Chasing Danny

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

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 around 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 kiddies. I couldn't exactly fault him; neither the boy nor the girls made any move to get his attention. It didn't seem that they wanted an actual encounter, just a sighting. I tagged along until Marino slipped onto one of three charter buses and lit out for the airport through the soft Southern darkness.

Walking out of the stadium, I spotted one last Marino. He was passed out facedown on the pavement, ankles crossed and a plastic beer cup still firmly gripped in his right hand. In his dreams he was no doubt fading back for an 80-yard Hail Mary.

Much has been written -- gingerly at first, then with typical maudlinness -- 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 more photographed, written about, and talked of over the years in South Florida than Dan Marino. Yet he remains oddly distant. The corporate culture of the NFL, and professional obfuscators like Harvey Greene in particular, have something to do with this autism but can't explain it entirely away.

"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 the University of Pittsburgh, or just Marino's natural face."

Pope in November 1995: "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 13 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. Just last week 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!"

Marc Serota, whose photographs illustrate this story, spent a year behind the scenes with Marino and says he now 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.

"After 16 years in the NFL, Marino expects people to know who he is and respect him, but they don't," adds Serota. "Unfortunately the attitude among fans and the media is, 'What have you done for me lately?' Consequently, he's been very, very private when it comes to the real story of who he is."

Discussing why Serota's book on Marino remains the only one ever published, Harvey Greene notes: "If you look at other quarterbacks that have had books written about them, they're one of two things. Either they recently played in Super Bowls, or they're brazen and outspoken and bombastic and all the things that Danny is not."

Says Marino's marketing agent, Ralph Stringer: "Danny's about as normal as you could get. He's like you or I, other than there's one important difference -- he can sling it, we can't."

Kevin McCarthy, owner of Armadillo Cafe, agrees. "They don't play the star game," McCarthy says, referring to Marino and his wife. "She doesn't call up and say, 'This is Mrs. Marino, and I'd like a table for 40.' She'll call me up and say, 'Can I come in for dinner,' and four people, and this night. Then I'll say, 'What's the name,' and she'll say, 'Marino.' They're not trying to push their way in or anything. They come in and dine early. Sometimes they bring the kids. That's it."

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