A candid conversation with Tony Mandarich   

Updated: October 6, 2008, 12:40 PM ET

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On Tuesday morning, Showtime circulated a news release stating that Tony Mandarich, the epic NFL draft bust, would appear on "Inside the NFL" and admit to using steroids in college, cheating a drug test on the eve of the 1988 Rose Bowl and underachieving during a turbulent NFL career.

On Tuesday afternoon, America yawned.

We suspected Ante Josip "Tony" Mandarich, once billed as "The Incredible Bulk" and "the best offensive lineman prospect ever" by Sports Illustrated, was too good to be true. We knew the ballyhooed Michigan State star was simply too strong, too large and too unstoppable to be real. Selected by the Green Bay Packers with the No. 2 overall pick in the 1989 NFL draft, ahead of Barry Sanders, Derrick Thomas and Deion Sanders, the colorful 6-foot-6, 350-pounder hung out with Guns N' Roses and almost fought Mike Tyson in his prime. Mandarich seemed to be, in every way, a rock star … right up until the point he actually strapped on pads with the Packers.

When Mandarich failed to impress observers during six NFL seasons, we thought we knew why: He used steroids at Michigan State, and then he did not.

Then, when Mandarich went public with his dirty laundry Wednesday night, we thought we knew why: money. He has an upcoming tell-all book, "My Dirty Little Secrets -- Steroids, Alcohol & God" (Modern History Press).

But maybe we don't know the whole story, so we went right to the source for answers.


Page 2: How do you think the "Inside the NFL" segment played?

Tony Mandarich

AP photo/Alan Greth

After starring at Michigan State, Tony Mandarich was drafted No. 2 overall by the Packers -- ahead of Barry Sanders, Derrick Thomas and Deion Sanders.

I thought it went well. They called me Monday and said they were so happy with the content they had, they were going to make it a two-part series. Obviously, I said, "OK." [I] don't have any editing control. What concerned me was they were going to make the first part sensationalistic, all drugs and steroids, and part two the recovery part. But after watching it [Wednesday] night, it was right on. It was the truth, not edited in a way that made me a monster.

Why did you decide to do it, and are you happy with your decision to air it all out?

I did it because I have a tell-book coming out in March about my life, my mistakes, my adversity. It's some of what I call "war stories," but it's about recovery. Here's this big strong human being that got brought to his knees with drug and alcohol abuse. So the idea is to help people who feel there's no way out. My story happened on the football field and on the front page, but people can relate to the addiction part of it, no matter your profession or age. The key is that there is hope. You can change. And that's my whole motivation. Whether you want to just call this book a cautionary tale for athletes, the stuff does exist. I almost died. I'm lucky to be alive. Sharing that will hopefully help people. I have zero regret about going public because of that motivation.

Why did it take so long for you to go public?

Well, I started the book twice, once 10 years ago when I retired and once five years ago. There were roadblocks. I couldn't find a publisher, couldn't find a writer. After the second time, it stalled on me. I thought, "Maybe there won't be a book. Maybe it's an old story. Obviously, the publishing industry thought it's an old story, so maybe I'd never go public." But when my co-author, Sharon Shaw Elrod, found out about my story, she became a bull, and she said, "This has to get out because of the amount of people we can help with this."

Your decision to go public now is a savvy business move, but you're saying you won't name other steroids users in your book. Now, I'm only guessing here, but wouldn't your book do better business if you went the Jose Canseco route and lit a torch to this thing?

Absolutely. I mean, if I name names, it'll sell five times the amount that it would otherwise.

Then why not name names?

Because I'm not a jackass like Canseco. I don't believe that you should capitalize on other people's shortcomings. Maybe the money's not as important to me as it is to Canseco. My motivation is to help people. Along that route, sure, time is money, and I've spent a lot of time on this, so obviously there'll be some compensation. But that's the secondary or third motivation.

OK, forget business. Don't you think you could do some good in cleaning up football and cleaning it up more quickly if you named a few names and made this a bigger story? I mean, the powers that be tend to act only when they're forced to do so.

You know, I'm not sold on that. I'd much rather do this at my own expense and use it as a cautionary tale. I would tell the NFL that if they wanted me to come in and share my story with each individual team, I'd do that. I'd do the same thing for college or high school teams. In my opinion, Canseco approached this with dollar signs in his eyes. If he was so concerned, why didn't he go to the owners and to Major League Baseball? He could have probably made a better impact and still make as much money, without dragging people's names through the mud. I would say I'm one of the top five names that come up when you say "steroids" and "NFL," so I'm making a statement: I did it, and here's how I did it, and here's why not to do it. That's my approach. Now the other organizations have to get involved.

Tony Mandarich

AP Photo/Alan Greth

It's no wonder Mandarich, shown working out in Whittier, Calif., prior to the 1989 NFL draft, was dubbed "The Incredible Bulk" by Sports Illustrated.

How widespread were steroids in college football back then, and how widespread do you think they are now?

Right now, to give you an answer you love, I don't know. Back then, it was rampant, and not just in the Big Ten -- in college football, period. I knew players from Maryland, Wisconsin, Ohio State -- I could name every Big Ten school, I could name Florida State, USC -- that I knew were on steroids.

What percentage of your teammates used steroids?

I won't answer that. I'll only speak for myself, so one out of 110 players.

You faked a urine sample before the Rose Bowl. What's keeping that from happening today? How effective are drug testing policies now?

You know, I'm not sure. Drug tests back then, like the one I cheated on, were very easy to abuse. You'll get a good laugh out of the way I did it when you read the book.

Why don't you cut the suspense and tell us now?

I need to save something for the readers. But you'll shake your head and laugh. Testing back then only happened when you made a bowl game. I know that when I entered the NFL, there was random testing 12 months a year for any substance -- steroids, everything on the banned-substance list. That, in combination with all of the steroids allegations surrounding me, was for me the deterrent to stop taking steroids at that time.

MLB got killed with coverage of the steroids thing, but the NFL has mostly avoided the controversy. Why do you think that is? Is it not a problem in the NFL? Is it its testing policies?

I think they avoided it because they had a vision. They saw where things were going. When I was in the NFL, the things I did to cheat on the steroids test in college would not have worked in the NFL. I had a three-year hiatus after the Packers, and by the time I went to Indy, just in that time, they'd taken even more measures to be stricter. The list of substances banned was longer. It made it even more difficult. Now, do players today still cheat on the drug test in the NFL? Absolutely. Because how do you measure growth hormone? You can't. Now, you can measure somebody's natural growth hormone level. You can say Player A from the Patriots' level is 100, or whatever the number is. But two years later, Player A's level has jumped to 500. Well, as you get older, the growth hormone level naturally goes down slightly.

So what I think they need to do is they need to get a baseline of every player's growth hormone level when they come into the league and, every time you do another test, compare it to that level. There'll be natural fluctuation, but if there's a huge spike, that tells you something is happening. But take that to the ethical side: What if he has a spike in hormone level because he's a late bloomer? Will you suspend him? So, it's complicated.

Was your steroids use a benefit or a detriment to your career? Would you have been taken so high in the draft without steroids?

Tony Mandarich

Tom Hauck/Getty Images

After fizzling out in Green Bay, Mandarich bounced back to play for the Colts from 1996-98.

Well, my steroids use was a benefit and a detriment. Yeah, it makes you stronger. But psychologically, it's not good. Yeah, it gives you an aggressive edge, but when you get off of it, there's a reverse psychological effect: "Oh my god, I'm not aggressive anymore. I'm getting weaker, smaller. What's happening to me?" And that's just the first 24 hours after quitting it. That's a pretty powerful effect. It really brought me to my knees. And I don't know if I'd be taken that high in the draft without it. I don't know. When I was in Indy, I played pretty damn good, and I was almost as strong as I was at any point in my life. It makes me go, "Why the hell did I ever use steroids?" So I don't know the answer to that question.

Fans were quick to blame your on-field demise on what we guessed was your decision to give up steroids. We didn't know how deep your struggles went. When and how did you move on to painkillers and alcohol?

Yeah, when I gave up the steroids, the alcoholism and drug addiction ramped up times five. I think the alcohol was gradual. The drugs were gradual, too, until I started taking the injectable painkiller Stadol. When I started taking that right after the draft, and I'd inject that right into my vein, I went from one shot a day to six or seven shots a day just one week later. And I did that for the next three years. I started it because of the physical pain and continued it because it felt so good.

Who turned you on to that?

I can't share that. It doesn't matter, because they didn't make me do it. I chose to do it. And I made the choice every day for three years after that to keep doing it.

The Packers missed the warning signs. Was that negligence on their part or a good cover-up on yours?

Well, I think it's a bit of both. I covered it up pretty good, but the performance on the field should've been the real answer. Listen, I never had a sober day in Green Bay. There was a time, Sam, where I couldn't believe that nobody was getting it. You got a guy here who was a terror in college. Why is he so slothlike and passive now? Where did his strength go? I mean, when you get off steroids, you lose maybe 10 percent of your strength. So if you can bench 500 pounds with steroids, you should still bench 450 pounds without it. But my drug addiction -- that was my main goal, to get high, which changed my priorities and slowed my workouts down -- was the real problem. Everybody -- and I mean everybody, from media to players to front office -- was saying it's obvious my drop in production was because of steroids. So everybody was blind to the 50 to 60 painkillers I was taking every day. I wasn't a bust because of the steroids. I was a bust because of the alcohol and drug addiction. They missed what was right in front of their face.

There was this one drug test in Green Bay my third year there. I knew we were getting tested on a Friday, and I was worried that 60 painkillers would show up in my urine. So on Thursday, I laid off them. But come Thursday night, my obsession to take them caused me to take 20 that night. Then I woke up the next morning and took 10 more. And already, I know I'm screwed. Inside my heart and soul, I accepted the fact that in three to seven days I'm going to get called to the trainer's office, where they'd say I had a positive drug test for an extremely high level of painkillers. But I never got the call. That, to me, was amazing. I have 30 pills in me, and I pass a drug test? That was '92. What's changed? I don't know.

Your name is up there with Ryan Leaf and the others when people talk about NFL busts. Does that still hurt you, or are you past it?

Tony Mandarich

Modra/Sports Imagery/Getty Images

Mandarich is a serious Guns N' Roses fan, and he has the ink
to prove it.

[Pauses] I've accepted it. It used to hurt me a lot. What bothers me now is when people don't tell the whole story. People say, "He was a steroids-freak bust in Green Bay," but they don't mention the Colts days. I'm not saying I should be praised or that I was a Pro Bowler, but tell the whole story. Listen, does anybody really know the deal with Ryan Leaf? Do we really know why he failed? Was it the system? I've never met Ryan, but he's coaching now, and he's moving on, and he's trying to help people. But will he ever release a book that reveals he had a personality disorder? I'm just saying, you don't know the whole story.

Where do you keep the infamous "The Incredible Bulk" SI cover?

It's on a wall in the garage above a garbage can.

You don't think very highly of it, huh?

Well, it's in the garage because I don't want it in the house. But I want it up because, you know, it's a part of my life. The fact that the garbage can is underneath it is just a coincidence. But I do get a chuckle out of it. [Laughs]

Now, I've always wondered, when you challenged Mike Tyson to a fight, was that the drugs? Please tell me it was.

Well, Lou Duva [Tyson's trainer] and Shelly Finkel [Tyson's manager] came to me right after the SI cover. They said, "Would you be interested in fighting Mike Tyson?" And I said, "Of course I'd consider any offer." Lou Duva worked with me in the ring, and he said, "We need about nine months of training, and you'll be ready to do it. The fight won't last three rounds, and only one of two things will happen: You will kill him, or he will kill you." So they went back to N.Y. in late August and made an offer of $5 million. Then, I was thinking, "I'm going into the ring with a killer at the top of his game. He's probably going to destroy me. So I better get paid for it." I asked for more money, which helped put pressure on the Packers to get my contract done, and that's what happened. And we never talked about it again.

It's well documented that you were a big Guns N' Roses fan. If they do a movie on your life, can you get them for the soundtrack?

God, that would be awesome. Now, if they'd ever release that friggin' album …

Which one will happen first: GN'R's "Chinese Democracy" hits stores, or the Packers re-sign Tony Mandarich?

[Laughs] Listen, I think that China might get a democracy before "Chinese Democracy" gets released. I met Axl Rose, and that was awesome. Last time I saw him was in '92 during the "Use Your Illusion" tour in Milwaukee. One on one, he's a great guy. The media persona is a lot different than the guy. Which is true about a lot of people. The way that whole band carried themselves and that reckless swagger was kind of the way I carried myself. It was the same swagger I had, or wanted to have. And, you know, it eventually backfired on both of us.

Sam Alipour is based in Los Angeles. His Media Blitz column appears in ESPN The Magazine and regularly on Page 2. You can reach him at sam.alipour@gmail.com.


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