Subject to Interpretation
Written By: Kip Mikler
Photographed By: Cam Oden
A growing collection of Expressionist-inspired oil paintings is sure to bring out the armchair psychologists. Even now, more than 15 years after his NFL career ended, Todd Marinovich remains a favorite subject for sportswriters, fans and Californians who once witnessed the domination of an almost mythical young quarterback in the late 1980s and ’90s. Mention the name to football fans and you’re likely to hear an opinion. Amazing athlete. Greatest Orange County quarterback of all time. Victim of parental pressure. Robo QB. Misunderstood. Sad.
The Newport Beach native has heard it all. Since age 15, when he became the first freshman to start a high school football game in Orange County, every achievement and every misstep has been analyzed. His unusual upbringing gained national attention in a 1988 Sports Illustrated story that labeled him “America’s first test-tube athlete.” The story exposed the overzealous devotion of Marv Marinovich to his son Todd’s athletic development.
During his much-hyped college years at USC and a short-lived NFL stint with the Los Angeles Raiders, Marinovich was often portrayed as a hippy-dippy SoCal free spirit who squandered his talent while surfing naked and smoking pot. And after his playing days were over, when Marinovich struggled with drug addiction, joined a rock band called Scurvy, and was repeatedly arrested on drug charges, the commentary followed him.
Now Marinovich is in his forties. His football career is a distant memory. In the last few years he has gone through rehab, married, become a father, mourned the death of his best friend from a drug overdose, and established himself as a commercial artist. Each of these things was a transformative occurrence in Marinovich’s life. Collectively, they have forged his new reality, a life that seems a better fit for Marinovich than the one he knew before.
Marinovich still looks fit. When I meet him on Balboa Island to talk about his art, he is riding a skateboard. Standing 6’4 with broad shoulders, he moves with the grace of an athlete. His red hair, once long and unruly back in his playing days, is buzzed. Wearing jeans, a flannel shirt and shades, he gazes out at the pier and seems at ease.
He used to hate this stuff. A self-described recluse, Marinovich spent years trying to escape the public eye. “Once I stopped playing football I didn’t want to have anything to do with the media, ” he says. “I had done it for 15 years and was totally over it.”Understandable. As an athlete, Marinovich endured uncommon scrutiny. We condemned his father’s seemingly harsh training regimens — ESPN columnist Jim Caple called Marinovich one of the worst sports fathers in history. We judged his choice to start smoking marijuana in high school — opposing high school fans used to chant gleefully “Marijuanavich!” during his basketball games. And we questioned his commitment when, as a college student, he admitted to enjoying the freedom of being away from his dad’s strict football focus. Then, when Marinovich struggled in the NFL, mired in one substance abuse problem after another, we called him a flop. What a waste went the story.
Through it all, Marinovich remained somewhat of an enigma. We knew he was an insanely gifted left-hander who, as one former Orange County Register sports reporter recalls, “was a man among boys.” We expected a lot from him. Yet by the time the Robo QB went pro, he had shown signs of distraction. He was different. He seemed less than motivated by the stardom and riches accompanying NFL success.
Many fans, having witnessed the flashes of brilliance, found this incomprehensible. Aren’t gifted pro athletes put on earth to fulfill the athletic dreams we never could? Marinovich didn’t see it that way. After two seasons and three positive drug tests, he quit the NFL.
During the lowest points of his football career, Marinovich didn’t think much about art. He was shut down. What the critics never knew or didn’t care to understand about Marinovich was that he truly saw life and the game of football in a different way than the people around him.
“We all have stereotypes, ” Marinovich says. “We all have these ideas of what we think somebody should be like. But I hated the whole football player stereotype. I was an artist first, and I always believed that. I looked at the game of football differently than the people I played with. I looked at football like it was an art form.”
Marinovich says it’s in his genes. His great grandmother was an oil painter. His dad was a sculptor and painter. He remembers his first painting, a still of flowers he did at age 6. He took all the art classes he could in high school, and in college he majored in fine arts.
“That’s when it really got fun, ” he says. “I was taking all the studio hands-on type classes — ceramics, oil painting, figure drawing. That’s when I finally started enjoying school. It was too bad that I ended up leaving and playing pro football.”
Though he looks back on the game and his athletic life in general, as a positive experience, Marinovich regrets abandoning his natural point of view for so many years. Starting with his early NFL years, his desire to create art dried up. “It all got put on hold; I just shelved everything, ” he says.
And it took a long time to regain his artistic vision. After football, Marinovich battled a lack of motivation. “When I finally got back into art I was doing a lot of portraiture — charcoal and pencil stuff that just became boring after a while. I felt limited with the pencil drawings. Portraiture is respected by people who can’t do it, but I just felt like a human Xerox machine. It obviously takes talent but just looking at a face and reproducing it wasn’t fulfilling that need to create.”
After years of struggling, Marinovich finally met a man who freed him from the creative impasse. Bob Abbott, a successful Laguna Beach artist and author, introduced Marinovich to oil painting, and that’s when everything changed.
“It was totally freeing, ” Marinovich says. “I was immediately overwhelmed with the possibilities of what I could do.”
In 2007, Abbott invited Marinovich to his art compound in Fallbrook. There, surrounded by avocado orchards and like-minded artists honing their crafts, Marinovich immersed himself in his new medium.
“Bob was really supportive, saying I could make a career out of this, ” Marinovich says. “I would go down there and stay on weekends, just to watch him paint. It was a fast track to learning new techniques, things it might have otherwise taken years for me to learn. Bob has libraries of all his art and I could just go through it and ask questions. It was like having an art professor and a friend right there all the time.”
Once he started to learn the technique, the ideas came pouring out. “I had a lot of inspiration stored up, ” Marinovich says.
At the same time things were falling into place in his personal life. Marinovich was finally getting an upper hand on his decades-long battle with drug addiction. Marriage and the birth of his first child, Baron, in the summer of 2008 realigned his priorities.
“Everything changed when Baron arrived on the scene, ” Marinovich says. “I’m sober now. Life is completely different, and I’ve welcomed it with open arms.”
Though he’s still a novice painter, there’s no denying the interest in Marinovich’s work. “Of the roughly 30 paintings I’ve done this year, I’ve sold 26 of them, ” he says. “Because I had a name, I kind of cut in line when it comes to selling. For most artists, getting their name out there is the hardest part.”
Marinovich works on three or four paintings at once. Some come easily, some are more of a struggle. Some days go better than others, but the most important thing, he says, is to sit down and start working. “Half the time I start with an idea of what I want to do, ” he says. “The other half I just start painting and something will come to me.”
He assesses life in a similar way — a work in progress. Marinovich’s best friend, Marco Forster, died from a drug overdose. “That was by far the most painful experience I’ve ever had to deal with, ” he says. “And I’m still dealing with it. And when I’m dealing with pain, and how I can escape that pain, my first thought is to run to [drugs]. And my best friend just died from that, so how crazy is that?”
In the weeks following Forster’s death, Marinovich couldn’t paint. “I couldn’t do anything, ” he says. “I was the walking dead for a while.”
Eventually, he forced himself to start working. “The thing that snapped me out of it was I started doing paintings that were dedications to Marco. We were friends since we were 16, and he opened my eyes up to music, which was life-changing, so I started painting his favorite artists. Nick Cave, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop. These were things in my life that just blossomed because of Marco.”
Marinovich takes a drag from his cigarette. It’s almost time for him to skate a few blocks home to his family. He can’t bring back Marco, but every painting he does will be inspired by his friend. And by Abbott. And by all the people Marinovich opened himself up to away from the football field.
“I hated how black and white people saw football, how they categorized everything in numbers, ” he says. “I understood that’s how people saw things but I didn’t want to buy into it. I didn’t want to think like that. I was never the guy who was only going to hang out with football players. Because what are you going to get from them? That’s the great thing about having friends with all different types of personalities. They add to your life.”
One of Marinovich’s paintings, “45- 42, ” is a celebration of perhaps his biggest triumph on the football field: USC’s 1990 win over UCLA. It depicts a receiver’s outstretched hands, pass routes painted in lines and arrows, and the final score of the game. Another painting, titled “Defeat III, ” depicts the opposite emotions of the game.
The armchair psychologists will love discussing those paintings, and that’s just fine with Marinovich. “I don’t need to explain my paintings, ” he says. “With most of my paintings I try not to be so literal about a particular event. It’s more about conveying a feeling, doing it with color or texture. And if a person doesn’t get the same feeling, that’s totally fine. So far people seem to be getting something out of these paintings, and whatever they do get, that’s fine with me.”