The past looms large for Tony Mandarich – almost as large as the man himself. The NCAA colossus and NFL underachiever has just clambered out of his black monster Jeep in front of his photography studio in North Scottsdale. Unlike his ride and most everything else about Mandarich’s outsize life, the studio is modest.
Mandarich is 6-foot-5, 295 pounds and sober. Twenty-six years ago, when the Michigan State All-American offensive lineman was drafted No. 2 overall by the Green Bay Packers, he was 30 steroid-enhanced pounds heavier – and meaner, drunker and higher. Often dubbed the biggest bust in NFL history, he left a well-documented legacy of chemical misadventures. They’re vices he’s urged to revisit in every interview, public appearance and random conversation with a stranger; he does so casually, candidly. Unlike his haters, who fixate on past transgressions, Mandarich has his feet planted firmly in the present.
At 49, Mandarich is a guy without a quit button – a self-defined “grinder.” He’s hardly a saint, but he did kick a drug addiction and alcoholism thanks to a life cleanse and a healthy workaholicism. He averages 10 to 12 hours a day at his photography job, but says “it’s hard to call it work.”
Mandarich moved to Arizona from his native Canada in 2004 in pursuit of two long-time loves: landscape photography and a college sweetheart, Charlavan. The couple, who married and partnered in several ventures, are finalizing a divorce, but Mandarich plans to stay. After the din of his darkest days, he appears to have found his passion, and some peace, in Phoenix. The arrogant abuser who used to tape the tag “EVIL” to his helmet now revels in stoic semi-anonymity. “I’m more infamous than famous,” he says with a laugh.
Mandarich’s 2009 memoir, My Dirty Little Secrets: Steroids, Alcohol & God, is a grim read that details the voyage from his altar-boy youth outside Toronto to steroid abuse at Michigan State to his lost years in Green Bay and after, when he flamed out on a diet of booze and prescription painkillers. The book recounts how Mandarich started to take pain medications after dropping out of MSU and moving to California to prep for the NFL draft; a trainer introduced him to the painkiller Stadol to ease the agony from his training regimen. Many of the book’s anecdotes are beyond the pale, such as when Mandarich bailed on his dying brother to go on a drug run. In one skeevy tale with a local twist, Mandarich cops to popping barbiturates and mainlining pain meds in the Sun Devil Stadium locker room during a 1991 Cardinals-Packers game.
He kicked his habits in 1995, made a three-season comeback with the Indianapolis Colts in the late ‘90s, and swears he hasn’t taken anything more potent than Advil since. Now, sporting a beard and a Michigan State jacket, he lounges comfortably in his own skin at Mandarich Studios. He seems like a guy you’d like to knock down brews with, but that’s not on the table. “There’s nothing in my life that a drink would make better,” he says. “I went from making 250, 300 grand a year to $40,000 and a photo job, and I had a better time with the 40K than the 300. But you know what? I’m happy. I’ve been drunk and messed up and wealthy, drunk and messed up and broke, and I’ve been sober and broke and sober and wealthy. I prefer sober and wealthy, don’t get me wrong, but I’d rather be sober and not wealthy than either of the other two.”
Mandarich now pockets considerably more than the $40,000 he pulled in his earliest days as a photographer. For that, he credits two lens artists with Arizona roots: Paul Markow and Joel Grimes. Markow taught him the basics. Grimes elevated Mandarich’s work in 2011 when he introduced him to the photographic movement of compositing – the process of digitally stitching multiple-source images, often by layering pre-shot portraits onto virtual backgrounds. It’s a novel tool for shutterbugs that produces stunning aesthetics.
Mandarich has always trusted his own instincts – for better or worse – and says he wants his vision to be singular. One Mandarich approach involves Popsicle sticks. “Most of the times when I’m visualizing a shoot, I’ll diagram out – with stick people – what the series of shots are going to be. If it’s a girl, I’ll add a little S-curve to her body,” he says. His clients are principally celebrity athletes and fitness buffs who hire him to do portraiture.
He remains a divisive figure in sports circles. “He’s a smart guy. I think he gets a bad rap,” journalist Kory Kozak says. A defensive end for Big 10 rival Rutgers University, Kozak has followed Mandarich’s career since playing against him in college. Now a coordinating producer for the Golf Channel, Kozak penned a by turns blistering and empathetic column about Mandarich in 2009 for ESPN.com. Kozak termed the drug-era Mandarich “a mutant” and “the bust to end all busts.” The Tony of today, Kozak believes, “is embarrassed by many of the things he said and did back then. I don’t think that’s the real Tony. I think the soft-spoken guy who lives in the desert... is much more the real guy than the almost comic-book-villain-like football player from the late ‘80s. I don’t know if he cares that people call him a bust or joke about his steroid usage. I do think he is at peace with himself now.”
Tony Mandarich AND Randy “Big Unit” Johnson chose photography careers. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson stormed Hollywood. Here are other former athletes who found second callings in the arts:
Todd Marinovich: NFL bust to expressionist painter
Brian Bosworth: NFL bust to B-list actor
Cathy Rigby: Olympic gymnast to Broadway star
Dick Van Arsdale: Phoenix Suns to folksy artist
“Black Jack” McDowell: Cy Young pitcher to rock ‘n’ roller
Jason Statham: British national diving team to Guy Ritchie flicks
Stacy Peralta: Pro skateboarder to filmmaker
Wayman Tisdale: NBA to smooth-jazz musician
Bernie Williams: New York Yankees to Latin Grammy nominee
Rick Fox: Los Angeles Lakers to TV actor
Jonathan De Falco: Pro soccer to porn star “Stany Falcone”
Ronda Rousey: Mixed martial arts to mixed movie reviews
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