Chasing Danny

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

"Who's gonna win?" I asked one of them, yawning.
"Dolphins!" shrieked Olga Bada. "Marino! He's still The Man! He'll always be The Man!"

Olga's shrieking was a dead giveaway that she thought I was a TV reporter. I explained I wasn't, and she calmed down and stopped looking around for the camera.

"I've heard Marino's kind of mean." I said this with a sly arch of the eyebrow.

"Mean? I've never heard such a thing," Olga said. "OK, I'll admit I've heard it." She chewed on this and announced in a stage whisper: "I heard he's a bad tipper."

I have no idea if Marino is a cheapskate or not. I was just setting Olga up as a segue into the following paragraph. Ahem: In the life span 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 game itself is almost incidental to the spectacle of money and stratified status. With the average player's salary hovering around $760,000 (as compared to $141,000 15 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 any more; they're a millionaires' club that wears jockstraps on Sunday.

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. This 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 gotten yelled at by Marino when he rescued Marino's son from a tree. But after I called the nephew, it turned out Marino had actually thanked him profusely and later sent a card.

"He's a rather boorish character, you know," said my old buddy Rafael Navarro, 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. Navarro and I were sitting in the Armadillo Cafe in Davie one night in the spring of 1992 when Marino came in to pick up some food. He was listing like a Haitian freighter in a summer squall. Then again, my perception of him being blitzed could have been colored by the fact that I was blitzed. And who cares? He didn't drive his car through the wall or punch anyone.

"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."

Monday night was congealing outside ALLTEL Stadium, and the milling crowd had set up a low howl. Weary of counting fake Marinos, 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 per 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 sitting 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, an 8000-circulation magazine 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.

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