Tucked away in a pine grove about 20 miles northwest of Green Bay, amid the sprawling dairy farms and cornfields of Wisconsin, is the small log cabin where Tony Mandarich lives. A seven-foot grizzly-bear skin, a trophy from a 1991 hunting trip in the Yukon, is nailed to one wall of the cabin's living room, and a stuffed and mounted six-foot black bear, bagged in Ontario in '90, towers beside the fieldstone fireplace. His Harley-Davidson Fat Boy motorcycle is parked in the driveway, and a monster truck, which Mandarich and his wife, Amber, drive in races throughout the state, is behind the garage. There are no obvious signs that Mandarich is a pro football player, an offensive tackle for the Green Bay Packers—and that's the way he wants it.
"A lot of people would have bet their bottom dollar that I would have been in the Pro Bowl three times by now," he says, "but instead I'm known as one of the biggest busts in football. Day after day there are articles ripping me. I try not to read them, but when teammates say, 'Man, did you see what they wrote about you today?' then I'm curious. If you keep reading about what a bust you've been, after a while you start to believe it. The truth hurts.
"If someone had told me before the NFL draft, 'You're going to make all this money, but you'll have to pay the price with your pride and integrity and subject yourself to an enormous amount of stress,' I'd have said, 'Screw it!' I wouldn't have played football."
The second player picked in the 1989 draft, Mandarich, a brash two-time All-America from Michigan State, was trumpeted as one of the best offensive line prospects ever to come out of college. In those days Mandarich was a superman of sorts: At 6'6" and 315 pounds, he ran a 4.65 40-yard dash, had a 30-inch vertical leap, sailed 10'3" in the standing broad jump and bench-pressed 225 pounds an impressive 39 repetitions in front of NFL scouts. He flaunted his 54-inch chest on the cover of this magazine (April 24, 1989), and he kissed his magnificent 22-inch biceps for the Canadian sports network TSN.
But after Tony the Terminator dropped out of Michigan State and got rich quick by riding a wave of hype into the NFL, his superhuman powers mysteriously evaporated, and he emerged as a pro with the ability of a mere mortal. Now, in the final year of his four-year, $4.4 million contract with the Packers, Mandarich is a pale, sullen and soft 295-pounder on the brink of falling out of the game.
To borrow a phrase from Saturday Night Live bodybuilders Hans and Frans, Mandarich has performed in Green Bay more like a "girlie man" than a Schwarzenegger. He has lacked the strength and technique to stop pass rushers, and he candidly admits that even with hard work and a lot of luck, he'll probably never amount to anything more than an average NFL lineman. "I couldn't believe how bad he was," says one Packer insider of Mandarich's play in 15 starts last season. "He looked afraid. He lacked confidence. He's not a strong, tough guy anymore."
"Mandarich was all a facade," says former Chicago Bear All-Pro defensive tackle Dan Hampton, who played against him. "The Packers got the prize, unwrapped it and saw that he wasn't the same—physically and emotionally—as what they had seen in college. He's pathetic."
"The hype was bigger than what he really was," says former Green Bay general manager Tom Braatz, who drafted Mandarich. "There isn't anybody that good. Maybe he was more in love with weightlifting than football. At this point there is no indication that he'll ever make it to the Pro Bowl."
There's good reason to wonder if Mandarich will even regain a spot in the starting lineup: A series of illnesses over the summer has placed his playing career in even greater jeopardy. He says he contracted giardiasis, a parasitic infection, when he drank from a stream on a black-bear hunt in Alberta in May. He says he could barely cat or work out, and, as a result, he dropped 30 pounds, to 280, in three weeks.
When he reported to training camp in mid-July, Mandarich still felt weak. After a few practices Mike Holmgren, the new Packer coach, abandoned his idea of switching Mandarich from right tackle to right guard, because Mandarich didn't have the strength to handle the inside power game. Since right tackle had been given over to newly acquired veterans Tootie Robbins and Harvey Salem, Mandarich was shifted instead to left tackle—a positive move because it was the position he had played at Michigan State, and yet a risky decision because left tackle is the most important pass-blocking assignment on the line.