But Mandarich wasn't going to play any position with authority until he at least got his strength back. He says the team doctors were lackadaisical in their attempts to determine why he remained so sluggish, so he demanded to be tested for mononucleosis and AIDS. He says both tests came up negative, but he remained concerned about his condition. Then on Aug. 8, in the third quarter of Green Bay's first preseason game, Mandarich suffered what was thought to be a mild concussion when he and Kansas City Chief defensive end Brent White banged helmets as they fell to the ground. Four days later, while Mandarich was attending a Packer offense meeting, the headaches and dizziness he'd suffered since the collision became so unbearable that he whispered to linemate Ron Hallstrom, "You've got to drive me to the hospital now, or I'm going to pass out."
According to Mandarich, a neurologist at the hospital said that he had suffered a moderate to severe concussion. After two days of tests in the hospital, Packer team physician Clarence Novotny told Mandarich that he was also suffering from hypothyroidism, an underactive-thyroid condition that can leave a person feeling mentally and physically sluggish. "Between my preseason physical in May and the beginning of August, my thyroid level cut in half," Mandarich says.
Although Green Bay general manager Ron Wolf says doctors have told the team that this thyroid condition is "99.55 percent hereditary," Mandarich says he isn't aware of any hypothyroidism in his family history. Then again, Mandarich's parents, Vic and Donna, are Croatians who escaped the communist regime of Yugoslavia in 1957 and later gained Canadian citizenship, and they have no detailed family medical records.
Initially the illness frightened and depressed him, says Mandarich, who withdrew from training camp and retreated to his cabin. He would sit alone listening to Guns N' Roses, take long rides on his Harley, fire his handguns in his yard and practice bow hunting by shooting at a target placed among plaster statues of a bear, two deer and the Virgin Mary. Sometimes, when he was with Amber and their 17-month-old daughter, Holly, he would break down and cry. "You can only push a dog so far, and he's going to snap and break down," Mandarich says. "I was worried the Packers were going to say, And now he's sick? The hell with him!"
Placed on injured reserve when the season started, Mandarich isn't eligible to play until Oct. 4. He says that his body is adapting to the drug Synthroid and that his thyroid levels are normal. He has resumed weightlifting and conditioning workouts. "I just want to get healthy," he says. "I don't care where I play or how long it takes me to get into the starting lineup. I have to get my strength, weight and mind back. I hope the Packers don't give up on me."
They haven't yet. Wolf is anxious for Mandarich to return to practice and get caught up at left tackle. Ken Reuttgers is the starter at that position, but he missed a total of 17 games the past two seasons because of hamstring and knee injuries. "I'm really pulling for Tony to come back and stake his claim," Wolf says.
Mandarich's recent illnesses are just the latest chapter in a storied decline that began in mid-March 1989, five weeks before the NFL draft, when he and Amber moved to the Los Angeles suburb of Whittier. They had headed west to devote themselves to the discipline of bodybuilding under trainer Rory Leidelmeyer, then a reigning Mr. America. Leidelmeyer had been Mandarich's weightlifting and diet guru during Mandarich's last two years at Michigan State.
But once in California, Mandarich was obsessed with becoming a celebrity. Taking an advance on his future earnings from his agent, Vern Sharbaugh, Mandarich bought a $31,000 Corvette convertible and an $18,000 Bronco; he also rented a spacious condominium and filled it with plush furniture. He spent most of his time turning himself into a larger-than-life character. "We tried to train between limousine rides and newspaper, magazine, radio and TV interviews," Leidelmeyer says. "It was ridiculous."
Mandarich marketed himself as an outlaw offensive lineman, and it was an easy role for him to play. He had a tattoo on his left ankle (a green Michigan State S with the inscription NEVER SURRENDER to commemorate the Spartans' 1988 Rose Bowl appearance), he trained to heavy-metal music, and like his role model Axl Rose, the lead singer for Guns N' Roses, Mandarich wore black leather jackets and wrapped do-rags around his head. What's more, rumors that anabolic steroids had aided in the development of his distinctive physique had been rife during his last two seasons at Michigan State.
Before the draft Mandarich, Leidelmeyer and Michigan State officials repeatedly denied the steroid allegations and emphasized that Mandarich had passed the drug tests he was given while at Michigan State. Nevertheless, Mandarich raised some eyebrows when he disclosed in one predraft interview, "I'm not saying I wouldn't use steroids. I might. I'll do whatever it takes to be the best."