Drugs, pain, failure? Former Colts OL Tony Mandarich wouldn’t change a thing

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That would be in Phoenix/Scottsdale, Ariz., with his wife Char and their four children, running Mandarich Studios.


“Since I was a kid, I was always interested in photography,” Mandarich said. “Certainly not to the degree I’m doing it now, but I did it in high school. I was with the school newspaper, taking pictures, things like that.”


Photography has provided a second successful transition for Mandarich. His NFL career was nearly derailed by alcohol and drugs after he was the No. 2 overall pick by Green Bay in 1989, but he finished with three productive seasons with the Colts. The photography itch returned and intensified after Mandarich retired in 1998.


He realized he had to do something.


“I retired at 32, so what am I supposed to do? I didn’t retire with Peyton Manning money,” Mandarich, 47, said with a laugh. “Even if I did, I’m not going to sit around and do nothing. A lot of guys are OK doing nothing. That’s not how I’m wired.


Mandarich initially tried his hand as a financial adviser in Indianapolis but realized after 18 months, “it wasn’t working for me.” He returned home to Toronto and was part of a family-owned golf course.


At some point, the itch — photography — delivered him to Arizona.


He already had attacked one passion: football. It was time to pursue another.


“I asked myself, if I could do anything, what would it be? It was photography,” Mandarich said. “I was what I would consider a very serious hobbyist for seven or eight years. Then in about 2003-04, I decided this was my passion, that I was going to make a living doing this.


“I wanted to live in the Southwest because the dry climate was really good for the body with all the aches and pains we go through. The nice thing is I found my passion and I’m doing it. There are a lot of people who can’t find their passion.”


Mandarich specializes in sports and fitness, and in compositing. He routinely shoots an individual in a controlled setting, then selects an appropriate background from his vast catalog.


“I shoot backgrounds all over the country,” he said, “Some I’ll never use, but I’ve got ’em.”


Char Mandarich is more mainstream. She’ll shoot portraits. She’ll work with children, and occasionally with animals.


“I don’t do kids,” Mandarich said. “I ain’t doing animals.”


Weddings also are off the table.


“I’d rather stick a fork in my eye than shoot a wedding, no matter how much they pay me,” he insisted.


While Mandarich’s day job is photography, he also makes time to share his experiences as a motivational speaker. In the spring, he talked to students at Sandra Day O’Connor High School in Phoenix. He avails himself to colleges, clinics, whoever asks.


“I talk to the kids and their parents about how to do it the wrong way with the steroids and the painkillers. I tell kids, ‘Hey, steroids are a shortcut and steroids can kill you and they’ll lead you to other things that can kill you, such as painkillers,” Mandarich said. “And I talk to them about how to do it the right way.


“I was lucky enough to do it two different ways and still survive.”


The Packers selected Mandarich with the second overall pick in the 1989 draft following his decorated career at Michigan State. He famously flamed out, transgressing from “the incredible bulk” to “the incredible bust” in large part because of a dependency on alcohol and painkillers.


“I had two transitions,” Mandarich said of his NFL career. “I had the Green Bay transition from pro football to the real world, which was an absolute train wreck. Most of that was because of the alcoholism and the pain-killer addiction.


“I got sober and was fortunate enough to get another opportunity with the Colts.”


That came prior to the 1996 season. He would spend three seasons with the Colts, starting 32 of 41 games. He was their starting right tackle in the 1996 AFC wild-card playoff loss at Pittsburgh.


“Indy was so good to me at a crucial time in my life,” Mandarich said. “What was crucial to me was sobriety. It proved that if you do things the right way, you can do anything.


“It proved to me, yes, you can play in the NFL sober. Yes, you can be a starter. Yes, you can shut all those demons down. To be given that opportunity, I’ll always be so thankful to Indy. It was an experience I’ll never forget.”


Interestingly, Mandarich insisted he would change nothing if given the chance. Not the steroid-fueled college successes. Not the turbulent years in Green Bay during which he leaned heavily on alcohol and painkillers.


He and Char reside in Phoenix. Each has two children from previous marriages.


“I wouldn’t change a thing,” Mandarich. “I put myself through so much pain that it really forced me to grow up and look at myself. The growth I got from that and the level of comfort I have from that in my own skin was worth all that whiskey and worth all those drugs. It was worth it all. Now I have something to compare it to.


“When I hear people bitching or complaining about a struggle they’ve got, I’m like, ‘You know, life’s not too bad.'”


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