By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
By Frank Owen
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.
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.
"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.
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."
After shadowing Marino for weeks, GQ correspondent Peter Richmond found a Zen-like emptiness at the end of the road. "The key to his brilliance as a quarterback has always been the absence of reflection," Richmond writes. "And this is probably also as good a way of describing him off the field as any."
I didn't believe it. I was sure the Marino conundrum would burn away the more passes I made through the locker room. It was about all I could do, since Marino, through a third party, had nixed my requests to interview his famously chatty dad, his gregarious bodyguard, and various other people close to him.
The locker room: A sign above the door reads "Aggressive." Another sign, somewhat unbelievable, announces Friday-night Bible-study meetings. Five days before the Dolphins meet the Rams at home, we are waiting for Marino in front of his locker at the training camp near Nova Southeastern University.
Inside Marino's locker I see containers of Carmex and Mentadent, pictures of his kids, jeans and shower shoes and car keys and golf visors; a crucifix with blue rosary beads, an oversize shot glass, and a gold money clip stuffed with hundreds.
Marino emerges. There's a rush to his locker. My notebook falls on the floor. Marino launches right into a rehash of the Jacksonville game: "... balanced team... I'm very critical of myself, I feel like I should make every play possible... to be efficient doesn't necessarily mean you have to throw a lot...."
"Did you feel like you were in The Zone, Danny, during that game? Or were you just kind of keeping it going?" someone asks. Talking about The Zone has gotten fashionable in recent years, just as talking about "smash-mouth football" has been all the rage the past few seasons.
"I don't know what you mean by 'The Zone,' bro'." Marino says.
Greene pops up in the pack like a jack-in-the-box and says: "Thanks guys! That's all! It's time to bring him inside for the trainer!" Time, too, for the assembled reporters to retire to the press room, where a dozen hot, fresh pizzas are waiting, care of the Dolphins. Let's face it -- which would you rather do, eat pizza or try to interview a grumpy legend? Greene figured this one out years ago.
On the way out, I pass a female sports reporter, still a rare sight. She has flown in from St. Louis and, through sheer bad luck, has just missed her only stab at Marino.
A companion, probably her cameraman, consoles her. Sort of. He says: "Don't feel bad. I got tape. But I guarantee you there's nothing worthwhile on that tape."
The sportswriter sighs. "The guys who have been in it the longest -- I mean Elway's kind of the same way, although I think he's a little more open -- we tried to get him on a conference call last year, and we couldn't get him. It's the guys who've been in it the longest. After a while, they're stars, they get sick of it. You can almost understand it, but, at the same time, it's frustrating."
"Kind of arrogant, isn't it?" I suggest.
"Yeah, well," she says, chewing on the question. "I guess they have a right to be."
The Rams-Dolphins game turns out to be a dull, incremental shoving match. The Dolphins win, as they were expected to. The fans start filing out of Pro Player Stadium early in the fourth quarter.
When the game is finally over, I notice that Marino looks just as glum after winning as he does after losing. He's standing in front of his locker in nothing but a white towel, subtly scratching his privates and holding a toothbrush with toothpaste on it.
A member of the media pack is asking: "Is it easier knowing you don't have to be perfect out there, the way the defense is playing, does it help a little bit?"
Marino: "Well, obviously, I'm the type, I try to be perfect all the time, so uh, that's just my attitude."
"A couple of general questions unrelated to the game --" I start to say.
Marino hits me with the blue laser lock and looks exasperated. "Can I talk about the game, though?" he says.
Another reporter jumps in: "Did he have some trouble running routes earlier in the year?"
"Who?" asks Marino.
"I think, ah, for a rookie and a guy who's just starting to get into it, it takes time to understand what you're trying to get out of the offense and what you're trying to get out of the passing game, and he's still working on it. But he has that God-given gift of speed, and that helps."
The pack runs out of questions and Dan heads for the showers, still holding the toothbrush like the fetish of an African chieftain. "One quick question," I say, sidling up.
"Go ahead," says Dan, stopping.
"Kind of a different type of question. It's about celebrity."
"About being a celebrity," I say. "Some people over the years have perceived you as being distant from your fans and irritable with the press. Do you see yourself that way?"
"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.
Troy Drayton was relaxing in front of his locker, and I asked him about this animosity between high-priced football players and the allegedly free press. "Anytime you get a camera shoved in your face, it gets under your skin," Drayton said. "And you get a lot of stupid questions. Look at the question. Look at the circumstances it's asked under. There's your answer."
I drove over to a friend's house to watch the Dolphins-Bills game. In my mind it was a foregone conclusion. The preposterous Bills, quarterbacked by an underpaid, longhaired gnome named Doug Flutie, would stomp the crap out of the vanilla-flavored Dolphins, led by an inscrutable, aging legend with a bad-luck number on his back.
And that's just what happened.
The Dolphins aren't a great team this season; they don't deserve to win any Super Bowls; and none of this is the fault of Dan Marino, a bona fide sports legend trapped in a labyrinth built by moneymen, fickle fans, and media mopes.
What will become of South Florida when Marino moves off stage into a Percocet haze of knee transplants, cameo spots on Yuletide razor commercials, and charity golf? It will feel like a death of sorts, and Marino will have died for our sins.
But a new legend will be bought or manufactured. Finally no one will even notice Marino's absence, and the slow eclipse of a superstar will be complete.
The new prince could come from anywhere. Going into the Bills game, a press release announced that Dolphins quarterback Craig Erickson's elbow was damaged enough to take him out for the rest of the season. Suddenly Damon Huard, the team's third-string quarterback, was in a position to replace Marino if the legend failed to get back up from his next sack. This omnipresent possibility was enhanced by the recent injury and removal of All-Pro tackle Richmond Webb, who guarded Marino's blind side.
Huard was basking in the sudden attention. He described his recent personal background -- how he played an exile year in the World League in Europe and how he spent another year off from football working as a PR man for Phil Allen, owner of the Seattle Seahawks. That job, which paid $30,000 per year, involved a lot of speaking dates before chambers of commerce and Rotary clubs, drumming up support for a grotesque piece of corporate welfare -- Allen's bid to build a new stadium with public money. "I had to be very persuasive," Huard said. "Basically I was a lobbyist. It was awesome."
Junior lobbyist or no, Huard still possessed disarming candor in comparison to Marino. He said he was thinking of naming his new cat Gypsy, after the Fleetwood Mac song.
"How do you think Marino would adjust to being backup -- number two -- if that should ever happen?" I asked Huard, knowing it to be mainly a hypothetical question.
"I really wouldn't like to comment on that," Huard said, laughing. "I don't know what to say to that question."
"How hard is it to tell the truth, in the position you're in?" I asked.
"It can be hard sometimes, real hard," Huard said, taking the question seriously. "It can be tough, there's no doubt about it."
I never got the chance to ask Saint Marino the real questions, the ones 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?
But you and I know the answer to that one.
Before last weekend's game against the Indianapolis Colts, I put in a final call to Harvey Greene. I asked him if I could arrange to be tackled a few times by linebacker Zach Thomas. This would give me a feel for Marino's work-life.
Greene said this was impossible. Thomas might get hurt, he explained.
"Well," I said, "I appreciate you spending time with me, Harvey. You've been very helpful."
"No, I haven't," Greene said.
I reminded him that if Marino ever wanted to chat, I am listed in the phone book. He said he'd pass the message along.