The Ability to Change: Seeking Alternative Meanings of Masculinity, Fathers, Sons, and Football through “The Marinovich Project”

American Football has never been more popular among U.S. sports fans. One might argue that the nation’s obsession with the sport borders on addiction. Fans follow the fortunes of their teams year round (and round the clock). NBC’s Sunday Night Football is the most-watched television program in the country. And with the help of carefully constructed sport media representations, viewers place their dreams in the quarterback’s hands. It is as if the National Football League (NFL) quarterback owes something to himself, his teammates, coaches, organization, and the city and state he “represents” more than the other 52 players in the locker room. The media sport-spectating public entrust him with an incredible, symbolic, and delicate responsibility. The quarterback is the heroic vessel of football drama, but as often is the goat of its outcome.

If the team wins, he is wise to humbly share the glow of victory. If they lose, he should accept full responsibility for the team’s failures and vow to do better next time. When the team wins, he is a winner; when they lose, he is a loser. Glorified or vilified, idolized or dehumanized, the quarterback is central to the game. Although, such a binary construction of the quarterback fails to cohere in most cases. Some days are good and others not. One year, he leads the team far into the playoffs, so they say, while the next he is benched. A career ebbs and flows with met and unmet potential. Fortunes change quickly; coaches, fans, and club owners are impatient. But not all quarterbacks are created equally. Some enter the league with higher expectations. Some cannot escape the shadows of a legacy built before they were born. Others have the fairy tale written for them, if only they can play the part.

In ESPN Films’ The Marinovich Project, directors John Dorsey and Andrew Stephan examine the story of one such individual cast in the role of a quarterback since childhood. The “project” is seemingly straightforward. Marv Marinovich sought to mold his son, Todd, into the perfect physical embodiment of a quarterback. The film’s title, however, misleadingly aligns with the legend the directors seek to dismantle. In the prologue to the documentary, Dorsey and Stephan claim to be after the “real” people behind the myth of Marv and Todd Marinovich. As the “preferred” reading of the story goes, Marv plays the part of the sick and deranged father, ruining Todd by pushing him to be something he never wanted. In turn, Todd rejects and hates his father while blaming him for his failures. The overarching “project,” however, is not reducible to this simple formula. Actually, there are several projects, such as Todd’s recovery from drug addiction, Marv and Todd’s reconciliation, and both of their journeys for self-realization and self-actualization. With a careful viewing, these projects lose their regimented and ordered “redemption” composition, and instead blend into larger patterns exploring topics as ambiguous, complex, and nuanced as the story’s filial characters.

Credit the directors for delving into the uncomfortable, gray area of Todd and Marv’s relationship. Like a tie in a football game, they unsettle nice and neat conclusions one may wish to form about who is right or wrong, or who won and who lost. The notion that Dorsey and Stephan can reconstruct the “real” people behind this story, however, is as doomed to fail as Marv’s desire to contour Todd, from his birth, into a football player. Even with Marv and Todd providing their versions of the “truth,” alongside interviews with family members, friends, and former teammates, at best, the directors can offer incomplete and partial fragments. More pointedly, as viewers, we can use this particular father-son narrative to raise questions that mainstream sport media narratives do not usually ask in a critical fashion.

The documentary frames Marv’s motivation to craft Todd into a “perfect” athlete as a redemption project for his own failed past. Perfection – the pressure-filled and expectation-laden striving for it – is a noteworthy theme of the documentary. But is there such a thing as “perfection” in life, and if so, what shape and form does it take? Similarly, how do we define talent and its purpose? What are the directions and aims of our various passions? The directors employ Todd’s eloquent reflection, “If you’re good at something, does that mean you were meant to do it?” to frame another perspective on this question. In this essay, I explore the entanglements between societal expectations and personal longings, and interpret the imagery, language, and metaphorical devices employed in the film that construct the relationship between Todd and Marv as a love story that offers lessons about forgiveness and reconciliation.

Todd was robbed of a “normal” childhood innocence as it has come to be defined according to white, middle-class, heteronormative standards. His free time as a youth was devoted to training. Marv pushed him hard toward perfection in practices and games, and would become manipulative and upset if Todd failed to perform up to his expectations. Marv rationalizes impossible standards for Todd by claiming he had given him the perfect environment and therefore expected perfect results. At times, he would publically humiliate Todd by forcing him to run miles home after practice if he felt his son faltered. Todd proclaimed that this was not physical punishment since he was conditioned for intense exertion, but rather a type of mental and emotional trauma. “I was scared to express how I felt,” he states, “the presence, the way he carried himself was intimidating.” Todd and the documentary construct a narrative in which Todd sought the freedom to escape his father’s wishes, but initially thought only his father could judge or release him.

The ambiguities of their relationship begin to take shape amid Todd’s turn to marijuana as an outlet in high school, which later became an addiction to heroin and cocaine. In a poignant moment, Marv admits after his son’s first arrest for the possession of drugs that maybe things were “too structured” for Todd growing up. Marv realizes his son is not entirely to blame, while Todd also remarks that he does not fault his father alone for his adversities. Rather, Todd eventually reaches a moment of clarity through which he asserts that he was hurting himself the most. Although Todd has been depicted mostly alone, as if to suggest the life of a recluse and castoff without a friend in the world, certain elements of the film indicate that Todd and Marv are close, and ultimately connected, kindred spirits.

One such mechanism is through the reference to eyes. In a structural anomaly of the film, only twice does the interviewer audibly interject with questions for the interviewee. The first of these instances occurs when a voice off-screen asks Todd what was intense about his life growing up. Todd quickly rejoinders that his family life was intense, then pauses and asks, “Yeah, have you looked in Marv’s eyes?” before laughing knowingly. Later, an ex-teammate of Todd’s from USC references Todd’s eyes as proof of his intensity and competitive fire. Both Todd and Marv are established as intense, vicious athletes on the field. The eyes, however, also link father and son off the field.

After Todd won one of his first NFL games, Marv finally gave his son his blessing. He told Todd that he had exceeded his wildest expectations, and that he was proud of him. Todd reflected upon this moment, stating “I had done what I wanted to do. Please the old man. I had accomplished all I wanted to in football. I was done.” During this interaction, Marv recalled how they looked in each other’s eyes and described the tender moment as emotional.

Todd and Marv also refer to a particularly memorable college football game using the same terms. Of the rivalry between USC and UCLA, Todd says “special things happen in big games,” while Marv simply states “UCLA is a special game.” In this contest, Todd threw a touchdown to win the game with only seconds left on the clock. Reflecting another theme, Marv beamed, “It was perfect,” while Todd affirms his father’s position, avowing “things never got any better” than that at USC. Moments such as these are significant because the two individuals on-screen are physically separate; only images from the past show father and son together until near the end of the film.

Repeatedly throughout the film, Todd explains how he was physically mature, but not mentally or emotionally prepared to handle life during and after college. In the latter part of Marv and Todd’s lives, their reconciliation will take place by leaving the physical behind. Ironically, using terms that often describe training methods and objectives, Todd claims his relationship with his father has “continued to evolve and get stronger.”

Despite this physical separation, art is a thread that holds Marv and Todd together. Todd claims he obtained his creative and artistic side from his father, who was an art major at USC. Indeed, Todd also became a quarterback and art major at USC. Even though it appears the two may be estranged up until the film’s denouement, these parallel connections between Todd and Marv foreshadow their (re)unification. Unlike Todd, however, who turned to art, music, and had to overcome a drug addiction to expel the trappings of the media’s pedestal and self-doubt, Marv is shown to have single-mindedly pursued the goal of a career in football his entire life.

Despite these tensions and a fraught narrative, the relationship between Todd and Marv can be interpreted as a counter-narrative, father-son love story. Todd suggests that he somewhat pities his father, who was conditioned into the dominate-and-conquer “jock” mentality of American masculinity. Todd, though, refuses to allow a dog-eat-dog, man-eat-man mantra define his life as he proclaims, “What our societies, cultures and families tell us to be important, I want to find out for myself.” To support this claim, the filmmakers provide imagery of him as a loner surfing and swimming, reflecting on beaches and skateboarding through city streets.

Both Marv and Todd were constructed by the mainstream sport media as “freaks,” the former a mad scientist and the latter an engineered, manufactured athletic machine. By high school, Todd had developed a national reputation as the “Robo QB,” amplified by the media and playing off of the popular 1987 science fiction action film RoboCop. Dorsey and Stephan, however, have attempted to humanize these characters, making them more “real” by presenting them as inseparable from their flaws and redeeming qualities.

The opening image of the film gives audiences a face-to-face view of Todd through Plexiglas, as he creates an impressionist-style painting of a human being in the shape of a football player with a triangular upper body. The player is outlined bold in black, with a smear of vibrant colors across his chest and torso. An unclosed circle acts as a target near where his heart would be. The painting is raw, emotional, and intense. Much later, the viewer learns that this work of art is called “Alchemist.” Juxtaposed and interspersed with images of Todd’s painting are a series of audio and visual clips from home movies and televised spots featuring Todd as a young athlete. We are shown how Marv ran Todd through training and exercise methods basically from birth. He was running with his dad by the age of four and could run ten miles easily by ten years old. Impersonal announcers tell us “this boy was born and bred to be a QB,” he is the “perfect quarterback,” and alternatively is the “bionic kid.” Through reconciliation, The Marinovich Project most forcefully emerges as a love story about the transformation of a father-son relationship from that of coach and player to friends and equals.

The reconciliation is foreshadowed when an unseen interviewer audibly interjects for only the second time in the film. By this point in the documentary, Todd is no longer entirely a loner as we have been introduced to his wife Alix and the knowledge that they have started a family. From his home, Marv states that he has “been there for [his] son through dark times, and [he’ll] continue to be there for him.” The interviewer asks him why, and he tearfully responds, “because I love him.” Notably, this remark is situated immediately following Todd’s admission to relapsing just before the birth of his and Alix’s son, Baron. Alix, however, forgave Todd and the implication is that Todd has forgiven Marv for his upbringing.

The shape and form of love is a question thrown into relief by the documentary. One form love takes in Todd and Marv’s story is a reciprocity of care when the other is at his lowest, or worst. Todd admits, “Marv was there to love me when I didn’t love myself,” and in turn, posits that he feels his father is now alone which is something he is not “comfortable with.” Their relationship has taken on a decidedly different tone. Any tension between the two seems to have subsided as they view each other as equals. “I couldn’t ask for a better relationship,” Todd says, “He’s more of a friend today than anything. He’s an open book.” Here, love for Todd seems to be about the process of sharing, and knowing a person as well as possible.

The Marinovich Project’s  final scenes show father and son reunited at an art gallery featuring some of Todd’s work, and the camera pans to show smiling and happy faces mingling, with key figures in their lives present. We overhear but do not see Todd talking to someone, proudly. In an upbeat and sunny voice like a child, he declares, “me and my dad did that together,” as he describes a joint project called “Sculpture,” a tree element made of mahogany. Todd asserts that he is grateful his father introduced him to sports. In the last line of the film, Todd claims he intends to “do the same with my son,” as the camera tilts down to show Baron in his father’s hands, in the crowd at a USC football game.

Directors Dorsey and Stephan present Marv and Todd as complex but familiar individuals despite how the two have been portrayed in black and white terms as “evil” (Marv) and a “loser” (Todd). As a gifted quarterback in the national spotlight, Todd resented how random strangers gave him looks of disgust for supposedly throwing such an opportunity, as he put it, down “the toilet.” The reference to a toilet is significant. While the stranger admonishes Todd for throwing his “talent” into the toilet, in the documentary we see Todd literally plunge his body into the ocean. The wide expanse is a metaphor for the simultaneous power and insignificance of a single human life. Everyone, Todd feels, should be free from societal constraints, cultural restrictions, and family expectations to define who they want to be. For the consumer, Todd’s talent has the potential to be productive or wasteful; but ultimately, it is a commodity. For Todd, talent does not necessarily define him, but is an ongoing journey, as broad and deep as the ocean.

Just as the titles of Todd’s artwork, “Alchemist,” and “Sculpture,” are significant for their reference to the idea of transforming some material into something else, the song playing during the final credits offers alternative perspectives on Todd and Marv Marinovich. “Amazing,” by The Forster Family, is a warm, mellow tune driven by an acoustic guitar and beautiful melody. The lyrics softly narrate, “people try and tell me I’m a loner. . . don’t think I’m alone when I’m with you. . . People want to act like I’m the only soul whose ever had a problem. You always helped me solve ‘em.” The word soul here is especially critical. Todd has been described as a robot, a savior, and godlike. Marv, on the other hand, as an animal or a monster.

This song reclaims their humanity. It suggests that to be human is to fail, struggle, change, and struggle again. And that love is to be together with a friend to see you through. Earlier in the film a journalist claimed that Todd and Marv present a “larger than life story.” Perhaps to the contrary, as the visual juxtaposed with this statement is a high angle shot from the top of an empty stadium, peering down at two tiny figures playing catch.

Dain TePoel is a PhD Candidate in the Department of American Studies at the University of Iowa. 

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