For anyone who followed football in the late 1980s and '90s, Todd Marinovich was a kind of sports counterpart to Jon-Benet Ramsey — the kid whose father, Marv, raised him from birth to be a standout athlete. To the surprise of almost no one, the so-called "Robo QB" — who played quarterback first at USC, then the Oakland Raiders — eventually imploded, abusing drugs and winding up in jail.
Marinovich presents a target-rich story, and ESPN — continuing the tone, if not the title, of its "30 for 30" documentaries — has captured its complexity with "The Marinovich Project," a terrific film from directors Andrew Stephan and John Dorsey, which premieres Dec. 10 at 9 p.m. ET.
Both the elder and younger Marinovich are interviewed extensively, as are Marinovich's mother, reporters who covered him and former friends and teammates at both USC and Oakland.
In a way, the Marinovich story is an old one — the sheltered kid who gets into his teens and college and goes a little nuts, rebelling against a strict upbringing. Thanks to the fame, money and the scrutiny associated with being a star athlete, it's that template multiplied about tenfold. (That's a 2009 booking photo, above, as posted on TMZ.)
The really interesting part, though, is however horrible his parenting sounds, the film is even-handed enough that you don't come away hating Marv. And he seems genuinely mystified his son's life turned out to be as tumultuous as it was.
If you're familiar with Marinovich's story, you'll find new elements and nuance in the film. Those who have never heard of him get to meet a guy who appeared to have it all, only to tragically throw it away.
ESPN airs so much programming worshipping athletes it takes guts to take a break for documentaries such as this, which deconstruct the destructive role sports can play in young people's lives, especially when a parent runs amok and becomes the ultimate stage mother.
"The Marinovich Project" delivers all that, and then some — featuring a guy once known for his fiery on-field demeanor, who know seems to have not a lick of fight left in him.