Crushed: The (Totally Predictable) Story of Todd Marinovich

Todd Marinovich was more than a highly coveted quarterback recruit.  He was more than a highly-trained physical specimen. He was…a machine.

His father, Marv, had been a star football player at USC and had played in the NFL with the Oakland Raiders. As he played, he sometimes wondered how good he could have been if he’d been devoted to the sport from a younger age. When he had a son, he decided to find out.  The story of Todd Marinovich’s childhood is well-worn territory. Magazine articles from the time (like Sports Illustrated’s “Robo QB”) and the recent ESPN documentary The Marinovich Project detail  an unparalleled training regimen. During Todd’s first month of life, Marv instituted a stretching regimen, flexing his infant son’s hamstrings and quads. From the time Todd could hold things, he was holding a football. As soon as he could stand, he was standing in cleats. Everything, from his diet (no sugar or processed foods, period) to his time (no vacations or after-school outings with friends — his mother had to literally kidnap him for a weekend away…she knew if she asked Marv, he would have said no), was engineered by his father to give him the tools he would need to be a great quarterback.  (Many of the (sometimes grisly) details can be found in a Psychology Today blog post called “An Interesting Weekend on the Perils of Building Better Humans.”)

It worked…except that it didn’t. Marinovich began smoking marijuana in high school, saying that it, “gave me a buffer from a life that was too intense.” He went to USC as a blue-chip recruit and savior of the program. He was…except that he wasn’t. During his sophomore year he was benched for thinking he knew better than the coach…and for getting into alcohol and harder drugs. Marv is quoted in the documentary as saying that “when he was at home, things were pretty well structured,” lamenting the fact of his son’s rebellion at school. But in the next breath, he admits that things were “…maybe too structured.” Todd left school after his sophomore season, but was arrested on drug charges (cocaine this time) before the NFL draft. He was nonetheless drafted by the Los Angeles (at the time) Raiders. Drug problems continued to plague him. Howie Long, a then-teammate and current NFL analyst, suggests that “the pressure was on him from an early age, and I think that probably – in some ways – wore him down.”

Wore him down indeed. Inside of two seasons in the NFL, Marinovich was, by his own admission, “done with football.” The clearest thought in his head was a simple one: “I don’t want to be Todd Marinovich.” He “wanted to get as far away from football as possible.” The law brought only death (Romans 7:10). The regimen that was intended to make him a success only brought him torment and failure.  A reporter covering Todd’s high school career cautioned that “you can’t build a jailhouse of achievement for your son or daughter and not expect a really bad result.” The law, the rules, the requirement…these things are the jailhouse of achievement that either others construct for us or that we construct for ourselves. There is no way out of this jailhouse but through capital punishment.

Happily, Marv Marinovich is not the single-minded monster of destruction that the disembodied Law is. When Todd was in the throes of his drug addiction and needed help, help that ranged from being bailed out of jail to being physically held and comforted while going through withdrawals, Marv was there. Marv, in this story, was able, perhaps miraculously, to be Grace to his son, even after being the Law. Today, they have a loving and close relationship. Todd is now clean, sober, and an artist, whose work can be viewed at

Hairy and Hasidic No More

Sean O'Neal is the Newswire editor for the A/V Club, one of my favorite websites.  He is, to me, the undisputed master of the comedic headline.  I guess it's not for nothing to note that the A/V Club was started and is a subsidiary of The Onion.  My all-time favorite headline of his is:  "Man, who hath conquered the steed and harnessed fire to curse the darkness, will make Rollercoaster Tycoon into a movie."  The accompanying article is hilarious, too.  The other day, he came up with another gem:  "Hairy Hasidic musician Matisyahu is no longer two of those things."  The article is about a recent announcement from the until-recently hairy and Hasidic "reggae-rappper."

On his website, Matisyahu wrote:
Sorry folks, all you get is me…no alias. When I started becoming religious 10 years ago it was a very natural and organic process. It was my choice. My journey to discover my roots and explore Jewish spirituality—not through books but through real life. At a certain point I felt the need to submit to a higher level of religiosity…to move away from my intuition and to accept an ultimate truth. I felt that in order to become a good person I needed rules—lots of them—or else I would somehow fall apart. I am reclaiming myself. Trusting my goodness and my divine mission. 
Wow.  Some ripe theological fruit there.  For us, the most important line is that "in order to become a good person," Matisyahu felt he "needed rules -- lots of them --" or else he would "fall apart."  He says he approached this as his own choice.  In other words, he "chose" to submit himself to the Law (the rules) in order to try to become a good person.  So...did it work?  Well, a clean-shaven face and a renunciation of Hasidism seem to imply that it didn't.  More explicit is his statement that he "reclaiming" himself and trusting his own goodness.  I can't say that he's gone from the Law to the Gospel, necessarily, as he seems to still be relying on a goodness from within, but he does seem to have rejected the Law's ability to create goodness.

What shall we say, then? Is the law sinful? Certainly not! Nevertheless, I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.”  But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of coveting. For apart from the law, sin was dead.  Once I was alive apart from the law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died.  I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death.  For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death.  So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good. Did that which is good, then, become death to me? By no means! Nevertheless, in order that sin might be recognized as sin, it used what is good to bring about my death…(Romans 7:7-13)

Is Norman Vincent Peale Right? The Continuing Saga of Tim Tebow

The Power of Positive Thinking was first published in 1952, and spent 186 consecutive weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.  It has sold, according to some estimates, over 5 million copies, and has spawned a horde of copies, including books like The Secret and Your Best Life Now.  More than that, though, it has created a place for itself (and its thesis) in the common consciousness, long after its author's name (Norman Vincent Peale) has begun to fade from memory.  This morning, though, I heard Peale's name referenced in a most unusual place: On The Blitz, a segment of ESPN's flagship program, SportsCenter.  Hosted by analysts Chris Berman (a long-time sportswriter and TV personality) and Tom Jackson (a former NFL player), The Blitz offers highlights and analysis of each Sunday's NFL contests.  As you might imagine, for several weeks, the show has been headlined by the mind-blowing exploits of Tim Tebow and his Denver Broncos.

In his postgame comments (after improbably leading the Broncos to 10 points in the final two minutes of regulation and a field goal in overtime to beat the vaunted defense of the Chicago Bears), Tebow credited the "belief" that his team had in itself.  Each player was said to "believe" in all the other players and to "trust" that they were never out of it, even as victory seemed more and more remote.  Berman, reacting to Tebow's and his teammates' comments, said something like, "It reminds you of Dr. Norman Vincent's still true."

Is it?  Is there power in positive thinking?  I've argued elsewhere that there isn't, or at least not substantive power.  I thought for a second, watching Berman's broadcast, that maybe it's true in team sports in a way that it isn't for an individual.  Confidence before a game can sometimes lead to a victory, right?  But isn't it true that, as the sample size approaches infinity, talent will win out?  Tim Tebow's fourth quarter heroics could be attributable to his option- and power-rushing style wearing down his opponents, rendering them impotent to stop him late in games.  As Tebow himself is quick to point out, Denver's defense has been playing wonderfully, allowing just 102 points in their last six games (all wins...that's 17 points per contest, and 56 of those points came in TWO of those games, against the Raiders and Vikings), allowing Tebow and the offense to remain close as the games near their end.

The idea that confidence can lead to (or even equal) success is a powerful one, and one with significant cultural cache.  This is because it allows us to feel responsible...or, better, powerful...and secure.  We often blame others when we fail, but we want the credit when we win.  Even more prevalent is the fear of powerlessness.  If the Broncos won or lost based on factors beyond their control...that's a terrifying situation. Though we would prefer to be able to blame outside forces for our failures, it's a trade we're willing to make to not only be able to take credit for our successes and to shield ourselves from the effect of factors beyond us.

I'd be more likely to believe Tebow if he said that God was causing the Broncos to win that I am to believe his claim that the victories come because his teammates "believe" in one another.  But I have the easiest time believing that the Broncos win because, when it comes to crunch time, they are better prepared, more efficient football players than their opponents.  I can only live in my own skin, and my own experiences are the only ones I can see from the inside (note well: this kind of anecdotal evidence is what drives me so crazy when people try to substantiate claims of the power of positive thinking), and I have found that positive thinking is not only lacking in efficacy, it lacks existence itself.  I can't choose to think positively; that's pretending.  When Jim Carrey asks his son to revoke his birthday wish in Liar Liar, he finds that the magic didn't work.  He asks his son what happened, and the kid says, "Yesterday, when I wished that you couldn't lie, I really meant it.  Today, when I took it back, I only did it because you told me to."  Carrey responds:  "Let's do this again, and this time...MEAN IT."

We can see how patently ridiculous this is.  You can't mean something you don't mean.  You can't be positive about something that you're not positive about.  Soon enough, the Broncos will lose a football game, and it won't mean that they've stopped believing in each other, and it won't prove that Norman Vincent Peale was wrong, any more than their winning steak proves that he was right.

The War on Christmas?

Stephen Colbert calls it "The Blitzkreig on Grinchitude", and it seems to come up every year.  Today I saw a Facebook friend had posted an extensive status update reminding everyone to say "Merry Christmas" rather than "Happy Holidays."  Last year, it was the American Atheists putting up a billboard (at the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel) saying that Christmas is a myth and that during this season, we should "celebrate reason," an admittedly clever play on the oft-recited Christian claim that Jesus is "the reason for the season."

This year, it's the Leesburg, Virginia (Loundon County) Courthouse skeletal Santa.  In brief, a couple of years ago, a nativity scene was removed from the courthouse lawn due to concern about the separation of church and state.  A law was passed forbidding similar displays on the lawn.  However, that law was repealed, and a new rule was put in place: the first ten displays erected could stand throughout the holiday season, first come, first served.  Then this happened.  A skeleton, dressed as St. Nick, hung on a cross.  Yikes.  Put up by a local mother and son, the display was supposed to bring attention to how commercialism and materialism are "killing the peace, love, joy and kindness that is supposed to be prevalent in the holiday season."  The edifice was knocked over at some point, and lay on the ground for several hours before being collected.  The mother and son plan to re-erect their display soon.

Now, I'm no stick-in-the-mud.  Seriously.  I think this is hilarious:

But something about this display rubs me the wrong way, and I think it's the use of the cross.  I'm reminded of the atheistic/scientific (I guess) response to the Jesus fish that was once to prevalent on cars:  the fish with legs, which was, perhaps predictably, followed quickly by the more adversarial Jesus-fish-EATING-the-fish-with-legs.  How does the use of the cross, the most sacred of the Christian symbols (and the most inscrutable to atheists), advance the message of anti-materialism and pro-peace, -joy, and -love?  It seems that this mother and son are being a little disingenuous in claiming a non-antagonistic message here.  I don't really get their message at all, in fact.  Santa should be crucified as a symbol of materialism?  Talk about misinterpreting the cross...

So what of the war on Christmas?  The Blitzkreig on Grinchitude?  For me, Christmas is about celebrating the birth of the one who came to die for my sins, to reconcile me to God.  Christmas has come to mean many things to many people...Christians themselves borrowed pagan holidays for this and many other religious observances.  I believe things that other people think make me a fool.  People believe things that I think make them fools.  But the Bible (to use a debatably authoritative source!)  said that God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise (1 Corinthians 1:27).  As ever, I find myself wishing that people could just have a sense of humor about all of this and be willing to admit that they might be fools, like John Allen Paulos and the creators of Drop Dead Gorgeous (the source of the above clip) and unlike Christoper Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and many of the residents of Leesburg, Virginia.
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