Chasing Danny

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

Dan Marino, perhaps the greatest quarterback in the history of pro football, slumps on a bench in front of a locker 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 himself has been sacked twice and thrown the 223rd interception of his career, and somewhere above him a record crowd of 74,051 is 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 diminishing, because it turned out to be the only spontaneous expression I witnessed out of Marino during six weeks of on-again, off-again observation. At the time I failed to jot the fart down in my notebook. I didn't see its significance yet. I merely watched the future Hall of Famer continue tearing tape off his scarred legs, head down and plainly tired. Tomorrow the newspapers and talk-show pundits would say that, despite the loss, Marino looked like his old magical self tonight, throwing for 323 yards in 49 pass attempts. But then and there, the aging superstar seemed simply to be gazing at his shoes.

There is no rational argument for Marino being a small man. At six-foot-four and 228 pounds, he's bigger than many NFL quarterbacks. Yet in real life he looks oddly attenuated. After years of seeing his image on promotional placards at Publix and on TV commercials touting home mortgages, or Isotoner gloves, or west Broward real estate, the shock of real-life three-dimensionality is hard to get over. Not that hard, of course. I bridged the six feet of space between us, stepping into the farty miasma, and asked Marino my first question. It was:

"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 in 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 TV cams, fuzzy microphones, and elbows. The pack was feeding; Marino had launched into NFL jockspeak without missing a beat.

Professional jockspeak, I would learn, is the unctuous cousin of Chamber of Commerce-talk and Rotarian-ese. 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.

"OK, 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. I had noticed that everyone called him Dan.

"He's done!" Greene shouted at me.
"Go ahead," Marino countered. "A general question, OK."
"-- 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 rapport, or at least eye contact, neither of which was established. You do this in an interview to soften up the subject and move on to something worth talking about. In this case something like: DO YOU EVER THINK ABOUT THROWING A BIG COCAINE PARTY AT THAT MANSION OUT IN WESTON AND INVITING ALL THE CHEERLEADERS OVER FOR SOME SERIOUS SKINNY-DIPPING?

"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 --"

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

I never came to understand when those times were.
My boss thought it would be great fun if I did a piece on Marino, the highest-profile public figure in South Florida. I could confront Marino in a provocative way about why he's always throwing his helmet on the ground, getting pissed off at the local press, and generally acting like an overpaid crab apple.

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