Tony Mandarich: Setting the Record Straight

Kristin HamlinSenior Analyst IJanuary 22, 2009


March 23, 2009, is going to be a very iconic day for Tony Mandarich. Not only does it coincide with his 20th anniversary of being the No. 2 NFL draft pick, but it will also mark the release of his tell-all book, My Dirty Little Secrets.

Tony was kind enough to send me an advanced copy, and I must admit—there are some really juicy secrets in it. It is a book in which honesty takes over, and you can tell that his main goal is to reach out to those who have been in similar situations.
I had asked to meet with Tony to interview him and he kindly obliged.
I am glad he gave me the opportunity. After all the nasty things I had written about him in a previous article, he was still willing to share his point of view.
As I sat down, I noticed he looked so tired. That’s when it hit me that this man had already been through numerous interviews—including Inside the NFL—continuously discussing his life struggles as well as the truths, fears, failures, and battles that he endured during his football career and throughout his life.

Yet, here he was giving some online blogger—whom he had never even heard of—a chance to hear what he had to say.
Before now, I had judged him. I had committed the cardinal sin—judging a book by its cover.
Sure, it’s pretty easy to judge someone when you have never walked in their shoes. It’s pretty easy to be disappointed in someone that fails us, when we had expected so much more out of him or her. It’s so easy to write an article—bashing a player—knowing that we're not the ones who have to worry about reading it, or worse, worrying that our children will read it—wondering if they too will believe what it says.
It's so easy to sit on the sidelines and blend in with all the others, isn't it? 
I would like to say this experience has made me look at the full story, rather than just what the media hypes things up to be.
I would like to think that this has made me a better writer.

As I said earlier, Tony looked beat. Tired as he may have been, he still gave me two full hours of uninterrupted talk. He held back little and answered each question as if hearing them for the first time.

I started off with light question in an effort to express that I was truly interested in getting to know him as a person. Getting a great article is a good thing, but it is not the most important thing to me. I genuinely wanted to hear his side of the story.


Tony, why this tell all book now?

Honestly, I tried to come out with a book about 10 years ago and no one was really biting. I took it as a sign and thought that maybe this wasn’t a good idea. About five years went by and I got inspired to write again, but I was having no luck with the "big wigs" at the publishing companies.

That’s when my editor, Sharon Shaw Elrod, decided to just let me tell my story and she would write everything down and create a book from my words. I will try and get the word out there as much as possible, but even if one person reads it and it helps them, I’ve done my job.


A lot of people don’t know about why you truly were the No. 2 NFL draft bust and the real reasoning behind it. I think it’s a safe assumption that readers of your book will be shocked and maybe a little bit more understanding of what you went through.

You can only hear rumors for so long, before you want the truth out. I didn’t write this book to change my fans or anyone’s mind about me. I didn’t write this book for money. I wrote it to help people. I’ve already had a few people call me in response to the book, thanking me, and that makes all the difference in the world.


I think it’s safe to say that the fans of football will definitely have a lot of their questions answered as to why you played the way you did in GB.

I think so too. But again, I wrote this to help people. Everything else will just be a bonus.


A lot of people always connect you with steroids and add that as to why you failed to produce in the NFL.

That’s the thing. I didn’t touch steroids in the NFL. I did them at MSU, and I explain all that in the book, but the problem wasn’t steroid use. The problem was I was addicted to painkillers and alcohol.


Describe your addiction so my readers can get a better understanding as to how brutal this really was.

In April of 1989, I went from my first injection of painkillers to five or six a day within a week. That continued every day for the next three years... On top of that, I was taking another painkiller called Fiorinal No. 3. I was taking up to 60-80 pills a day! I literally only showered once every five to six days, because showering was that much of an effort.

My wife at the time was also an addict and we would get high together. We had a daughter together and were high for the first four years of her life. There was a moment, a look in her eyes one night, when I knew I had to get help. I entered rehab four months later.


Wow! It’s so great that you sought help before it was too late. Have you ever had a drink or a drug again?

I will be 14 years sober on March 23, 2009. Not a touch of alcohol, nothing.


That is a great accomplishment! Congratulations. Have you ever reached out to any players who are playing now that you feel are in a situation similar to yours?

I have reached out to “Pacman” Jones. I have also received calls from college players in Texas and Illinois who are a wreck, and I have given them advice and helped them out as much as I could. Like I said earlier, if it helps one person get sober, then it was worth it.


A lot of people don’t realize you ended up coming back to play football after you had been sober for two and a half years, and that you actually played pretty well.

That’s where I like the whole story thing. I understand I am believed to be the No. 2 draft bust, and I didn’t play up to the expectations at GB. I don’t think anyone could have measured up to the hype that was built up for me. A lot of that was my fault and my attitude back then.

However, in Indy, what most people don’t know, is that my first year back, I received the second most votes for the Comeback Player of the Year Award, right behind Jerome Bettis. I also received the Comeback Player of the Year Award from the Colts, which to be honest, is still is one of the only awards I cherish and am incredibly proud of.


That is pretty awesome. Have you ever wanted to become involved in football again, like coaching?

No. Coaches work very long hours and work harder than most will ever know. I have found my calling in photography. I still love football and watching it, but I am where I am supposed to be.


Are there any players now that remind you of yourself?

Hmmmm. I would say Kerry Collins. He struggled early on too, and has always seemed to have a good attitude about things. I like the way he carries himself in interviews and on the field.


Who is the toughest player you personally have ever played against?

Most would probably think I am going to say Reggie White. Truth is, Howie Long is probably the toughest player I have played against, with Reggie in close second.


Is there anyone you really admire in the NFL?

Peyton Manning is a pretty good guy. He is as competitive of a player that I have ever seen.


What is your opinion on Ryan Leaf, seeing how is always the No. 1 biggest draft bust?

Grateful. (laughs). At least someone finally came before me!


In your book, you talk about losing your brother to cancer while you were high. 
How are you with it now?

Well I didn’t really deal with the aftermath until I was sober, which made it very difficult. My brother is the one that taught me the game of football and was my mentor throughout my life growing up.


You talk about your brother a lot in the book, so I won’t give too much away. I would like to know though, when is the last time you saw a raven?

About two days ago, on the hood of my car. (You need to read his book to understand the meaning behind this question)


Is there one incident that really stands out to you, when you came back to play football and you were actually sober?

Yes. I remember my first game with the Colts, there we were listening to the National Anthem and I was absolutely moved hearing it. I actually had goosebumps. When I was high all the time, I never was able to enjoy things like that like that or really care about anything.

Being in that moment, back in a football uniform, knowing I came back and achieved my goals, was one of the most surreal moments in my life.


Alright, Tony. Let’s play a game called word association. I say a name of someone, and you give me ONE word as to what your thoughts are.

Tony: (rolls eyes). OK


Jim Irsay: Heart of Gold

Mike Holmgren: Walrus

Brett Favre: Tough

Lance Armstrong: Perseverance

Jose Canseco: Asshole (we both chuckle)


Well said. Is there anything you would like to say to conclude this article?

Just that I encourage writers who are writing a story on an athlete, to do all your homework and not just the “kicking them when they’re down” method. It is an incomplete story to say I failed in GB and didn’t amount into anything, because of my comeback to Indianapolis. It is also an incomplete story if you were only to write about my comeback and not talk about my past in GB.


Thank you Tony, for taking the time to meet with you. I sincerely appreciate it.

My pleasure. Looking forward on reading the article.
Tony Mandarich didn’t become the greatest NFL Offensive Lineman. He played poorly in GB and almost lost his life to the addiction of painkillers. He set aside his pride and admitted himself into rehab to face one of the longest journeys of his life. He came back to play in the NFL, completely sober, therefore completely vulnerable to the critics and the discouraging words said about his return.
I can only imagine having to face scrutiny without being able to go home and have a drink to cover up the hurt, even if it were just a glass of wine. He was making amends with his biggest critic and that’s what was important. He was making amends with himself.
He wanted to come back into the NFL, make a name for himself, and not go out as the “guy who screwed it all up.” I think it’s safe to say he did that.

As Indianapolis Colts owner, Jim Irsay said, “There are many aspects of Tony’s story that will interest you. Most of us can only dream of being so blessed with such physical skills and dominance to play the game of football at such a high level as Tony did.”
Maybe the lesson here is to not just focus on the fact that Tony Mandarich failed to deliver a blockbuster performance in Green Bay. Maybe we should all focus on the fact that this man's life was saved because he didn’t take the easy way out. He fought his way through an addiction, and here he is—14 years sober—enjoying his family and his life.
As I walked out of his office, I passed by his wife who was sitting at another desk.  I thought to myself about how beautiful she was and how happy they both had seemed with one another. I had spoken with her briefly before the interview and listened to her rave about her husband and their four children.

Seems to me that she thought she had it all in him. I am venturing to guess that her opinion matters more than what anyone else thinks of him.

You can see how she feels about him in her eyes.
She believes in him.


***To pre-order “My Dirty Little Secrets – Steroids, Alcohol and God – The Tony Mandarich Story,” visit


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