Chasing Danny

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

He explained that practices were closed to the public and the press because both sorts of civilians are distracting to the players. And there was no way I could sit in on the Jacksonville game because the press box was already jammed. As for hanging with Marino....

"Marino's time, well, he's very private," Greene explained. "Even here, and you can talk to our beat writers, he's not the most accessible guy. At best he does everything on a Wednesday, collectively, and talks to the group, doesn't do any real one-on-ones, and isn't really available after a lot of the games."

"Is that because he's gotten burned by the --"
"No! It has nothing to do with that," Greene insisted. "He just feels that when people want to talk football, it's one thing. But then people want to talk about other things. He didn't even talk to the media this week. Some weeks he does, some weeks he doesn't."

Greene added ominously: "There is a sometimes difficult environment between the media and the team, and I have to do what I can to maintain the best kind of, uh, interaction that I can. I have to protect him."

"Protect him from what?" I asked.
"Protect him in the sense of the demands that he has," Greene said patiently. "I don't care what anybody asks him. There's nothing you're going to ask that hasn't been asked before. Hell, it's a free country. I'm not a censor. You can ask him if he beats his wife for all I care."

"You think he'll be talking on Wednesday?"
"I don't know," Greene said. "I couldn't tell you."
"Does he beat his wife?"
"You'd have to ask him that."

Greene always seemed a little nervous to me, but very nice. He was wrong about one thing, though. There was a last spot in the press box in Jacksonville -- and one last seat on American Eagle.

The West African taxi driver had the radio turned up loud, and he was so excited about the game he could barely keep his cab on the road. After a decade in South Florida, Jacksonville looked to me like a foreign country peopled by happy middle managers in Sansabelts and penny loafers. So I pulled that time-honored trick of foreign correspondents: I interviewed the taxi driver.

To my surprise he had never actually been to a Jaguars football game or any other football game. He believed football was basically cricket somehow combined with rugby. The real shocker was this: I had stumbled across the only person in Florida who had never heard of Dan Marino. After a little explanation -- Marino's six-million-dollar salary, his ownership of eighteen NFL passing records -- the driver pretended he'd known about him all along. "Yes, yes!" he screamed, tailgating a Lincoln. "That man good man! Great man!"

In the lifespan of a house cat, pro football has fully flowered as America's corporate opera, what with its jet-setting owners, its skyboxes for the executive elite, and its club seats for the white-collar wage slaves. Last year ABC, CBS, Fox, and ESPN signed broadcast contracts worth $17.6 billion, and anyone who has been to a pro game lately knows that the action on the gridiron is almost incidental to the spectacle of money and stratified status. With the average player's salary hovering around $760,000 (as compared with $141,000 fifteen years ago), even the on-field drama has less and less to do with what writer Charles Pierce once called "the hoot and howl of authentic barbarism." These aren't gladiators anymore; they're part of a millionaires' club whose members wear jockstraps on Sunday.

So why do the slobs in the slob seats keep showing up? Partly on account of the way football, the ultimate team sport, still satisfies a deep urge to lose oneself in a group. Which is a nice way of saying that fans are losers who depend on the team for their identity. That said, the big paradox of pro football is how the NFL and its fans demand individual superstars. And there's a further piece of irony, wrapped around this paradox like bacon around a stadium frankfurter: Fans want to see these stars flame out or screw up. They get righteously indignant when the star obliges, but they get downright petulant when he doesn't. This is why everyone has a story about what a jerk Dan Marino really is.

The problem with these stories is they never quite pan out. For example, a friend told me her nephew had been yelled at by Marino when he rescued Marino's son from a tree. But I called the nephew, and it turns out Marino had actually thanked him profusely and later sent him a card.

"He's a rather boorish character, you know," said another old friend, referring to the 37-year-old quarterback. But when pressed, he couldn't give an example, and he finally admitted it all amounted to hearsay.

"One word for that," says Jim Jensen, Marino's old Dolphins roommate, talking about the local tendency to badmouth Marino. "Envy. The situation, when people think he's an asshole -- well, here's an example. He's at a baseball game or something. He has to get back home to go to his son's baseball game, and he doesn't have time to sign autographs. He can't sign autographs all his life. He's got a life himself. Situations like that are going to arise. It's perfectly reasonable. But that's where this unreasonable perception comes from."

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