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The Flip of The Flop
Austin Murphy
July 12, 2004
He had a big body and a bigger mouth. And he was the biggest bust the NFL had known. How did Tony Mandarich reclaim his self-respect after being a national joke?
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July 12, 2004

The Flip Of The Flop

He had a big body and a bigger mouth. And he was the biggest bust the NFL had known. How did Tony Mandarich reclaim his self-respect after being a national joke?

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If he had it all to do over again, the big man is saying on his lunch break between bites of a Reuben sandwich, he wouldn't do anything differently. � And you think to yourself: Tony Mandarich can't mean that. This was a guy who made new enemies every day, a lout whose sheer body mass was exceeded only by his outsized churlishness. Tony Mandarich was Ryan Leaf with a mullet and more tattoos. But let the man finish.� "I wouldn't do anything differently," he continues, "because of the lessons I've learned. So I wouldn't change it, but I would teach my kids differently."

To find the man whose name remains a synonym for bust, fly to Toronto and rent a car. Head west to Highway 6, then south. A few miles past the turnoff for the nudist colony, bang a right on Fourth Concession Road. Continue past the trailer park, and suddenly, on your left, appears an emerald oasis. You have found the Century Pines Golf Club, a high-end public course in West Flamborough, Ont., which, despite feeling like the Middle of Nowhere, is actually just 20 miles from Oakville, where Mandarich grew up. Poke your head into the general manager's office. You have found Tony Mandarich. And Mandarich, believe it or not, has found happiness, maybe even wisdom.

Now is a good time to talk. It's 1:30 on a Wednesday afternoon in June. A tournament is in progress. The shotgun start was a half hour ago. "For shotguns," says Mandarich, now 37, "you gotta be here around seven in the morning. It gets crazier and crazier till everybody gets out. We do a lot of tournaments," he adds, "but when it's your tournament, it's a hundred extra jobs."

That's right. Today is special. Today is the second annual Tony Mandarich Celebrity Golf Tournament. Why else would the grounds be crawling with such luminaries as, well, let's see—we've got Walter Gretzky, Wayne's dad, along with Oakville's own Donovan Bailey, formerly the world's fastest' man. Indianapolis Colts kicker Mike Vanderjagt, another Oakville native, is here, as are ex-NHLers Doug Gilmour and Ric Nattress, plus a handful of Playboy models.

"We double-cut the fairways," says Mandarich, standing on the 11th tee and fielding a compliment on the course conditions. "They were out here at four this morning."

It gets back to the G.M. that one of the guys took a turn too wide and got a couple of the wheels of his cart on one of the greens. "As long as he didn't do it on purpose, right?" says Mandarich. "Because then we'd have to kill him."

Everyone on the tee breaks up. This is a fun tournament for a worthy cause—the John Mandarich Foundation. Tony's older brother was a star nosetackle who, after playing at Kent State, was picked by the Edmonton Eskimos in the first round of the 1984 Canadian Football League draft. John played 11 years in the CFL and won a Grey Cup in '84 with the Eskimos. He's there in a framed photograph in Tony's office, arm draped around his "little" brother in the stands at Lambeau Field on the April day in '89 that the Green Bay Packers made one of the biggest blunders in NFL history by taking Tony with the second pick of the draft (behind Troy Aikman and in front of Barry Sanders, Derrick Thomas and Deion Sanders, who were taken third, fourth and fifth, respectively).

Two and half years later John learned that he had malignant melanoma. While his younger brother floundered—both personally and professionally—John gave ground to the cancer, succumbing in February 1993 at 31. It was a dark time for the Mandarich family, Tony in particular. After having missed all of the '92 season following a severe concussion and a thyroid problem, he was not re-signed by the Packers.

Having endured these hardships, he harvested little sympathy. The public will tolerate a boastful superstar who walks the walk. For millionaire athletes who run their mouths but fail to deliver, a special brand of scorn is reserved. Seldom has a player so richly deserved the obloquy Mandarich reaped. But don't take just our word for it. "I was a jackass," he says. "I was a walking stereotype of the arrogant athlete."

He was all of that. But let's give the man some credit. He could be loud, self-absorbed and delusional, but at times he was damned entertaining. As a senior at Michigan State he drove a Northwestern defender 20 yards into the end zone before pile driving him into the turf, after which Mandarich stood over the player and shouted, "Now stay there!"

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