Steroids fueled spectacular rise and fall
How could he not be great in the NFL? How could Tony Mandarich possibly be a bust?
I saw what might have been in 1988. I was an 18-year-old freshman defensive end at Rutgers. At that point, the Rutgers football slogan was "On the Rise" because we were always mediocre in those days. Our first game that season was against Michigan State, the 15th-ranked team in the country and defending Rose Bowl champ. They had an All-America tackle -- Tony Mandarich -- who was humiliating players every week.
He was 6-foot-6, 320 pounds. He was huge. He was a mutant. He was all-natural? Impossible.
I was all-natural, tipping the scales at about 230 and having already lost about 10 precious pounds in training camp.
Not a great matchup. You can imagine how that would have turned out. But it never happened. I was redshirted and wasn't going to see the field unless the seven or eight players in front of me were maimed.
And Mandarich, ultimately, was suspended. He sat out the first three games of the season after applying for the NFL draft.
During training camp, we studied Michigan State's offensive line on film. Watching the Rose Bowl, we saw Mandarich pancaking Tim Ryan from USC on one play, driving him out of the film frame on the next. It wasn't as if Ryan was terrible; the guy was a first-round pick of the Bears a year later.
Our reaction? Laughter. Not because Ryan was getting destroyed, but because we weren't. That wasn't going to be us because he wasn't playing.
We watched more film, and it wasn't only Ryan. We saw an All-America defensive end pinned to the ground by Mandarich, a linebacker from Wisconsin on skates 10 yards downfield, a defensive tackle from Ohio State curled up in the fetal position. The worst was the Iowa team captain who went for the trifecta: on skates for 10 yards, pinned to the ground and then curled up in the fetal position.
It didn't stop there.
Mandarich punched an Ohio State player during the coin toss and told him he "was going to die today." He drove a Northwestern player into the end zone, pancaked him and then told the player to "stay there."
Sometimes he was blocking two players at a time. Who does that? It was a no-brainer that Mandarich was the most dominant college offensive lineman ever. Maybe not the best, but definitely the most dominant.
How could he not make it in the NFL?
Well, for starters, he was cheating.
He was chemically enhanced to the nth degree. He was the Six Million Dollar Man of steroids.
"I was taking Winstrol V, equipoise, Anadrol 50s, testosterone, Anavar, Dianabol," he told me dispassionately in an ESPN interview last month at the W Hotel, near his home in Scottsdale, Ariz.
Twenty years after he was the second player taken in the 1989 NFL draft, Mandarich is 42 years old. He looks like a cross between Judas Priest's Rob Halford and "Stone Cold" Steve Austin. He's still huge and looks as if he could still play. He told me he had been taking steroids since May 1984.
His older brother, John, who was playing at Kent State, turned Mandarich onto them. His usage escalated during his time at Michigan State. The rumors of steroids started to surface, but schools were not testing for steroids yet, and the NCAA tested only at bowl games. Mandarich kept beating the system. He cheated on the tests for the Rose and Gator bowls.
"I basically strapped something to my back a little -- it was actually a little doggie toy," Mandarich said in an interview that stretched longer than 2½ hours. "Hooked up a little hose to it ran a tube underneath and put a piece of gum to cap the tube."
As a player, his legend was growing. So was his ego.
"You're not supposed to be as strong as I am. You're not supposed to be as fast as I am. You're not supposed to be as good as I am," Mandarich said in the midst of his steroid haze in 1989.
He dropped out of Michigan State after the Gator Bowl and moved to Los Angeles. It was where he wanted to be -- a big city with big-city media. He had big plans. He wanted to play football for six or seven years in the NFL, win Mr. Universe and then move on to the movies. He wanted to be the next Arnold Schwarzenegger. He was hanging out with Guns N' Roses, and he had the tattoos to prove it.
All the while, against the general rules of nature, Tony kept getting bigger, stronger and faster. He hosted his own combine at Michigan State that spring. The numbers were staggering:
Weight: 308 pounds
Bench press: 39 repetitions at 225 pounds
40-yard dash: 4.69 seconds.
The hype machine was at full throttle.
Sports Illustrated, memorably, put him on the cover, shirtless and massive. It called him "the best offensive line prospect ever." It bragged of his insane 15,000-calorie diet and his love for Axl Rose.
I put that SI cover on my dorm wall. Every lineman -- high school or college -- probably did the same. He was what all of us aspired to be: huge, cut and nasty on the football field. He was supposed to change offensive linemen forever. He was the anti-Reggie White, the guy who was built to block men like White and maybe even dominate them.
As the 1989 draft approached, Mandarich was the highest-rated player on the board. Higher than Troy Aikman. Higher than Barry Sanders. Higher than Deion Sanders and Derrick Thomas. It was on. He had serious clout. Mandarich could call his own shot. Everyone had bought in. Almost everyone.
The Kansas City Chiefs were courting Mandarich because they had one of the top five picks in the draft. General manager Carl Peterson and coach Marty Schottenheimer took him out to dinner. They asked him whether he was on steroids, Mandarich says. Fair question. Mandarich said he had never failed a drug test. Not exactly what the coach wanted to hear.
According to Mandarich, Schottenheimer looked him square in the eye and said, "I think you're lying."
"If you think I am lying," Mandarich said coolly, "then don't draft me."
His arrogance with NFL teams did not stop there.
"I had said even before the draft that I did not want to get drafted by the Packers," Mandarich said. "I didn't want to play in a small market. I called Green Bay a village. Some of the stuff I said, when I look back now, is just embarrassing."
Saying it, he truly sounds embarrassed, maybe even disgusted.
Needless to say, the Packers took Mandarich second overall, after the Cowboys took Aikman. Some experts thought Dallas was crazy for not taking Mandarich.
The Packers weren't planning to pay him the $1.1 million per year that he was demanding. So, Mandarich cranked up the hype again. He held out of Packers camp. Then he appeared on "Late Night with David Letterman."
Mandarich: "I want to fight Tyson."
Letterman: "Oh, geez what kind of a guy does it take to sit here and say that?"
The Packers might lose Mandarich to boxing? They had to ante up. And they did.
A mythical monster
Green Bay had no idea what it was getting for its $4.4 million; Mandarich was the first offensive lineman to make seven figures a season.
Mandarich missed the entire training camp. He wasn't ready to play in the NFL's pass-first game. Michigan State threw the ball maybe 10 times a game in those days, and pass blocking was not Mandarich's strong suit.
But something else was happening, and it wasn't just steroids.
Mandarich had stopped taking steroids just before the combine for fear of getting caught by the NFL drug-testers. Those guys actually watch you fill the cup from point-blank range. No dog toys to save him there.
The bigger issue, according to Mandarich, was an addiction to painkillers. He was a junkie. By the time he arrived in Green Bay, he was hooked. As he ended his steroid usage, he started taking painkillers to get rid of the aches and pains from his intense weight training.
He wasn't messing around, either. He was main-lining them. Straight into the vein. Six or seven times a day. Even during practice.
"I was getting really paranoid about people finding out, so what I would do with that bottle and a syringe, I would put it in my jock strap," Mandarich said. "I'd say 'Hey, I've got to go to the bathroom,' lock myself in the bathroom, take a shot, and then come back out to practice and get ready for one-on-one pass drills with the defensive line, and I'm half in the bag."
He did this every day. Stadol, Fiorinal #3, Valium, Percodan, Percocet, Vicodin. The shots eventually became pills because they were easier to come by, and sometimes the pills were replaced by booze.
Mandarich created a monster built on lies. It was all torn down in a few months. He was the bust to end all busts. He never got on the field for the last year of his contract, 1992, and Mike Holmgren's new Green Bay regime elected to not re-sign him.
"I spent four years in Green Bay and never [had] a sober day," Mandarich said. "Every day I was ever in Green Bay I was not sober."
Mandarich went to his home in Traverse City, Mich., and became a full-time junkie -- and hid. His full-time job was to find ways to get more drugs by conning another doctor or faking another illness.
Things got worse. Mandarich's older brother, John, was dying of cancer. John was his hero, having played for Kent State and then the Edmonton Eskimos in the Canadian Football League. On the day John died in 1993, his little brother was in his truck, driving 400 miles to Green Bay from Traverse City to get more painkillers.
At that point, the drugs were more important to him than anything.
This was the time that Mandarich was supposed be in the prime of his career, taking on Reggie White and Bruce Smith on his way to the Hall of Fame, with yearly visits to Hawaii along the way. Instead, he was chasing down painkillers to get by until the next day. He was down to 260 pounds, pale, and looking nothing like the shirtless guy who was on the cover of SI.
"Fifty, 60, 70 painkillers a day," Mandarich said. "I would just drink more because it's easier to get alcohol. A lot of self-loathing absolutely hated myself. I hated everything about me."
He could never live up to that monster he created.
Making it right
Rock bottom. He was there.
In March 1995, Mandarich checked himself into the Brighton Hospital Chemical Dependency and Mental Health Treatment Center in Brighton, Mich. Twelve steps. Time to pay the price for all those lies.
"How in the world do you make amends for the disaster you created in the NFL?" he said, sounding contrite. "And that you had wronged the fans, you had wronged the Packers, you embarrassed the sport. How do you right that wrong?"
Mandarich's way was to try to come back to the NFL, but this time do it right. Clean. Sober. No outrageous comments. Be happy to be there.
Miraculously, Mandarich made it back to the NFL in 1996, playing for the Indianapolis Colts. He was huge once again, weighing in at around 320. But this time, he says, it was natural. No juice. For three more years, he was good, not great -- not pinning guys on their backs, not keeping stats of pancakes and guys he drove off the screen.
But he says he was clean. And Mandarich insists he has remained clean since.
Today he keeps a low profile in Arizona, with his wife and business partner, Char. They run an Internet marketing company and do photography and video work. In their home, there are few mementos from his football days. In one small room, his Michigan State Rose Bowl jersey and his Colts jersey hang on the wall.
Nothing from his years with the Packers. No other trophies. A few years ago, Mandarich took all the trophies he had from Michigan State and burned them.
"Got tired of them sitting in boxes," he explained.
That might have been as symbolic as anything he did. Clearly, that time in his life is well behind him.
He is promoting a new book, "My Dirty Little Secrets," published by Modern History Press. He said he wants to speak to NFL players about the dangers of steroid abuse and painkillers, another step in the 12-step circle of making amends.
He has become -- sincerely, it seems -- reflective.
"I don't regret any of the pills I took, or I don't regret the steroids I took," he said. "I don't regret the whiskey I drank, and I don't regret the mistakes I made, because all of those things coupled together tore me down and made me forced me to look at myself and forced me to make corrections -- it was either make corrections or die for me."
There is one eye-catching remnant of his chemically enhanced life. The infamous Sports Illustrated cover, the one that proclaimed him "The Incredible Bulk." He has a blown-up version in his garage.
It hangs just above a garbage can.
Kory Kozak is a producer for ESPN.
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