Chasing Danny

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

"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. OK, 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 emerge into a section of 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 his business partner from Cleveland, Tom Zidian. 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. He reportedly carries a holstered .25 caliber revolver 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 legend 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 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 '80s, 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.

Since taking over as head coach three years ago, Johnson has 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 from 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, be it a gift of God or a genetic anomaly, Marino's skill at throwing footballs 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.

The combination of the new incrementalist running game and the lack of good receivers adds up to another failure to connect, one that reaches beyond Marino's image-managers and his own special autism.

Paradoxically, Jimmy Johnson's strategy is working -- sort of. And Marino, publicly at least, says he's all for it. Going into their third road game, against the Buffalo Bills, the Dolphins were 5-2 and leading the AFC.

On the Wednesday before the game, I returned to the Dolphins' training camp for the last time. Greene was already up in Buffalo, doing whatever public relations men do before a big game. Marino poked his head into the locker room but then vanished. Greene's second-in-command, Neal Gulkis, explained that Marino wasn't going to talk. "No. Not today," Gulkis said. "Dan's not coming out."

I stopped in front of the bulletin board as I was leaving. Someone had posted two copies of an article from the Toronto Sun datelined September 18. "Describing certain Buffalo reporters as 'scumbags,' guard Rubin Brown yesterday broke a month-long vow of silence by Buffalo's defensive line to rip the western New York press for what he perceives as cheap shots directed at both his unit and team," the article said.

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