Sunday, September 6, 2009

On Second Chances (and Third and Fourth, and Fifth...)

I watched the Syracuse game yesterday morning. The new quarterback, Greg Paulus, was a high school football star, then a point guard for Duke for 4 years, and has now landed as the captain of the Orange football team at the age of 23. His debut performance, though phenomenal considering he has not played football in 4 years, was marred by a foolish interception during overtime which cost Syracuse a win they otherwise deserved. His one poor pass notwithstanding however, it was considered an auspicious day for Paulus. Football seasons, like life, are full of second chances. Even if you screw up one crucial play, another opportunity will present itself.

Just look at Michael Milken, the junk-bond felon turned philanthropist, who was lauded in 2004 by Fortune magazine as "The Man Who Changed Medicine" for his contributions to medical research. How quickly we forget that this guy ruined tens of thousands of lives, destroyed untold millions of dollars of wealth, and made Gordon Gecko look like Mother Theresa.

But for this post I want to focus on another football player, one who also has a Syracuse connection. Todd Marinovich (pictured in his heyday and in his most recent mugshot), older brother of Syracuse Defensive End Mikhail Marinovich, is a poster boy for wasted talent and squandered youth. I read this article yesterday from Esquire which painstakingly detailed his 20 year long slide from stardom, to rehab, to homelessness, to irrelevance and obscurity. To give you an idea of how good Marinovich was, he was drafted ahead of Brett Favre in 1991. Nicknamed "Robo Quarterback", he was an outstanding talent when he played for USC and he would likely have been one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time had it not been for his addiction to drugs.

The article detailed how Marinovich would repeatedly screw up, get another chance, and screw up again. While at USC he was busted for drug possession (marijuana and coke). He was kicked off the team, but was allowed to enter the NFL draft instead. He signed a 3 year deal for $2.25 million plus a $1 million signing bonus. As the team's third-string quarterback he saw little on-field action, and so started taking speed before games. He showed up to games and played while drunk, hungover, and on drugs. He was sent to rehab repeatedly, but could not pass the requisite drug tests, and in 1993 he was let go.

After several years spent surfing and using, he landed in the Canadian Football League as a backup quarterback. In Canada he resumed his heavy drug use, picked up a heroin habit, and began growing pot. He shot up heroin during games, played while on drugs (again), and was a generally terrible employee. Despite all this, he was offered an extension of his contract with the CFL - an offer he turned down because he could no longer deal with the easy availability of drugs in Vancouver.

So to sum the story up, this is a man who utterly failed as a football player, failed at being a responsible adult, and failed at staying clean for any stretch of time. And yet, after nine arrests, five felonies, and one year in jail, Todd Marinovich is still not down for the count. What I found fascinating about this article was the part which detailed what he is doing now: besides several menial jobs, he is a budding artist with plans for a gallery showing and a website for direct buying, and he is becoming known as a "quarterback whisperer" working with promising talents of all ages and levels of achievement.

What I want to know is, how many chances do we as a society give someone, even someone who's really good at sports? And what value would Marinovich have as a quarterback whisperer given that he attained relatively little professional success and frequently chose to take drugs instead of improve his game? If experience is the name given to one's mistakes, then Marinovich would have a tremendous amount of wisdom to impart, but if he keeps screwing up (including a February 2009 drug bust), then the mistakes must not be worth much in the way of learning opportunities. I think our society likes to reward the troubled and the tortured by giving their art (in whatever form) more weight and gravitas, but I'm not sure what correlation there is between propensity for mistakes and great art.

Bernie Madoff will not live long enough to see if society forgives him for his transgressions, but Michael Vick will. I'm interested to see what his legacy will be.

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