SPORTS

Tackling the NFL

Canadian Tony Mandarich is a rising star

DAN BURKE May 8 1989
SPORTS

Tackling the NFL

Canadian Tony Mandarich is a rising star

DAN BURKE May 8 1989

Tackling the NFL

SPORTS

Canadian Tony Mandarich is a rising star

Residents of Green Bay, Wis., an agricultural and industrial city of 90,000 that lies nearly 200 miles north of Milwaukee, have long been known for their dedication to professional football. Despite its relatively small population, Green Bay has managed to support a National League Football (NFL) franchise for eight decades. But since the legendary coach Vince Lombardi led the Packers to five league championships during the 1960s, Green Bay’s chronically mediocre franchise has given the community little to cheer about.

But last week’s NFL draft may help to change that. Selecting from this year’s crop of rookies, the Packers chose Oakville, Ont.-born Tony Mandarich, a 315-lb. offensive tackle from Michigan State University who has attracted media attention on a scale that is unprecedented for an offensive lineman. Indeed, the 22year-old Canadian, who lifts weights with fierce enthusiasm and has a reputation for rough tactics against opponents, has become an overnight sports celebrity. Said Paul Mazzoleni, a retired service station owner in Green Bay: “The consensus here is that we are glad to have him. He is a maniac on o the field.”

In fact, Mandarich is a man | of unusual attainments both ? on and off the field. Born into ^ a Yugoslavian family, whose 5 members immigrated to Can1/1 ada in 1955, Mandarich weighed 13 lb. at birth.

Growing to a towering six feet, six inches in height, Mandarich today possesses a frame laden with massive slabs of muscle that he maintains with unusually vigorous, twice-a-day weight-room workouts. What sets Mandarich apart from other brawny linemen is his speed and agility. He can run a 40-yard dash in 4.65 seconds, as fast as some running backs.

Even as a college player, Mandarich attained celebrity status. During his five years at Michigan State University, he sometimes lunched

with the state’s governor, James Blanchard. Last season, the Michigan State University Spartans lost their first three games while Mandarich was serving a suspension for inquiring about entering the NFL during the 1988 early-entry draft. After he returned, the team won six games and lost only one.

Mandarich’s only detractors are skeptics who suggest that he may have developed his

awesome physique with the assistance of anabolic steroids, the synthetic hormones that encourage muscle growth. Steroids are banned by the NFL as well as international amateur sports organizations. For his part, the player who has been labelled The Incredible Bulk by sportswriters attributes his extraordinary physical development to weight lifting—and to his family background. His father, Vic, a 59year-old laborer at Oakville’s Mack Truck assembly plant, stands over six feet tall and

weighs 210 lb. His mother, Donna, is five feet, 11 inches tall and weighs 240 lb.

As well, Mandarich has a gargantuan appetite that causes him to consume between 12,000 and 15,000 calories worth of food every day. “I am tired of talking about steroids,” said Mandarich. “I’ve never done steroids and the tests prove it. I just train and eat harder than most athletes.” Added Harvey Singleton, who coached Mandarich for three years at Oakville’s White Oaks High School: “He has worked for everything he has got and he deserves everything he gets.” In the meantime, Mandarich’s accomplishments as a weightlifter are impressive. During a workout for NFL scouts in February, Mandarich bench pressed 225 lb. 39 times in succession.

Mandarich’s determination to play U.S. professional football took him to the United States at the age of 16, when he transferred from White Oaks to a high school in Kent, Ohio. At the time, his brother John—who later played tackle for the Edmonton Eskimos of the Canadian Football League—was attending Kent State University on an athletic scholarship. Coaches at Kent-Roosevelt High School marvelled at Mandarich’s speed and size—he weighed 245 lb. at the time—but were critical of his football-playing ability. He quickly improved. Said John Nemec, head football coach at the school: “We gave him competition and exposure. By the fifth game he was the best offensive lineman I have ever seen.” Mandarich told reporters in Green Bay that he probably would never have developed into an NFL player if he had stayed in Canada.

The massive tackle is now in line to win one of the richest contracts ever awarded to an NFL rookie. From his condominium in the Los Angeles suburb of Whittier, Calif., last week, Mandarich told Maclean’s that he wanted a better deal than the draft’s first pick, quarterback Troy Aikman, who signed a six-year contract for $11.2 million with the Dallas Cowboys. “Playing offensive tackle is a hard, demanding job,” said Mandarich. “But it is one of the least glamorous positions in football. I am trying to make the most of it.”

Still, Mandarich was clearly not delighted by the prospect of playing professional football for a Wisconsin team. The reason is that Mandarich, who dropped out of Michigan State last March without finishing his degree in communications and moved to California, is in love with all things Californian. Since he moved to California—along with his girlfriend Amber Ligón, a 23-year-old former University of Michigan student of English—Mandarich has been training with Rory Leidelmeyer, current holder of the Mr. America body-building title. Mandarich said that he plans to enter the California Open body-building contest later this month. “Everything I always wanted is here— the sun, the beaches, Hollywood, the body building,” said Mandarich. “I like the fast life and Green Bay does not have that.”

Still, Mandarich has indicated that he will accept the league’s draft rules and play for Green Bay. During a visit that Mandarich made to

Green Bay last week, fans were favorably impressed. Said Mazzoleni: “He was not sassy. He said he will do anything to make the team win.” For his part, Mandarich’s Cleveland-based agent Vem Sharbaugh said that Mandarich will sign with Green Bay if the team meets his contract requests. Said Sharbaugh: “Green Bay controls him for a year. All we can do is hope they come up with the type of money he wants.”

Despite his image as an aggressive football player who talks of “abusing” his opponents and has been known to reach inside competitors’ face masks to grab their faces, Mandarich remains a practising Roman Catholic. Mandarich said that his respect for religion is a result of the influence

of his parents. Said Donna Mandarich: “I tell Tony and John, ‘Never start the day without talking to God.’ ” At the same time, as Mandarich’s celebrity and talents have grown, so has his allegiance to the United States. He plans to become a U.S. citizen within two years. Said Mandarich: “Canada is not as patriotic as it should be. And except for hockey, they do not take sports as seriously.” But in the meantime, the Green Bay Packers are taking their draft pick, the speedy man mountain from Oakville, very seriously indeed.

DAN BURKE

KIRSTEN WIESE-HANSEN