On a frigid day in late January he drove the eight hours to Cleveland. Motoring south, he reflected on how far he'd fallen. "I'd gone from telling the scouts, 'All right, you guys show up at my school on this date and I'll run for you then,' " he says, "to driving eight hours to Cleveland 'cause they won't even fly me to Philadelphia."
Mandarich knocked the scout's socks off. Soon, word of his workout was on the NFL grapevine. The Colts flew him to Indianapolis, where he had another great workout. Before the sweat had dried on his T-shirt, Mandarich recalls, "they offered me a two-year deal. It was like time just stopped."
Except that, as a person, Mandarich had progressed. "The first time around," he says, "I created a lot of wreckage. I was a loudmouth, arrogant s.o.b. The second time around I wanted to slay some demons. I was going to do my job, do what was asked of me, keep my mouth shut."
He played three years for the Colts, working his way into the starting lineup midway through his first season. Quarter-backing the team that year was Jim Harbaugh. "When he got here," says Harbaugh, now the head football coach at the University of San Diego, "he was the antithesis of everything that I'd ever heard about him. He was humble, and even a little wise. I remember a moment from the first training camp I went through with him. It was one of those hot, humid Indiana summer days. We're all just dying out there, and I look over at Tony, and he's looking up at the sky." With a gesture that took in field and trees and sky, Mandarich declared, "All of this—it's like medicine for me."
Even through mounting losses—the Colts won three games in '97 and three more in '98—Mandarich was just glad to be there. He blew out his right shoulder during his second season with Indianapolis and retired for good before the '99 season. But he had proved something to himself and found a measure of redemption, even as the sporting world, ironically enough, found a replacement for him as the biggest bust in NFL history. After the first of those 13-loss seasons, the Colts were awarded the first pick in the draft. They used it to select Peyton Manning, leaving the San Diego Chargers to pick Ryan Leaf.
Mandarich had split with Amber in the summer of '98. He put in a little more than a year as a financial analyst for Morgan Stanley in Indianapolis but decided it wasn't for him. Four years ago he moved back to Canada and got into the golf business. Not long after that he was reunited with an old girlfriend. Charlavan Watts had dated Mandarich for two years at Michigan State but broke things off during his junior year, when, as she says, "the head started getting a little too big."
"A little?" he rejoins.
They tied the knot at Niagara Falls on May 5. The newlyweds—and the two children each brings from their first marriages, ranging in age from 6� to 13—are now sharing the 600-square-foot house bordering the second hole of the golf course. (The house comes with the job.) On this evening they are sitting at a round table in the 12,000-square-foot Century Pines clubhouse, looking spent. The tournament, which raised $36,000 for the John Mandarich Foundation, ended 20 minutes earlier. Tony thanked everyone for their generosity, then spoke from his heart. "To be honest with you, this is beyond my wildest dreams," he said. "I never thought I could organize something like this—something that could really affect people's lives."
By now all the celebrities are gone except Walter Gretzky, who is helping the wait staff clear tables. A visitor remarks on the vagaries of life. "It is a perfect world," says Mandarich. "It's exactly the way everything is supposed to be. It's just never perfect the way you think it needs to be perfect."
This is wisdom, undeniably, and undeniably hard-earned.