Former NFL top draft pick Tony Mandarich chronicles journeys through drug addiction

If you watched college football and the NFL in the late 1980s and 1990s, the name Tony Mandarich probably rings a bell, and perhaps not for positive reasons.

Mandarich was a phenomenal physical specimen as an offensive tackle at Michigan State, known for manhandling defensive ends and linebackers like rag dolls.

He was the second pick in the 1989 NFL Draft by the Green Bay Packers. The expectations were immense that Mandarich would anchor the Packers offensive line for the next decade and help usher in a new chapter of success for a franchise which had seen little since its glory days of the 1960s. (For those of you who aren’t close NFL followers, this was before Brett Favre came on the scene in Green Bay.)

The image of Mandarich as a behemoth was underscored by a memorable Sports Illustrated cover tabbing him “The Incredible Bulk.” Not far beneath the surface, however, was a deepening addiction to steroids, painkillers and alcohol well-chronicled in an ESPN interview last year posted on Mandarich’s Web site.

After departing Green Bay in a haze of substance abuse, Mandarich was able to get the help he needed to turn his life and career around. Two years after being released from Green Bay – and sober – he spent three years with the Indianapolis Colts before retiring.

That might ordinarily be the end of the story, but Mandarich has reinvented himself. Last year he released “My Dirty Little Secrets – Steroids, Alcohol and God” in the middle of building a business that has no connection to his previous life on or off the field.

Mandarich his own SEO company in Scottsdale, Ariz. For the uninitiated, SEO stands for search engine optimization and generally involves building marketing and brand identification strategies on the Internet. The business venture represents Point B for Mandarich, who is coming up on a milestone from the Point A of rehabilitating himself from his addictions.

“We’re coming up now, God willing, on 15 years of sobriety on March 23rd,” Mandarich told Everyday Christian. “There’s been some distance between those days of the drinking and drugging and living a sober life, and (my family has) been very supportive.”

Understandably citing the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) as the Bible verses which resonate most clearly with him, Mandarich claims a faith he strayed away from in his early NFL days now helps stay away from the temptations of the past.

“My faith in God, or what some people call a higher power, is really the core for me. It’s the key that keeps me sober, keeps me happy and willing to learn. … I did stray away from that in my Green Bay days. I believe the fact that I did stray away from it didn’t help my drug abuse and my drinking, although I know a lot of people that go to church every Sunday who do a lot of praying that are alcoholics. I believe if I was more spiritual and more connected it wouldn’t have hurt, that’s for sure.”

The biblical precept of forgiveness is something Mandarich has clearly sought in his own life, although the writing of the book stirred emotions in some people which were still too difficult to separate from the past.

“People will always remember those struggles I had in Green Bay,” he said. “Now those things kind of rekindled with the book being out. I do feel I have been accepted by my former teammates and players. There were those three years in Indianapolis where I played sober and clean. That really did a lot of healing for me and for the fans. Of course there will always be fans who won’t forgive no matter what you do and that’s just part of life.”

He said the process of writing the book helped him more deeply appreciate the work of recovery programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous as well as his own relationship with God.

“It helped me revisit and refresh the wreckage,” he said. “It helped me look back at my life, the sober years, and realize that as long as you stay sober you’re giving yourself a chance. … I’m a living example of what can be done sober, because when I compare it to the way I lived and the lack of accomplishments and productivity I had when I was drinking and drugging, it’s a night and day difference. “

Baseball has received a great deal of scrutiny for its drug issues in recent years and is still dealing with the impact of the “Steroid Era” with chemically-enhanced sluggers pounding home runs out of parks at record rates. Mandarich knows well the allure of drugs as a way to try and get ahead in football.

“As an athlete you’re always looking for an edge,” he said. “There’s that fine line between doing it legally and doing it illegally, or that fine line between morals and ethics. What’s right for somebody may not be morally right for somebody else.

“It’s there in the NFL. I do think there are other drugs being used that aren’t detectable, so it’s always going to be prevalent. I think the NFL is doing a great job of monitoring it and getting their players help that need help instead of just punishing them and slapping them on the wrist and saying, ‘Don’t do that.’”

Mandarich said his SEO business has fared well during the recession through attrition as well as traditional client prospecting.

“We would get calls where people would say, ‘We can’t get a hold of our Internet marketing company, they’ve disappeared, the number is no longer in service.’ I’m satisfied with the level of SEO demand that keeps us growing. I think people realize every six months or year that goes by that more and more companies realize that the Internet isn’t going away and that it’s effective and does work. It’s not the only solution, but it’s part of the puzzle and in my opinion needs to be seriously considered as part of a total marketing package for any company.”

Mandarich’s name recognition doesn’t hurt business development efforts either, but he feels it works both ways.

“I still get name recognition. I believe it is (an advantage) if the client is a sports fan. If the client doesn’t care about sports or know about sports, obviously it doesn’t matter. I would say I’ve had clients or prospects where we’ve talked 45 minutes about sports or football or my career and then the last 15 minutes talk business and close the deal. … People that dislike me because of the sports career won’t even give me a chance to get in the door. In the long run, it would even out.”

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