When anyone thinks of the Packers best draft picks, names like the legendary Bart Starr, Aaron Rodgers, and Donald Driver come to mind. There is only ever one name on the minds of Packers fans when it comes to the worst, offensive tackle Tony Mandarich.
Dubbed “The Incredible Bulk” by Sports Illustrated after being selected 2nd overall in the 1989 draft, Mandarich lasted only 3 seasons in Green Bay. The massive number 77 fell victim to the vices of drugs and alcohol and was unable to recover. Recently, he admitted to using steroids while in college to build his bodybuilder physique. However, upon entering the NFL, Mandarich was unable to find a way to circumvent strict drug-testing, and thus, by his account, stopped all use. The difference on the field was stark, as Mandarich struggled from the get-go in Green Bay. His strength levels dropped significantly and he was unable to keep up with even the most mediocre lineman in practice.
On top of this, Mandarich held out, and let it be known that he didn’t want to play in Green Bay. Once describing the city as “a village”. The only entity larger than his considerable biceps was his immense ego, which it seems could stretch the length of a football field. He was once quoted as saying:
“I am not like other players, I am Tony Mandarich, and they have to understand that. If they don’t like it, that is just the way I am and they are going to learn to like it.” One can only imagine how that would’ve have been perceived in today’s NFL. Tony Mandarich would have been a Twitter superstar. At 6’6, 325 pounds Mandarich ran a 4.65 second 40-yard dash. Faster than NFL legends Jerry Rice and Emmitt Smith. While recording a vertical of 39″, a broad jump of 10’3(!!!!), and adding 39 reps on the bench press. Those are, without a doubt, some of the most astounding combine numbers the football world has ever seen. Move over D.K. Metcalf, this guy was created by Dr. Frankenstein. The grandiose Goliath went so far as to call himself “Cyborg 3”, and with those workout numbers, the comparison may have been apt. Mandarich really was the original “combine freak”.
Remarkably, ESPN’s Mel Kiper has Mandarich as his no.1 offensive lineman of all-time based on draft grades. Saying in 2013: “He was such a spectacular bust, I think it’s easy to say now Mandarich fit the profile. But that’s not really the case. The guy was an exceptionally dominant college tackle, and in individual workouts he backed up all the hype, showing speed, agility and great strength — in other words, everything you want out of an elite tackle prospect. He wasn’t just hype, he could play. We didn’t know about all the problems until later, but some of those were probably born of early NFL failure. He got off to a bad start and it never turned around. He was Ryan Leaf before Ryan Leaf, just at a different position.”
Incredibly, Tony Mandarich grew up in Oakville, Ontario, Canada, not far from where I sit right now. The second son of Croatian immigrants, he convinced his family to allow him to finish high school in the USA for more exposure, after his older brother John had received a football scholarship to play at Kent State. It was in Ohio, that Michigan State defensive backs coach Nick Saban discovered the hulking Mandarich. Saban once said that Mandarich was “probably the most dominant offensive lineman that I’ve ever been around.” If only he would have lived up to the hype.
After 3 seasons with the Packers, Mandarich was cut in 1992, and fell into a deep spiral. Paralyzed by addiction and the crutch of his failure in the NFL, he wound up in rehab before miraculously returning to the league in 1996. The leviathan returned from exile, joining his old coach Lindy Infante with the Indianapolis Colts, and starting all 17 games for the team in 1997. The “Incredible Bust” opted to retire following the 1998 season, as an injury to his shoulder would have required the use of painkillers in order to continue his playing career. Mandarich himself cites his reliance on drugs and alcohol for his lack of success in Green Bay, stating that he was taking 30-40 painkillers a day during his three years in Wisconsin.
This pick stands as the most immaculate failure in Packers history, as all four of the other players picked in the top 5 in 1989 now have a bust in Canton. Troy Aikman was selected number one by the Dallas Cowboys, followed by Mandarich to Green Bay. The Lions then selected arguably the greatest running back of ALL-TIME!!!!-in Barry Sanders third. Sit back, put your feet up, and imagine a prime Brett Favre, with Barry Sanders gliding, whirling and spinning around defenders in the mid-90s. Euphoria. Oh, what could have been. Pass rushing savant Derrick Thomas, he of the 126.5 career sacks, was taken next by the Kansas City Chiefs. Allowing the Atlanta Falcons to let, arguably, the greatest defensive back (certainly the most polarizing) of ALL-TIME in Deion Sanders to fall into their laps. Whew..it hurt me just to write that and have to relive a draft that happened two years before I was even born. I mourn for all you folks reading this today who were Packers fans born in the 1970s, what a terrible time to be alive. Thankfully, the Packers hired Ron Wolf in 1991, and the ship was righted. One can only hope that mistakes of this level will never again be made at 1265 Lombardi.
The Tony Mandarich story doesn’t end there. Not all tales of NFL disaster end in tragedy. The former gridiron colossus has turned around his life and is now a successful photographer based out of Arizona. He runs his own studio called Mandarich Media Group, which also does web design and internet marketing. The man who once challenged an in-his-prime Mike Tyson; an unthinkable proposition to most, has even worked with former UFC Heavyweight Champion of the world Stipe Miocic, who is also of Croatian descent. Mandarich has spoken at length in interviews about his time in the league and what went wrong. He’s even written a book with his mother in-law, titled “Dirty Little Secrets” Steroids, Alcohol, & God. In which he outlines his “train wreck” of a professional career, and more importantly his road to recovery.
Mandarich stands as a divisive figure in Green Bay, thought to be destined for greatness only to lose it all. In the grand scheme of life, he remains a lesson for future generations of athletes all over the world, that no matter how far you fall, there is always a way back. His bench press was exemplary, but Mandarich’s overall perseverance is far more commendable. Ironically, the man who once looked as though he was built in bronze will never see his face immortalized in Canton, Ohio. What could have been, indeed.Nick is a lifelong Packers fan. 4th and 26 was on his 13th birthday, unlucky. Follow him @CANDRAFTGEEK647 on Twitter for all your Packers draft needs and questions.