Chasing Danny

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

A member of the media pack is asking, "Is it easier knowing you don't have to be perfect out there, the way the defense is playing. Does it help a little bit?"

Marino: "Well, obviously, I'm the type, I try to be perfect all the time, so uh, that's just my attitude."

"A couple of general questions unrelated to the game --" I start to say.
Marino hits me with the blue laser lock and looks exasperated. "Can I talk about the game, though?" he says.

Another reporter jumps in: "Did he have some trouble running routes earlier in the year?"

"Who?" asks Marino.
"Avery."
"I think, ah, for a rookie and a guy who's just starting to get into it, it takes time to understand what you're trying to get out of the offense and what you're trying to get out of the passing game, and he's still working on it. But he has that God-given gift of speed, and that helps."

The pack runs out of questions and Marino heads for the showers, still holding the toothbrush like the fetish of an African chieftain. "One quick question," I say, sidling up.

"Go ahead," says Marino, stopping.
"Kind of a different type of question. It's about celebrity."
"Huh?"

"About being a celebrity," I say. "Some people over the years have perceived you as being distant from your fans and irritable with the press. Do you see yourself that way?"

"No, not at all," Dan says. "No. No! I don't agree with that at all. No. I'm always straightforward with the press. I just try to be private with my family, and that's very important."

"So it doesn't bother you having total strangers come up to you and address you as Dan?"

"Nah. Doesn't bother me. That's just part of the job. Okay, chief?"
Dan smiles as much as he ever does. I'm a pretty good mind reader. Dan's thinking: Now lemme brush my teeth, please.

Fifteen minutes later I tag along with Marino down a dim tunnel and end up in the stadium parking lot. On one side of a steel barrier fans are gawking and pointing, but they're too far away to connect. Marino, dressed now in a green-and-brown silk shirt, embraces Tom Zidian, his business partner from Cleveland. Zidian is president of LaRussa Pasta; Marino has been the company's spokesman since 1996. A pair of Hooters girls wander by, casting sidelong glances at the star. Dan Morgan, Marino's bodyguard ("without actually saying so, ya know?") lurks near a limo, a holstered .25-caliber revolver reportedly riding his right ankle.

Brian Ostrom, an American Airlines pilot, is congratulating Marino on the game and saying, "You gotta come out to Lake Tahoe after the season and play some golf with us." By knowing the right people, Ostrom has gotten himself on the right side of the steel barrier. He's high on star proximity. "Dan's the king here in South Florida," he says, gesturing with a plastic beer cup. "No doubt about it."

What's this royalty like?
"He's intense! He's trying to be a professional and win football games," Ostrom says. "Since I first met him, he's been nothing but 'Hi, how are ya, let's play golf.'"

After talking with me for a few minutes, Ostrom looks around and notices that Marino has left in a Mercedes-Benz. The party's breaking up; Marino's inner circle is moving toward dinner without Ostrom. He shrugs.

Mark Clayton, once the most spectacularly gifted pass-catcher in the Dolphins stable, now has a gig signing autographs from atop a barstool at the Miccosukee Indian gaming hall. Ex-receiver Mark Duper, the erstwhile Horatio to Marino's Hamlet, has by all accounts squandered his millions and fallen off the face of the Earth. Don Shula, Marino's legendary former coach, drifts in his dotage, summering in North Carolina and hawking steak houses. Only Marino remains from the Eighties, a time when the Dolphins captured the dreams of a nation before settling back into a long, erratic ride.

Take whatever charm and spirit and generosity and courage and human warmth may or may not exist in Dan Marino and extrude it through a sieve that permits only the bitterest essence of these qualities to emerge. Imagine Porky Pig come to life as a monomaniacal corporate raider, the grim, mercenary distillate of the competitive impulse. That is Jimmy Johnson. Marino represents everything the NFL pretends to be; Jimmy Johnson is everything it really is, especially now.

When he took over as head coach three years ago, Johnson vowed to rely on defense, emphasize the running game, and minimize risk. "The bottom line is production," he said a year ago, summing himself up. This season, with a mandate by virtue of the lackluster losses of the previous two, he is finally putting his plan into effect. The result is some of the most tedious and puzzling football ever witnessed in South Florida.

It is also a de facto demotion for Marino, because his remarkable skill at throwing footballs (a gift of God? genetic anomaly?) has been subsumed by the group. The ball has been taken out of his hands and placed in the care of various mediocre running backs. When Marino does pass (often in desperation, when the defense fails or the running game gets nowhere) there's not much of a player to catch the ball.

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