If ever there was a player meant to be an Oakland Raider, it was Tony Mandarich. He was 315 pounds of pectorals and trouble, a wild and crazy offensive tackle who lived life not just large but extra large, maybe even triple-X. Before he had pancaked his first NFL defensive end, Sports Illustrated anointed him "the best offensive line prospect ever." Scouts gushed that he was better than Anthony Munoz, the tackle against whom all were measured.
So it was interesting to see Mandarich and the Raiders, all these years later, both in the news Wednesday. The stories were parallel, not intersecting, but they had a common theme: the further diminishment - or perhaps final diminishment - of two once seemingly indestructible forces.
You had Mandarich, the second player picked in the 1989 draft, reportedly admitting on Showtime's "Inside the NFL" that he was a steroid creation. And you had Al Davis, the Raiders' aging patriarch, coming across like Captain Queeg in his rambling dismissal of Lane Kiffin, his 33-year-old coach.
There was also one other similarity between the two stories: Neither came as any great shock. In Tony's case, it was about as surprising as Joe Namath announcing that, during his playing days, he sometimes went with more than one woman at a time.
Suspicion always followed Mandarich around; his measurables, after all - his size (6-foot-6), speed (4.65 for the 40), strength (545-pound bench press) and general nastiness ("I told [the opposing] nose guard, 'You're going to freaking die today!'") - were so off the charts. The week of the '89 draft, SI put his hulking figure on its cover ... and ran another picture of him inside that sticks with me still. In it, he's standing triumphantly in a bubbling hot tub, flexing his left biceps and carrying his girlfriend, who's making muscles herself, on his right shoulder. He looks like an overgrown pirate - and she his parrot.
In the accompanying article, writer Rick Telander dealt with the steroid issue head-on. An unidentified Big Ten assistant coach was quoted saying, "We all know what's going on. Pro scouts come in and ask me about Mandarich. I tell them, but they don't care. It's really sad he's getting so much publicity."
But Mandarich and his enablers, of course, denied it all, pointed to his superior genes (Mom was 5-11, 240), insane workouts and endless eating (seven meals a day). And sure enough, just like the Big Ten assistant said, the Packers didn't hesitate to draft him after the Cowboys took Troy Aikman (and before - ouch! - Barry Sanders, Derrick Thomas and Deion Sanders got snapped up with the next three picks).
Moral: Beware the player who's too good to be true. He probably is. Mandarich certainly was.
According to the Associated Press, Tony told "Inside the NFL" he stopped using steroids after leaving Michigan State (at which point he became addicted to alcohol and painkillers). What the AP failed to mention is what might have prompted him to do that: A month before the '89 draft, the NFL announced it would begin testing for performance-enhancing drugs.
If Mandarich is telling the truth this time, then it goes a long way toward explaining his putrid performance as a pro. He never came close to playing up to his original four-year, $4.4 million contract - though he did manage to start for some wretched Green Bay and Indianapolis clubs. You can read all about it, right down to the last syringe, in his upcoming book, "My Dirty Little Secrets - Steroids, Alcohol and God: The Tony Mandarich Story."
(Sounds like a sure bestseller. But I wonder how God feels about getting third billing behind performance enhancers and booze.)
Which brings us to another withered presence, Al Davis. Unlike Mandarich, however, Davis was once the Genuine Article, not the product of some laboratory. That's what made his one-man show the other day so hard to watch. As he closes in on his 80th birthday, Al has gone so dotty that he actually displayed a letter sent to Kiffin three weeks ago - one in which he admonished his young coach for making "a number of public statements that were highly critical of, and designed to embarrass and discredit, this organization, its players and its coaches."
Who could have imagined? The most secretive franchise in the NFL was pulling back the curtains and revealing some of its inner workings - or rather, its inner dysfunctions. Heck, in the old days, you were lucky if you could get a numerical roster out of the Raiders. Now they're letting us read their mail. (Hey, Al, got any "Dear Norv" letters we could take a look at?)
Davis' news conference was like none the NFL has ever seen. In his attempt to paint Kiffin as "immature," "destructive" and, oh yes, a "flat-out liar," he did everything but make a PowerPoint presentation. You found yourself thinking: Was this team really in the Super Bowl six seasons ago? You also found yourself thinking: Why doesn't this man have his own reality show? They could call it "Survivor: Oakland" or "Who Wants to Work for Al Davis?"
Yup, it was quite the scene. The 1-3 Raiders were changing coaches for the fifth time in this decade - while on the same day, Tony Mandarich, the mutant who should have been a Raider, was changing his tune, 20 years after the fact, about taking steroids to advance his career. You couldn't make this stuff up.