TV Club

Week 7: Is Joe McCoy Making His Son Into the Next Todd Marinovich?

Kim Dickens as Shelby Saracen and Zach Gilford as Matt Saracen in Friday Night Lights

I have tons to say about this rich and textured episode—how could you not be moved by Landry baring his soul to Tami after Devin tells him his kiss just proved to her she’s a lesbian? (“I seem to have some kind of repellent,” he stutters.) Or by the Four Stooges’ ongoing adventures—and misadventures—in house flipping?

But first I want to pose a question one of my friends asked about J.D.: Is FNL setting him up to be a future Todd Marinovich? Marinovich, as football fans will remember, was a vaunted quarterback who was micromanaged by his dad from birth. Like Joe McCoy, Marv Marinovich scheduled his son’s every minute and meal. “I had a captive audience. … I told him when to eat, what to eat, when to go to bed, when to get up, when to work out, how to work out,” Marv told Sports Illustrated. Here’s a passage from an earlier SI piece about Todd:

He has never eaten a Big Mac or an Oreo or a Ding Dong. When he went to birthday parties as a kid, he would take his own cake and ice cream to avoid sugar and refined white flour. He would eat homemade catsup, prepared with honey. He did consume beef but not the kind injected with hormones. He ate only unprocessed dairy products. He teethed on frozen kidney. When Todd was one month old, Marv was already working on his son’s physical conditioning. He stretched his hamstrings. Pushups were next. Marv invented a game in which Todd would try to lift a medicine ball onto a kitchen counter. Marv also put him on a balance beam. Both activities grew easier when Todd learned to walk. There was a football in Todd’s crib from day one. “Not a real NFL ball,” says Marv. “That would be sick; it was a stuffed ball.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Marinovich started to fall apart when he got to college—and out of reach of his father. His performance was inconsistent. Eventually he was arrested for cocaine possession. He left USC for the NFL but didn’t make good there, either. He ended up in all sorts of legal trouble. In one detail that strikes me as particularly sad, he was arrested for suspected possession of drug paraphernalia, after trying to make his escape on a kid’s bike, and told the police that his occupation was “anarchist.”

And who wouldn’t be one, if your dad had been flexing your hamstrings in the cradle? (Being called five times a day suddenly may not look so bad, Hanna.) Is this where we’re supposed to think J.D. is headed?

Because, certainly, he’s being squashed under his father’s thumb—or fist. If Joe began to lose it in the last episode—and I can’t agree, Emily, that hauling his son out the way he did is good parenting; kids fuck up, especially kids under as much pressure as J.D.—then he really lost it in this episode. Early on, Joe pulls J.D. off the practice field to yell at him, causing Coach Taylor to intercede and ask him to leave J.D. alone. And then during that week’s game, Joe gets worked up as J.D. throws some incompletes and at halftime flips out at his son. Taylor intercedes again, telling Joe, “You yelling at him is not going to help. … Give him some breathing room.” Then Taylor tries to perk J.D. up with some well-meaning exposition about how his own dad used to expect a lot from him on the field. It doesn’t work. J.D. has Stockholm syndrome. He looks blankly at Taylor and says: “My dad—he just wants me to do my best. He just wants me to succeed is all.”

This is another way football can hurt—not through concussions but through repercussions: the repercussions that come when a parent can’t see how his ambitions are warping his child’s own sense of adventure and risk. I feel for J.D. And I feel for Taylor, who hasn’t figured how to handle this situation—and whose professional life may be threatened if he speaks honestly. Joe has the power of money and influence behind him.

Meanwhile, I wanted to talk about Buddy and his brood; their aborted road trip was perfectly pitched. Buddy is annoying in all the recognizable ways an affectionate but clueless dad can be (“You look like a hippie!” he says to Tabitha in the airport), and the kids are annoying in all the ways that clueless kids can be, whining and kvetching at all moments. And: Street is heading to New York; Riggins is applying to college—what do you make of all this change in Dillon?

(P.S.: I totally cried when Riggins was watching Coach Taylor and Billy describe his toughness and fortitude. Talk about male sentimentality.)