Chasing Danny

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

Monday night was congealing outside ALLTEL Stadium, and the milling crowd had set up a low howl as I entered the building. The inhabitants of the press box looked like reporters in the same way an orthodontist on a Harley looks like a Hell's Angel -- that is, they looked like junior insurance agents relaxing at a convention. And despite the uniformly neat short haircuts and rather beefy builds, these sports wonks didn't appear too athletic, either.

Except for the Associated Press guy, no one seemed to be doing much work. Not that this made for convivial chatter. They sat there, quiet and well behaved, sipping Cokes and rustling around through pages of statistics brought to them each quarter by uniformed gofers.

The place seemed rather empty, though. Where was everyone?
They were down a flight of stairs pigging out in a small cafeteria. By the time I discovered the place, there was nothing left but some pasta and chocolate cake. The Jaguars spend $35,000 a year just feeding the media.

Why weren't they down in the locker room hanging with Marino before kickoff, seeing if he sacrificed a goat? "That's not the way it works," said a guy stationed next to some camera equipment. "What planet are you from?"

For a while I watched the game, sitting next to a reporter from Pigskin Parlor, a magazine with a circulation of 8000, based in Troy, New York, that seeks out inspirational tales of players and their "communities." Kim Augstein, Pigskin's representative, looked uninspired, but I couldn't blame her. The in-house play-by-play droned on; more stats arrived. The press box was distant, chilly, and efficient, like pro football itself. I couldn't imagine a worse place to watch the game.

The reporters seemed as much a part of the institution as the uniformed Jaguars assistants, and over the ensuing weeks I heard them ask some less-than-challenging questions. I remember a reporter wondering aloud to defensive end Jason Taylor whether, given the odds, it's a good idea for kids to pursue an NFL career. The surprise answer: "You need to go to class and get your degree. You need something to fall back on." Taylor looked weary.

Another time I actually heard a reporter say to a player: "You looked pretty incredible in that last play. But that's kinda who you are, isn't it?"

Were there any reporters who covered the game from the stands?
"No," said Dan Edwards, the Jaguars version of Harvey Greene.
At the end of the night, after being ejected from the locker room, I wasn't sure what to do. Strangely, there were no media types waiting in the corridor for Marino to emerge. But there were three teenage girls and a little boy with a football.

In a few minutes the door opened and Marino walked out. He went quickly down the corridor, right past the kids. I couldn't exactly fault him; neither the boy nor the girls made any move to get his attention. It didn't seem they wanted an actual encounter, just a sighting. I tagged along until Marino slipped into one of three charter buses and lit out for the airport through the soft Southern darkness.

Much has been written -- gingerly at first, then in maudlin terms -- about Marino's second-oldest son, who was diagnosed with mild autism in 1990. The child is nearly normal now, thanks to early intervention and expensive treatment.

Comparatively little has been said about Marino's own special form of autism. No public figure has been photographed, written about, and discussed more over the years in South Florida than Dan Marino. Yet he remains oddly distant. The corporate culture of the NFL in general and professional obfuscators like Harvey Greene in particular have something to do with this autism but can't explain it away entirely.

"Frankly, eliciting specifics from Marino has never been easy," Miami Herald sports editor Edwin Pope noted in September 1992. "As frankly, I have never been able to conclude whether this was a deliberate wariness brought on by a tumultuous last year at Pitt, or just Marino's natural face."

In November 1995, Pope observed: "There is nothing in what Marino says to denote what he is. There are no funny stories because he is so everlastingly serious about football. He is hard to know; I have spent parts of thirteen years with Marino, and part of one day with his father, and I feel as though I know the father better than the son."

Around every corner there's a backlash attending Marino's reticence. Recently, for example, Marino's presence was announced to a crowd of 19,000 at a professional wrestling meet where he had taken his kids. The crowd booed. A sputtering Hank Goldberg, one of South Florida's most astute and iconoclastic sports observers, would say on his radio show the next day, "This town is unbelievable! They don't deserve a guy like Marino!"

Photographer Marc Serota spent a year behind the scenes with Marino for a book project and considers the Pittsburgh native a friend. "Anybody who believes that approaching him in a restaurant while he's trying to eat and his kid is under the table yanking on his leg and he happens to say no to an autograph -- anyone who thinks that is a means to judge what kind of person he is, is only shortchanging himself," Serota says.

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