When it comes to NFL Draft busts, Tony Mandarich is right up there with the biggest ones of all-time. He certainly is the largest.
Once an all-world offensive lineman at Michigan State, Mandarich was one of the most hyped prospects ever in 1989. He famously featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated with the headline “The Incredible Bulk.” With his amazing size and athleticism, he was dubbed “The Best Offensive Line Prospect Ever.”
Between his dominance with the Spartans, some epic workouts and tons of hype, the Green Bay Packers were sold. They took him No. 2 overall in the 1989 NFL Draft.
But attitude problems, steroids and substance abuse made him fall well below expectations during a very brief NFL career. Mandarich ultimately played in six NFL seasons, with those seasons sandwiching a multi-year stint battling addiction.
In the 20 years since his retirement though, Mandarich has managed to turn his life around.
Let’s take a look at the rise, fall and current whereabouts of Tony Mandarich:
How did Tony Mandarich rise to prominence?
Ante Josip “Tony” Mandarich was born in 1966 in Canada to Croatian immigrants. His older brother John played football at Kent State, and it was John who convinced the Mandarich family to let Tony play in Ohio for his senior year of high school. That year in the United States proved critical as he caught the eye of an up-and-coming Michigan State recruiter: Nick Saban.
Under head coach George Perles guidance, Mandarich became a four-year starter at Michigan State, dominating opposing lines along the way. He was a two-time winner of the Big Ten Offensive Lineman of the Year award, a consensus All-American in 1988, and even finished sixth in the Heisman Trophy voting that year.
Mandarich was a colorful character too, openly professing his love for the band Guns n’ Roses by naming his dog Axl and getting a GNR tattoo on his massive bicep.
He was a big man, but not too big to absolutely dazzle in workouts. Mandarich reportedly ran a 4.65 40-yard dash, had a standing long jump of 10-foot-3, a vertical leap of 30 inches and did 39 bench reps of 225 pounds.
Between his college dominance, his measurables and the hype, he was a top prospect in a draft that was loaded with future Hall of Fame talents.
What happened to Tony Mandarich’s NFL career?
Despite being a rookie in 1989, Mandarich went to Green Bay with a very bad attitude. He held out until just before the start of the season and was promptly relegated to special teams duties for most of his rookie season.
In public, Mandarich was critical both of the city of Green Bay and of people for criticizing him back.
“I am not like other players, I am Tony Mandarich, and they have to understand that,” he once said. “If they don’t like it, that is just the way I am and they are going to learn to like it.”
If any player today did some of the things that Mandarich did during his first year in Green Bay, it’s very possible that the media would run them out of town. Instead, Mandarich started 31 games between 1990 and 1991 – during which the Packers offense ranked in the bottom half of the league.
After three lackluster seasons, Mandarich was cut in 1992 and he spent the next few years living in Michigan, fully addicted to drugs and alcohol. With the help of his family though, he went to rehab in 1995 and got sober.
In 1996, Mandarich asked the NFL for another chance and got it from the Indianapolis Colts. He spent his final three seasons in Indy, playing 41 games and spent his final NFL season starting at right guard for Peyton Manning in 1998.
Is it true that the Dallas Cowboys almost drafted Mandarich No. 1 overall in 1989?
In 1989, Jimmy Johnson had just been hired as head coach of the Dallas Cowboys after a historic run at the University of Miami. Dallas had the No. 1 overall pick, tons of holes, but plenty of options of what to do with it.
The top prospects at the time were Mandarich, UCLA quarterback Troy Aikman, Oklahoma State halfback Barry Sanders, Florida State cornerback Deion Sanders, and Alabama linebacker Derrick Thomas. Johnson ultimately took Aikman first, and the Green Bay Packers took Mandarich No. 2.
However, Johnson later revealed that it wasn’t exactly a unanimous decision to make Aikman the pick. Johnson would recall years later that there were people on his staff who liked Mandarich over Aikman.
“Everybody looks (back) and says ‘Oh of course Troy Aikman was the guy.’ Well Troy Aikman didn’t even make All-Pac 10,” Johnson said. “If you were honest about it, we had people on our own staff who wanted to take Tony Mandarich.”
The next three picks in the draft were Barry Sanders to the Lions, Deion Sanders to the Falcons and Thomas to the Kansas City Chiefs. All three of them, along with Aikman and No. 20 overall pick Steve Atwater, are now in the Hall of Fame.
Did Tony Mandarich take steroids?
During and briefly after his NFL career, Mandarich denied taking any performance enhancing drugs. For most of his non-playing career, he attributed his struggles to his poor work ethic.
In 2008, Mandarich acknowledged for the first time that he did take steroids – a lot of them.
He admitted to taking steroids while at Michigan State before the 1988 Rose Bowl so he could play in it. But he denies having taken steroids while he was in the NFL.
The fact that Mandarich played in the NFL about 15 pounds lighter than in college suggests he’s telling the truth.
Mandarich acknowledged in 2009 that steroids will likely be “attached to his name for the rest of his life.”
Steroids are even addressed in his book, My Dirty Little Secrets – Steroids, Alcohol & God: The Tony Mandarich Story (Reflections of America).
What is Tony Mandarich up to now?
Mandarich returned to Canada after a shoulder injury ended his career in 1998. He owned a golf course and even served as an NFL analyst for Canada’s The Score TV sports network.
Mandarich moved to Arizona a few years later and now runs a photography studio, Tony Mandarich Creatives, with an impressive portfolio of work to his credit.
Mandarich will probably never be able to shed the bust label from his NFL career. But on a personal level, the man appears to have found peace after many years of personal struggles.
While he may not wear his bust label as a badge of pride, he’s definitely come to terms with it.
I had the privilege of being a guest on the https://t.co/GdT84ABQtZ Podcast with Jonathan Sylvester last week.
The podcast went live today. #SoberNation #SobrietyWorks #OnlyByTheGraceOfGOD #TonyMandarichhttps://t.co/V91RzndjcC
— Tony Mandarich (@Tony_Mandarich) April 12, 2021
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