Copyright 2011 by John T. Reed

ESPN did a documentary called the Marinovich Project. It is the life story of Todd Marinovich, a boy whose father made an extreme 18-year effort to turn his son into an NFL quarterback. His theory was if you did all the correct things mentally and physically to the boy as he was growing up, he would have a tremendous advantage over competing boys who did not start preparing to be quarterbacks until high school. He also knew that the boy had to have athletic ability as well. Not a problem. The father had been a star college and pro football player.

To quote the father, Marv Marinovich, the question he was trying to answer was,

How well could a kid develop if you provided him with the perfect environment?

Narrow success; broad failure

The short answer is that Marv was right. His son was a record setting high school quarterback, a star at USC, and had initial success in the NFL. The long answer is that Todd began using drugs, apparently when he dad switched him from a Catholic high school—Mater Dei—to a public one—Capistrano Valley High School. I am not suggesting that Catholic schools are devoid of drug users. But I think some well-run high school football programs would be better for preventing drug alcohol problems than others.

Post-game party

For example, at Miramonte High School where I coached and my son played, there was a party after each game for the coaches, principal, AD, parents, players, cheerleaders, and pom girls only. No alcohol was served even to the parents. The focus of the party was a local TV show that had footage of most local football games filmed that evening. It culminated with a new top ten ranking for the area. We were always in that top ten then. The show aired from 11PM to midnight, at which time the party was over. The varsity head coach said the purpose of the party was to prevent the players from going out around the county looking for hell to raise.

That seemed to take care of the desire of most players to go out and party after a game. We had virtually no drug or alcohol problem at that high school. The only problem was a star running back was reported to have been drinking at a non-team dance at the school. When the principal went to check on him, he ran the other way. No one in the administration ever confirmed that he had been drinking. But because he ran away, he was instantly thrown off the team. He was a senior being courted by recruiters—until then.

At another high school I coached at, the varsity head coach tried to dissuade the players from partying by making them come to the high school early Saturday morning for wind sprints and other things that are not good for people with hangovers. I was coaching freshman that year and had my passers and receivers and centers also come in on Saturday mornings to work on the passing game. After that season, I was ordered to stop doing that. I am guessing that it was because the varsity players were asking why the freshmen were doing useful, fun football stuff while the varsity was getting punished more or less. We had more drug, alcohol, and other serious misbehavior problems at that high school.

In general, I suspect private high schools, as a group, have fewer such problems than public, because they have more control over students, but you cannot assume lack of problems just because a school is private. I only attended and coached at public high schools. I did attend Catholic grade school.


Marv Marinovich and his wife got divorced when Todd was in high school. He lived with his father after the divorce. His father remarried and got divorced from his second wife later.

The “perfect environment,” to use Marv’s phrase, does not include divorce.


Marv said in the documentary that he never used tobacco or alcohol or drugs. Me neither. My father was a drunk and as a result I swore never to take the first drink because I wanted to be “vaccinated against” alcoholism. It worked.

But I taught my three sons to do the same. Only the youngest did. Lessons for Marv and me:

1. your son is not you.

2. you have to work very hard to persuade your sons that alcohol and drugs represent an extreme danger

If I had it to do over, I would have made far more efforts to provide my sons with the evidence that they should not risk alcohol. I do not know whether it would have worked, but my lesser efforts did not with two of them. I assumed they would think like me. one did. Two did not. Assumption is the mother of all screw-ups. Marv seems to have made the same mistake.

My sons have had no problems from drinking. But as I told them, never taking the first drink does prevent you from becoming an alcoholic. But taking the first drink does not turn you into an alcoholic overnight. You become an alcoholic by taking the first drink, learning the effects of alcohol over time, then suffering one of life’s normal setbacks like getting fired or divorced or a serious injury or death of a loved one and so on—and feeling entitled to get drunk because of your victimhood. Drunks are geniuses at finding excuses to get drunk.

So I do not consider my sons out of the woods yet.

My Succeeding book has a whole chapter on sobriety. Basically, it warns that although being sober will not guarantee that you succeed, but the opposite is true. That is, if you do not stay sober, nothing else matters and you are guaranteed not to succeed. And staying sober is easy. Just don’t ever take the first drink or use the first drug. The peer pressure either goes away or has no effect if you can just hold out until about age 22.

‘Just because you’re good at something does that mean you have to do it?’

That is a question Todd asks in the documentary a couple of times. It is a question I addressed in my book Succeeding, which Marinovich and his father should have read (although the first edition did not come out until 2003—Marinovich was born in 1969).

I have a chapter on talent in the book. Indeed, I have a unique definition of it:

Talent is something you can do almost effortlessly, others cannot do no matter how hard they try, and you are mystified as to why they cannot do it.

I happen to have a few talents. Don’t know why.

• I studied French, Spanish, German, and Russian—at the same time—and got all A+s in middle school, high school and college in foreign languages. At West Point, if I got just one question wrong on a test, it lowered my grade point average because I got none wrong on most of my tests. In Vietnam, I took an optional evening class in Vietnamese. A Vietnamese woman at a base where I was stationed there said I was one of only two Americans at that base who could speak Vietnamese and that I was the better speaker of it. I learned a little Japanese from a fellow cast member of Up With People. He was a native of Japan. I once asked another Japanese what her name was in Japanese. Another Japanese woman who had her back turned to me when I did it turned around to see what Japanese man had suddenly joined the group. She said my accent was so perfect she thought I was also a Japanese native until she looked. I was with Up With People for about three weeks.

• I can mimic voices, sort of like a poor man’s Rich Little, which helped me get A’s in foreign languages.

• I can cut on an athletic field. So can my oldest and youngest sons. My oldest was star tailback on his undefeated high school varsity team and was an Ivy League tailback at Columbia. My youngest was smaller but managed to gain the most yards and score the most touchdowns per carry on his high school JV team. None of us have any idea how we do it. All three of us were asked by teammates how we do it. As a football coach, I devised an elusiveness test. Turns out only about 5% of those who try out for a high school freshman football team can cut. Right after my son graduated from college, and about six months after he played in his last collegiate football game, he and I visited the NCAA football Hall of Fame in South Bend. They had a device there that tested how fast you could move your feet—a football skill. I beat my son on it. I was 57 at the time.

• I was the class artist in elementary school, assigned to draw holiday drawings on the blackboard and so forth. In kindergarten, teacher said to draw a duck. I did. It looked just like a rubber ducky. The other kids’ attempts all looked like Rorschach ink blots. I remember wondering why the heck they did that instead of drawing a duck. My youngest son was the same: class artist in elementary school.

‘…if you choose’

So, does that mean I make my living from those talents? No. None of them. In Succeeding I said only that you should identify any talents you have and

…if you choose, make the most of it.

That is a far cry from the widespread belief that you MUST take full advantage of any talent you have.

I would die of boredom if I had to make a living from my foreign language abilities. Plus, however talented I am, emigres from other countries who have learned English can still run circles around me language-wise.

I lost interest in the artist stuff. So did my son. I have been considering taking a cartooning course to see if there is anything still there.

Although I was better than the kids in my neighborhood at cutting, the guys who make money or even just get scholarships for their ability to cut can do it far better than I and they are also bigger and faster.

So the answer to Todd’s question do you have to do something just because you’re good at it is “No.”

Furthermore, that is also the answer to the question, if your dad was an NFL player, and he is willing to devote his life to making you a great football player, do you have to take advantage of that unique and, to many, extremely desirable situation?

Also “No.” Although resources like that should be taken into account when resolving two choices that are close calls.

The correct approach to life is to first learn who you are in great detail. In the documentary, Todd lamented that he did not know who he was even after the NFL. After you have identified your strengths and weaknesses very broadly, as well as your likes and dislikes, you use that knowledge to select a goal and the approaches you will use to achieve that goal. They all have to fit together.

You will be most likely to succeed and to enjoy your success, if you do fabulous job of matching who you are to the career opportunity that fits you best.

That is what Marv and Todd should have been doing. Turning Todd into the world’s greatest NFL quarterback was quite inappropriate because it was based almost entirely on Marv’s desires and likes and dislikes and ignored the possibility that Todd, however well suited for it athletically, might not be suited to it mentally or in terms of his likes and dislikes. Marv also ignored the possibility that Todd might be well suited for football, but even better suited for something else like water polo or medicine or art (the college major of both of them). Marv was making a mistake called confirmation bias where he only looked for confirmation that his original theory was correct. You must also consciously test to see if there are indications that you are wrong.


Family is paramount. The mom is in the documentary a great deal and it sounded like the divorce stemmed from disagreements about how to raise Todd. It sounded like Marv made his plan for Todd, not the family, paramount. That is an absolute no-no.


Another big point my Succeeding book makes is you have to live a balanced life. That means both that you do not want to be all quarterback all the time because it hurts the rest of your life like your family and mental health but also that balance must be achieved overall in order to succeed at quarterbacking or anything else.

I cited the British movie Red Shoes about a woman whose single-minded compulsion to become a top ballerina prevents her from having a balanced life. The phrase “red shoes” refers to the blood in her ballet slippers from practicing too much.

But, some will say, the kid with the red shoes will win the competition for quarterback or whatever so my kid has to do that. You’re missing the point. If that is what it takes to win the competition, the position should be wiped off your goal list. Nothing is worth that sort of lack of balance and risk of mental and/or physical injury

Need balance to succeed

I also described my son’s football career in detail proving that you do not become a football star by football alone. I listed each year my son played in youth, high school, and college. There was always a better, faster kid than my son on his teams. So how did he become the starter? I tick off the better kids one by one and the reasons they fell by the wayside:

• parents got divorced and kid went off the rails
• academically ineligible
• coach nepotism favoring his own son
• star became an attitude case fighting with the coaches
• star relied totally on talent and would not follow instructions or study assignments
• poor work ethic
• coach misevaluated the relative performances of my son and the star
• substance abuse (high school)
• trouble with the law
• lack of parental support (not a problem for Marinovich)

The lessons I teach off that history in Succeeding are

Life is a marathon, not a sprint.

You have to be patient and hang in there.

Life is a decathlon, not a sprint.

Just being good at one thing, like quarterbacking, won’t lead to success, even at quarterbacking. You have to also be excellent at academics, staying sober, citizenship, and so on. Marv did impart several skills and habits to Todd in addition to quarterbacking—like weight and aerobic training, diet, mental drills, but he failed with regard to Todd’s social life, sobriety, citizenship, hanging with the wrong crowd, stable family life.

Thanks for being good parents

When our son Dan came home from his Ivy League college for the first time at Christmas of his freshman year, he made a point of thanking us for being good parents. “What brings that on?” we asked. At college, in the freshman dorm and with football teammates, he had listened to classmates talking about their screwed-up family lives and parents, and he had watched kids spin out of control when confronted with the lack of rules enforcement in college. Some of his teammates had flunked off the team and out of the college during their first semester because of too much partying.

One of my goals in life as a dad was to avoid my father’s drunkenness and the resulting moving around always being the new kid in school because my father could not hold a job. Indeed, the longest I ever lived in one town in my life before I was 41 years old was the four years I spent at West Point. I wanted my kids to live in one house their whole lives and be a member of the same class of kids all through K-12.

Mission accomplished. We moved into our current home, which we had custom built, in 1983 when my oldest son was two. He does not remember the prior house he lived in. This house is the only one our sons have ever known and they all came to back to live in it briefly after college. We also intend to keep it as an actual as well as psychological safety net as long as we live. They can take a little more risk in life than an orphan or broken family child because they can always move back into our five-bedroom home.

I must add that Dan did not have as good a college football career as he did in youth and high school. He made starting tailback the first game of his senior year. He broke his hand in the first half of that game, but the team doctor said it was just a bruise, so he stayed in. At the end of the game, Dan caught the pass and gained the first down and got out of bounds to stop the clock to set up the game-winning field. Then he never started again because they gave the position to an underclassman while Dan’s hand was healing. That was the only game his team won that year. The head coach got fired. For great detail on all that see my article www.johnteed/matsdad.html.

Before you tsk tsk at Marv…

It is common for parents to put Marv down for what he did with Todd.

But have you noticed that what Marv did also led to the Marvization of athlete fathers across the nation?

Ever hear of Earl Woods? Tiger’s father? And did you notice that Tiger, who was tightly controlled by his father even in college felt he had been deprived of an adequate dating life? And that as a result, he cheated on his wife, got divorced, and felt apart golf-wise as a result.

By the way, I also felt deprived of a dating life in college, not because of my father, rather, because I was a West Point cadet. West Point was all male then and it is in the woods and mountains of upstate New York far from civilization. How we dealt with that successfully, by creating The System, is in the second longest chapter of Succeeding. I met my wife of 36 years, and co-“good parent” of Dan and our other two sons through The System.

Ever hear of the Williams sisters, the tennis champs? Their father Richard did a Marv-like focus on them, but he also pulled them out of all tournaments when they were young for a number of years so they could focus on schoolwork and other balance.

There have been a number of famous fathers and mothers with regard to managing their child to superstardom in sports or performing arts or academics (many Asian parents). They did not all turn out like Todd but many, like Tiger Woods, ended up revealing the dangers of inadequate balance.

Now let me talk about the less famous Marvs. I coached 35 athletic teams—about 900 kids, and thereby came in contact with about 1,500 parents. My sons also played football, baseball, track, and swimming, so we saw a lot of other kids and parents as well. There are Marvs Lite on every youth team.

Redshirt or be redshirted upon

One Marv-like trick is one I recommend you consider in my Succeeding book. That is, redshirting your kid in kindergarten. That means having him go to kindergarten at age 6 not 5. That, in turn, will mean he will be a year older than most kids through high school and college. I considered that when Dan was 5, but then scolded myself for even thinking of such a thing. Then, years later in high school and college, I watched my son struggling to compete with boys a year older than he in high school and college sports.

I really screwed up not redshirting Dan in kindergarten. I am not saying you should always do that. But Dan and I and Todd were all born around July 1st. That is a lousy birth date for youth sports. See the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell for how important that can be. Todd Marinovich was apparently redshirted in kindergarten by Marv. His ages in high school and college were always a year older than normal.

I entered West Point at age 17. Dan was 14 as a high school freshman, 18 as a college freshman, and he went to a college where redshirting for athletics was not allowed (Ivy League does not allow redshirts except for medical reasons). That was a substantial handicap. Read more about that in Succeeding, also whether you should do it with a daughter or non-athletic son.

Year-round single sport

There are zillions of kids today only playing one sport year round. That is Marv-like and wrong. The American Medical Association has recommended against it for kids 12 and under. They say it leads to child labor era over-use permanent injuries and also to mental burnout. Todd’s football career appears to have ended in mental burnout. My sons’s swimming coach burned out on the Olympic swimming track at about age 14.

I further think the AMA limited the recommendation to age 12 for political, not medical reasons. I think the medicine of it says that no one who is still growing should play one sport year round. There are growth plates a the end of your bones when you are still growing. If you over use the joint, you permanently and incurably damage that plate and bone.

Zillions of amateur Marvs

If you ask around among youth and high school coaches you will find a zillion fathers today are amateur Marvs. I think much of it is actually good for the kid and the parent and the family. But moderation in all things. Marv had no concept of moderation.

My oldest son went to several baseball and football camps. He was in a couple of speed-building programs in high school and college. But he did not lift weights much in high school. The Miramonte coach was not big on weight training or off-season conditioning. Dan’s team was undefeated and ranked second in CA his senior year so moderation in conditioning can be successful over Bataan Death March conditioning football programs, which are very common. Dan was a coach’s son—the good kind who has a coach’s perspective. At one point in college his coaches called him “Coach Reed” because his questions were coach-like not player like.

Some coach’s sons are pains in the ass because they are used to being protected by nepotism. For Dan and my youngest son Mike, football has been something we love and do together and it brought us closer as parent and sons. But Marv’s overdoing it seemed to drive him and Todd apart for many years. And I note that my youngest son Mike is more of a fan than a player. He was an equipment manager at U. of Arizona football team for six years (full tuition scholarship, stipend, and per diem for that, folks—he is the only one of our sons who has no college debt and for whom his parents have no college debt). Our middle son Steve likes individual sports like gymnastics and horseback riding but not team sports. He is neither a fan nor an athlete today. And he dropped out of youth baseball and football after one season with my blessing. Not his thing. Mike liked playing, but was not as big or as fast (almost) as Dan.

My own playing career in high school was far less than it would have been because my father was at the opposite end of the spectrum from Marv—as most fathers were in the 1960s. If I had a father like me, I probably would have started on defense in high school and maybe made all-league and possibly made the team at a D-III college with high academic standards.

If my son Dan had an average father with regard to football, he probably would not have been as big a star in high school and probably would not have played college football. He had the ability, but a certain amount of informed adult management is required nowadays.

My wife and I have great relationships today with all our sons and that is in part because we did not push any of them as hard as Marv did Todd in any area of life. That is not to say we did not push at all. My rule was you can pretty much do your own thing except with regard to education, health, safety, and the rights of other people. When my sons strayed a little in any of those areas, I came down on them like a ton of bricks. We yanked one out of high school, canceled his drivers license and car insurance, made him home school, and prohibited him from spending any time with his friends unless I or his mom was present. One semester of that cured him.

‘No good at math’

Dan was a good math student then when he changed schools to one with a different sequence for teaching algebra, I got a call that he was flunking it. Dan explained, “I’m no good at math.” “Bullshit!‚” I said. I went ballistic and purchased and forced him to study 30 minutes a day algebra computer games that taught you. That was in seventh grade. In eighth grade, he and one girl from his middle school were allowed to walk to the nearby high school every day to take a 10th grade geometry course. Freshman year of high school, Dan took an algebra II-trigonometry honors course normally only for juniors. Sophomore year, he took Calculus AB and got a 4 on the AP test of it. Junior year he took Calculus B-C and got a 5 on the AP test for it.5 is the highest possible score on an AP test. A score of 4 or 5 generally lets you get college credit or at least advanced placement when you go to college. Furthermore, a score of 5 on the B-C test automatically raises your prior score of 4 on the A-B test to 5. Senior year he had to take probability and statistics by Internet because he had exhausted all the math at Miramonte High School, one of the top academic high schools in the San Francisco area.

“No good at math” my ass!

So I am not Marv, but I am a West Point graduate and there will be no “not good at math” or other misbehavior in my house.

Avoid the extremes

We know two families whose sons who were about my son Dan’s age. Both committed suicide as teenagers by shooting themselves in the head with their father’s gun. One father was the most lenient parent I ever met. The other parent couple were among the most strict I ever met and they were Marv-like, albeit in a balanced well-rounded way—like the mom sitting in on classes at multiple high schools before deciding which to enroll the kids in. That couple also had a daughter who turned out great. Each of your children is unique and requires a unique approach.

My three sons are all college grads. Dan works for a computer marketing firm, is married and has a daughter and owns a home at age 30. Steve is the assistant for a top Hollywood talent agent at age 27. And Mike, 24, is working for me while taking courses to add a computer engineering major to his business management bachelors degree. None are into drugs or abusing alcohol. All three of my sons were on the Dean’s List freshman year and got good student car insurance discounts throughout college.

I do not know the formula for correct parenting, but it appears to be a Goldilocks/moderation deal. Pushing too hard is wrong. But so is not pushing at all. You have to push “just right” and what that is varies according to the subject matter of the problem and individual kid.

Marv pushed too hard and his push was not broad or balanced enough. He did not spend enough time finding out who Todd was as a unique individual or letting Todd figure that out. You have to come at it from both angles not just the father deciding who Todd is. And Marv did not consider goals other than NFL QB.

I do not let Todd off the hook. He did a horseshit job of becoming a man. I am not sure he is there yet. Marv did set an excellent example other than the NFL QB push. Todd should have followed it. On the other hand, Todd was pushed and pulled not only by Marv but also by the media, college coaches, pro coaches, fans, status-seeking “friends.” A lot for a teenager or twenty-something to handle. Todd needed to do what our sons’ swimming instructor did or what the Williams sisters’ father did. Step back and answer the question, is this really what I want to do?

John T. Reed

A reader sent me this Wikipehdia definition:

Bad boundaries: Narcissists do not recognize that they have boundaries and that others are separate and are not extensions of themselves. Others either exist to meet their needs or may as well not exist at all. Those who provide narcissistic supply to the narcissist are treated as if they are part of the narcissist and are expected to live up to those expectations. In the mind of a narcissist there is no boundary between self and other.