Chasing Danny

Is Dan Marino a stoic swaddled in hype or a frigid sports celebrity with the personality of an egg timer?

Dan Marino, perhaps the greatest quarterback in the history of pro football, slumps on a bench in front of a locker and starts ripping wads of tape off his legs. The Dolphins have just lost to the Jacksonville Jaguars in a road game 500 miles north of Miami. Marino was sacked twice and threw the 223rd interception of his career, and somewhere above him 74,051 spectators, a record crowd, are going home to their hangovers, satisfied with his defeat. Sitting by himself in the bowels of Jacksonville's ALLTEL Stadium, Dan Marino cuts a rather fulsome and lingering fart.

This fart resonates in my memory today. It expands instead of diminishes because it turned out to be the only spontaneous expression I witnessed from Marino during six weeks of on-again, off-again observation. At the time I failed to jot down a note about the fart, its significance not yet revealed. I merely watched the six-foot-four, 228-pound future Hall of Famer continue tearing tape off his scarred legs, head down and plainly tired. The next day the newspapers and talk show pundits would say that, despite the loss, Marino looked like his old magical self, throwing for 323 yards in 49 pass attempts. But then and there, the aging superstar seemed simply to be gazing at his shoes.

I bridged the six feet of space between us, stepping into the malorodous miasma, and asked Marino my first question.

"Mind if I ask you a question?"
Marino's head snapped up. The rifleman's eyes, separated by a slightly snouty nose, fixed me in a blue laser lock. "Uh," he said. "Sure. Just wait till the others get here."

He put his head back down and commenced balling up the tape scraps. I noticed defensive end Trace Armstrong stomping naked and grim toward the showers. An equipment manager was feverishly gathering up shoulder pads and tossing them into a big bin.

Twelve hundred press credentials had been issued for this Monday-night showdown between the Dolphins and Jaguars. Soon the "others" -- about 40 deadline sports reporters and cameramen who had muscled into the locker room -- fell on Marino like an armed ambush. I was suddenly on the peripheral orbit of a new solar system composed of rolling video cams, fuzzy microphones, and elbows. The pack was feeding. Marino launched into NFL jockspeak without missing a beat.

Professional jockspeak, I would learn, is the unctuous cousin of Chamber of Commerce talk and Rotarianese. Think of a boosterish Unitarian minister who has just been elected mayor of something. Every statement is earnest and uplifting. To make matters worse, Marino's oratory issues from his mouth in an uninflected near whisper, as if he were reciting a grocery list while coming down with laryngitis.

"... offensive line... outstanding job... we've been giving great effort all year and will continue to work hard," he was saying. "... defense... those guys laid it on the line for us... Jacksonville... tough place to play... we lost the game and that's the bottom line... Monday night on the road... tough anywhere you play. ..."

Just as I was shoving into position with my tape recorder, wondering how one conducts an interview under these ridiculous circumstances, Harvey Greene stepped in. Greene is the Dolphins' vice president for media relations. "Okay, guys," Greene said. This was the cue for everyone to shut up, turn off the cameras, and get out of the locker room. I didn't understand the cue.

"General question, Dan --" I said. Everyone called him Dan.
"He's done!" Greene shouted at me.
"Go ahead," Marino countered. "A general question, okay."

"-- unrelated to the game," I continued. "How much pain are you in on a day-to-day basis?"

This was a throwaway query designed to establish a little rapport, or at least eye contact, neither of which was accomplished.

"Not too bad," Marino said of the pain. "Some days it's tough. In practice it's tough. Your knees bother you a little bit."

"Can you describe it more than that?" I asked.
"Just the typical arthritis pain you might have from having a lot of operations --"

"Okay," Greene hissed. "Thanks! He's done!"
And he was.
The distinguished members of the media were invited out of the locker room. Later Greene would tell me: "There are times to ask him things like that."

I never did learn when a person might encounter those times. And that was but one small aspect of the search for Dan Marino that proved elusive.

While growing up, I lived for a time just two blocks from the Cleveland Browns' training camp. It was neat to play football in the morning and then go watch the Big Boys practice. I also have dim memories of watching Joe Namath on TV with my dad and getting my first taste of Pabst Blue Ribbon between the halves of Super Bowl VI. But when I got to be about nine years old, it seemed like it was time to grow up and get on with life, right?

Wrong, according to the tens of thousands who showed up at ALLTEL Stadium in Jacksonville willing to spend $4.25 for a hot dog. And also wrong according to the 113 million viewers who watch the NFL on TV every week. In hopes of overcoming this major cultural disconnect, I decided to head for Davie and watch a few Dolphins practices, ride around with Marino for a couple of days, and keep a tape recorder running. I called the Dolphins and was put through to Harvey Greene.

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