Chasing Danny

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

This was like having a Maoist guerrilla come down from the hills and write a treatise on the comparative virtues of Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and McDonald's. It wasn't just a matter of the author being ignorant of his subject. No. The problem was that the author might prefer to firebomb his subject and be done with it.

I grew up for a while 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 spectators who showed up at ALLTEL Stadium in Jacksonville willing to spend $4.25 for a hot dog and according to the 113 million viewers who watch the NFL on TV every week.

The first thing I did was call up my old friend Bobby Powell. Bobby had just had one of his Miami New Times stories republished in Best American Sportswriting, 1998. He's a thoroughbred scribbler who actually knows something about sports, so I figured he'd have some advice for me.

"There's nothing I want to know about Dan Marino," he said. "There's nothing I have to talk to Dan Marino about. I don't relate to him. He's a multimillionaire who's been worshiped for years. I'm not. I don't know who he is. People who know who he is say he's an idiot. They say he has the emotional development of a 12-year-old." Trying to be encouraging, Bobby added: "It would be great if you could come up with something that would illuminate the guy. You'd be doing something no one else has done."

Thinking this would be no problem, 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 up the Dolphins and got put through to Harvey Greene.

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 said. "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. I went north.

T he West African taxi driver had the radio turned up loud, and he was so excited about the game he could barely keep the 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 found the only person in Florida who had never heard of Dan Marino. After I explained about Dan -- his $6 million salary, his ownership of 18 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!"

The first thing I noticed after getting out of the cab was Marino himself about ten yards away holding hands with a small blond woman. Now this was one hell of a scoop, because I knew for a fact Marino's wife, Claire, has dark hair. When Marino turned around, I saw he had cleverly disguised himself as a short, mustachioed Hispanic and was negotiating -- unsuccessfully -- with a scalper. In the time it took me to smoke a cigarette, I counted a dozen more Marinos in number-13 jerseys. There were even some female Marinos.

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