He quit school in the spring of his senior year, moved to Southern California and started pumping iron with Rory Leidelmeyer, the reigning Mr. America. By then, it seemed, Mandarich was already losing his grasp on reality. "Why can't I do what Arnold [Schwarzenegger] did?" he asked SI's Rick Telander, who wrote a cover story (headlined THE INCREDIBLE BULK) on Mandarich in April '89. "Bodybuilding. Movies. All of it. I want to be Cyborg 3."
He was talking this smack before playing a down in the NFL. But success seemed assured. He was a 6'6", 315-pound glimpse of the future, a freak who bench-pressed 545 pounds, ran the 40 in 4.65 seconds and promised to revolutionize offensive line play. Spartans coach George Perles, who'd been a defensive coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers when they won four Super Bowls between 1975 and '80, said, "As a junior, [Mandarich] could have started on any of our Super Bowl teams." This was typical of the white-hot hype surrounding Mandarich in the months before the draft.
Mandarich held out until five days before Green Bay's opener. When he did show up, after signing a four-year, $4.4 million contract, he was 15 to 20 pounds lighter than his weight at the NFL combine. He'd trimmed down, he explained, to be more nimble for the added pass-blocking the NFL would require of him.
The time has come, as it must in any Mandarich story, to turn our attention to the elephant in the room. Mandarich was widely suspected of taking steroids, and in the NFL, he'd be subject to random tests. Had he gone off the juice, that would have explained his deflated physique. Mandarich denied taking steroids and never failed a drug test. Does he continue to deny that he's ever taken performance-enhancing drugs?
"I guess I can just continue to say," he replies, "I've never tested positive."
What is beyond doubt is that he was diminished by the time he arrived in the NFL. Mandarich contributed little his rookie year. In his second year he started 16 games but struggled. In one memorable '90 outing, against Philadelphia, Eagles defensive end Reggie White rag dolled him around the field all afternoon. "I can't believe how Reggie was throwing Mandarich around," Eagles nosetackle Mike Golic told SI. "I'd start to rush, and I had to watch to keep from tripping over Mandarich."
A second SI cover story on Mandarich ran in September 1992. Slugged THE NFL'S INCREDIBLE BUST, it seemed to complete the downward are of his brief, bizarre career. The Packers let him go after that season. His brother deceased, his NFL career apparently over, Mandarich and his wife, Amber, sought refuge on the other side of Lake Michigan, building a cabin in Traverse City, Mich. An avid outdoorsman, Tony enrolled at Northwestern Michigan College with the goal of becoming an officer for die state's Department of Natural Resources.
One afternoon during the fall term in '95, his third year out of football, Mandarich found himself sitting in a classroom. "It was a crisp September day, the leaves were turning," he says. "There was a team practicing outside the window. I could hear 'em smacking helmets, and I was thinking to myself, I'm in the wrong business."
He hit the weights again. He played racquetball to recover some of his agility. He went from 250 pounds to 300 in sue months, then called his agent, Vern Sharbaugh. "I think I want to make a comeback," he said.
Sharbaugh made some calls. The Eagles were interested, but if Mandarich wanted to work out for them, they said, he could buy his own plane ticket to Philadelphia. Then they called back. A scout connecting in Cleveland had a long layover. Could Mandarich make it to Cleveland?