover story on Tony Mandarich.

SI.COM/MAGAZINE

PHOTOPhotograph by Peter Read MillerREDEEMED? Inflated and then deflated on the cover of SI, Mandarich (in Arizona) is looking to clean the slate with his book. PHOTOGREGORY HEISLER (1989)[See caption above] PHOTOJOHN BIEVER (1992)[See caption above] PHOTOWILLIAM R. SMITHSTRONG-ARMED His 22-inch biceps notwithstanding, Mandarich denied using steroids in college. PHOTOAL BEHRMAN/AP PHOTOGOOD TIMES Mandarich (79) had his best days in the NFL with the Colts. PHOTOJOHN BIEVERROUGH RIDE Though he was the second pick of the '89 NFL draft, Mandarich flopped in three seasons with the Packers.

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