An NFL bust, former Michigan State star Tony Mandarich remains 'genuine'

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Former Michigan State lineman Tony Mandarich was drafted No. 2 overall by the Green Bay Packers in 1989.

From the “Incredible Bulk,” to the “Incredible Bust,” Tony Mandarich is the poster child for the biggest miss of any can’t-miss in the history of the NFL Draft.

To John Miller, Mandarich is still the same guy that summoned the freshman defensive back over to his table at Michigan State’s first team meal.

“He’s a guy that ended up becoming really almost bigger than life itself that senior year,” said Miller, who was a captain along with Mandarich during the 1988 season. “But when you peeled it all back, Tony was a great, great individual.”

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In the early days at Michigan State, though, is when the bond formed with Miller and Mandarich. It was Miller’s first meal as a true freshman and Mandarich, a redshirt freshman, hollered for Miller to join him.

“He just wanted to get a feel for me and who I was,” said Miller, whose son, Grayson, just completed his career at Michigan State last fall. “From that point forward, Tony and I always seemed to be very close. Of course, we were on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball, so we didn’t see a lot of each other in practice, but off the field we did and spent quite a bit of time together.

By their senior season, one year after winning the Rose Bowl, Miller and Mandarich were two of four captains who helped Michigan State overcome an 0-4-1 start to finish second in the Big Ten in 1988, and earn a New Year's Day bowl berth.

“Anytime you go through a season as captains, especially the one we had,” Miller said, “there were a lot of things we had to put together and regroup as the leaders of that team. So I got to see a lot of different sides of Tony, but I tell you what I remember about him was that he was a guy that if you were going to war, he was a guy you wanted in your bunker.”

That guy was documented in an ESPN’s piece, a fascinating story that included an interview with Nick Saban, then a Michigan State assistant who discovered Mandarich and got him to commit to the Spartans.

“The most dominant offensive lineman I’ve ever been around,” Saban said.

Of course, it wasn’t long before everything fell apart for Mandarich.

Green Bay Packers offensive lineman is considered one of the biggest busts in NFL Draft history.

In a draft that produced four Hall of Famers in the first five picks, it was that one pick that missed that most people remember. Of course, that was Mandarich, who went second overall to the Green Bay Packers. He went behind No. 1 overall pick Troy Aikman and just ahead of Barry Sanders. Derrick Thomas was next followed by Deion Sanders.

All became stars. Mandarich became a punch line.

He had used steroids for most of his time at Michigan State. He said in the piece he didn’t know if the coaches knew. Saban said the staff was unaware.

Even so, the steroids helped Mandarich bench press more than 500 pounds and run a faster 40 time than Emmitt Smith. By the time he was drafted, though, Mandarich had stopped using steroids and was hooked on pain killers.

“I was taking 40, 50, 60 painkillers a day, and drinking,” Mandarich said in an ESPN interview.

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It took its toll at Green Bay. After a lengthy holdout, Mandarich showed up for the last few days of training camp and was beaten like a drum by the veteran defensive ends, including Tim Harris.

“I just remember going through him like a hot knife through butter, laughing at him,” Harris told ESPN. “I was thinking at the time, ‘Wow, what a big bust. We put a million dollars in this guy.’”

After three seasons, the Packers let Mandarich go and his life continued to spiral, using more painkillers and losing nearly 100 pounds. But a friend finally persuaded him to get help, and in 1996, Mandarich returned to the NFL, playing three solid seasons with the Indianapolis Colts before a shoulder injury ended his career. Watching it all take place was hard for Miller, who had grown close with Mandarich during their time at Michigan State.

“I think it was very hurtful for a lot of us to watch him go through that in the media,” Miller said. “A lot of the negative publicity he took — the whole thing, the biggest bust thing, all that. It was very hard not only on him, but it rubbed all us the wrong way. We knew Tony never got into it to gain some sort of notoriety.”

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To Miller and his Spartans teammates, Mandarich was the man viewers got a glimpse at during the segment, showing his life now as a professional photographer near Phoenix, 24 years sober.

“It all might not have worked out the way he anticipated, but ultimately, 25, 30 years past the event and Tony may change some things he may have done,” Miller said, “but I’m sure he’d never change the guy he turned out to be. He’s a super friend, a super individual and I’m sure the people in his life day to day absolutely love the individual that he is. And probably, more importantly, Tony probably loves who he is now much more than that person he was 25 years ago.”

He seems to. At 52, Mandarich understands how his choices affected him and those around him. But, to those close to him, the man inside hasn’t changed one bit.

“Every time I’ve been around Tony over the years he’s been completely genuine,” Miller said. “He’s certainly the same guy that I met my freshman year — a guy that you knew you could pick the phone up and call and he’d help you with anything. I’ve always respected him for that. The wars that we had to battle through together will always put you in that zone of being a brother for life.”

Twitter: @mattcharboneau