|Friday, January 31
Updated: February 3, 4:22 PM ET
Does father know best?
By Wayne Drehs
Driving his SUV while listening to his son Chris on a Charlotte radio station a few weeks ago, Curtis Leak beamed with pride. The show's host had just asked Chris who was the best coach he ever worked with. And without hesitation, the 18-year-old high school quarterback answered with four words that still have Curtis glowing.
"That's easy. My dad."
Truth be told, it was a no-brainer. Curtis handed Chris a football when he was two. He pushed him and older brother C.J. to the physical limit during strenuous childhood workouts. He drove his kids to football camps during North Carolina's scorching summer afternoons. And he loaded the living room bookcases with videotapes of games so both kids could learn the nuances of the sport.
"He's the sole reason I am where I am today," Chris said. "Nobody has been a bigger influence in my life -- on or off the football field."
On Wednesday, Leak is expected to sign a letter of intent to play college football for the University of Florida. C.J. is already a backup quarterback at Tennessee. Yet not everybody sees this as a success story. Since the story of Todd and Marv Marinovich first went public in the late '80s, public perception is that overbearing parents like Leak are bad.
The argument is that their controlling ways actually do more harm than good. They cringe over stories of Curtis, pulling to the side of the road somewhere in upstate New York when C.J. was eight and putting him through a strenuous full pads workout that left him vomiting.
"I didn't appreciate that at all," C.J. said. "But as you get older, it molds you. He did everything the right way."
They bristle when they read about Curtis playing an integral role in the recruiting of Chris and C.J. And they freak over anecdotes about Ed Zbikowski, father of another highly touted 2003 recruit, Tom Zbikowski, and the way Ed similarly pulled a drained Tom to the gym after a lengthy day of school and track practice.
"There were times when I didn't want to go," Tom Zbikowski said. "And he'd just drag me there. But as soon as I finished the workout, I appreciated it. Looking back, it would have been a lot easier to just go and do what he said rather than put up a fuss."
So if the kids sound so appreciative, is public perception wrong? Are these physically debilitating lessons of discipline, determination and hard work actually a good thing? Perhaps, says Dr. Tom Tutko, a faculty psychiatrist emeritus at San Diego State and one of the founding fathers of sports psychology. Sure, these dads might be more Richard Williams than Cliff Huxtable, but Tutko doesn't see anything wrong with that.
"There's an automatic assumption out there that spending extra time working with your child, pushing him to be the best is a bad thing," Tutko said. "But the pendulum is swinging. I know more situations where it's benefited a child than where it hasn't. You're teaching them valuable lessons they can't get from anyone else.
"If it's something father and son enjoy together and it's a way of growing together, there's nothing wrong with that."
According to the most recent U.S. Census, 31.2 percent of children grow up in single parent homes. In addition, fatherless homes account for 63 percent of youth suicides, 90 percent of homeless/runaway children and 85 percent of children with behavioral problems. So is it better to be over-involved or absent?
"People say that me and my kids are too close," Curtis Leak said, "but how in the hell can you say that? With dads running around with their life all in a mess, how can you be too close to a kid or push him too hard? It doesn't make sense."
Ask Marv Marinovich. For almost 15 years now, he's been the poster boy of the wrong way to raise a son. His story has been written about countless times -- the way he began training Todd at the age of two months, the way Todd teethed on frozen kidney, the fact that when he attended birthday parties as a kid, he'd bring his own cake and ice cream to avoid sugar and refined white flour.
Everything was done with one goal in mind -- football stardom. And it worked. Marinovich was all-everything at San Juan Capistrano High in Southern California, All-American at USC and a first-round pick of the Los Angeles Raiders in the 1991 NFL draft.
But four years later, Todd was out of the league, a victim of substance abuse. And everybody immediately pointed the finger at his dad. He doesn't blame himself. And he doesn't blame Todd. Yet to this day, Marv said he sometimes lies awake at night and wonders what he could have done differently.
"I've second-guessed myself a thousand times on that," he said. "I think to myself, 'I could have done this. I should have done that.' I probably should have spent more time working with Todd on other things. He has tremendous ability in art and music that we never spent time on. I probably spent too much time working on the physical side. You have to be well-rounded."
Ask Chris Leak what he does for fun away from football and he pauses. Thinks. Pauses some more. Finally he replies, "NCAA," signifying NCAA Football 2003, the video game on PlayStation 2. Remind him that you said away from football and he pauses some more. "I rent some DVDs once in awhile."
That's really about it. He's a self-proclaimed homebody. Doesn't have a ton of friends. Doesn't chase girls. Doesn't get messed up in the normal teenage riff-raff. C.J. was the same way four years ago. He admits that he was so focused on football that he missed out on going to the mall, hanging out, eating pizza, even his senior prom. But he doesn't regret it.
"I turned out fine," C.J. said. "I don't have any social problems or anything like that. Everything's great. They say my dad is too involved, like Venus and Serena Williams' dad? Well, he must have done something right, they're the top two tennis players in the world."
Perhaps the biggest fact that everyone misses in all of this is that these kids want to work. Chris, C.J., Tom Zbikowski and even Todd Marinovich back in the day will all tell you -- once they realized the potential rewards of hard work, even if their dad wasn't there to push them, they would be busting their butts.
"I want to be the best," Chris said. "And this is what it takes to be the best. It's part of being a great athlete. People don't always understand that."
Perhaps. But after his own personal experiences with his family, Marinovich, who now runs a sports training facility in Southern California and has relaxed his training methods for 14-year-old son Mikhail, believes that even if the child doesn't want it, he has to live a varied life.
"The parents have to be responsible and maintain the well-rounded aspect of a kid's life," he said. "You have to get the kids mind completely off that area for awhile, because that's when you develop. If you just keep going higher and higher and higher, you're going to break."
Yet despite it all -- from vomiting on the side of the road to people questioning the motives of your very own father -- the families are unfazed. Consider the answer of C.J., when asked if he could go back in time and change the way his dad raised him, what he'd fix.
"Nothing," he said. "Not a thing. I'm still standing, about to graduate, with two years left to play. I've enjoyed my time. If I went back in time, I'd tell him he did a great job."
Wayne Drehs is a staff writer at ESPN.com.