Pittsburgh Quarterback Danny Marino keeps all of his old game plans inside a red plastic milk crate in his room—to remind himself of the good times. In this same milk crate, which serves as an all-purpose file cabinet, Marino has carefully saved up a substantial wad of notes and letters from his father, Dan Sr.—to remind himself of what's really important. In one of those World-According-to-the-Old-Man Epistles, Dan Sr. wrote to his son. "You are the best. You are the most dominating player in college football. Remember, nobody does it better."
Danny looks over the dozen written communiqués from his father, not all borrowed from Carly Simon, and smiles. "He really keeps my confidence up."
It isn't as if 20-year-old Marino suffers from any noticeable lack of confidence. As Pitt's quarterback for 2½ seasons, Marino has led the Panthers to a 33-3 record, the best in the nation, and became Pitt's alltime leading passer midway through his junior year. Now, as a senior, he's expected to go that final mile and sprout wings. Which for a college quarterback means producing an undefeated regular season, a bowl victory and, ta da, the national championship.
Anything less will be viewed as a calamity, at least around Pitt, so Marino had better stick to destiny's flight plan. In the past, there have been occasions when Danny has nosedived. Most people remember him best for completing that impossible pass to Tight End John Brown with 35 seconds left in last January's Sugar Bowl, the one that beat Georgia 24-20. That was Marino's 37th touchdown pass of the season; his 34 regular-season TD passes led the NCAA by four over second-place Jim McMahon of BYU. But there are those who recall 23 other passes Marino threw in 1981 to players in the wrong-color jerseys—including two in that same Sugar Bowl game—to lead the nation in that category, too. Among the latter is Danny Marino. "A great quarterback," he says, "doesn't throw 23 interceptions."
Perhaps prophetically, his first varsity pass, thrown against Kansas on Sept. 15, 1979, was an interception. His second nearly was. His third went for a touchdown. For Pitt, not Kansas. It was this kind of coolness in the face of adversity that prompted Rick Trocano, who was then Pitt's starting quarterback, to switch to safety two seasons ago (he was drafted in 1980 in the last round by the Pittsburgh Steelers) and Hugh Green to pin the name "Ice" on Marino.
Pittsburgh opens its '82 schedule on national TV against North Carolina (see page 57) on the night of Sept. 9, and Marino could win some early Heisman votes if he has a big game. Let us not kid around: the Heisman competition shapes up as a two-man race between Marino and Georgia's Herschel Walker.
If the Heisman voters are looking for any shortcomings in Marino, as a player or as a person, it could be that he is simply too good to be true. Marino is an All-America hero; he is Big Wheel on Campus; he is Mr. Touchdown (he has thrown for 62 in three years); he is the answer to every NFL scout's dream as well as every maiden's prayer. The former will be proved in next April's draft (he probably would have been the first QB drafted this year had he been eligible); and as for the latter, he is, according to Kathy Daniels, wife of Pitt Offensive Coordinator Joe Daniels, "that big, cute, curly-haired, adorable rascal."
What Marino definitely is not—Heisman voters take note—is a threat to Rod Stewart. Free Safety Tom Flynn says, "Danny loves the Blues Brothers. He loves to sing. But he's so off-key and so loud, it's like someone screaming over 90,000 people. He says that if he doesn't make it as a pro quarterback, he'll try to make it as a singer. He'd better make it as a quarterback."
What does Danny Marino mean to his team? The Heisman-type hyperbole is already flowing. Foge Fazio, Pitt's new head coach, says without a pause, "He is the Pittsburgh football team. All he means to us is everything." When Fazio is asked just how good Marino is, he says, "Well, I think Joe Namath was just as great." And former Pitt Coach Jackie Sherrill weighs in with, "I played with Namath and Kenny Stabler at Alabama and coached Matt Cavanaugh [now a New England Patriot], and Marino is better than any of them at the same stage in their careers."
For his part, Danny says, "The only reason I play is I enjoy it so much."
Note from Dad: "The game of life is more important than any game."
How Marino got so good is a tribute not so much to his ability as to his upbringing. He was born in Pittsburgh and grew up in the city's South Oakland area, five blocks from the Pitt campus. It's a working-class district, blue-collar, very.
Neighborhood scene. Danny, on his way home, waves to the bus driver ("Hey, Frank") and to Mr. Bottles, and then, "Hey, there's Big Al. Hi Big Al."
"Hey, Big Danny."
"Hey, Big Al."
"Hey, Big Danny, come see us."
"I will, Big Al, I will. Later this week."
"O.K., Big Danny."
"O.K., Big Al."
That's life on Parkview Avenue, five minutes from downtown Pittsburgh, where the practice gridiron for the neighborhood kids often was asphalt and the goals were telephone poles. Make no mistake, Danny grew up in an Ozzie and Harriet house. When he races up the 19 steps to the front door, you expect him to open the door and shout, "Hi Mom, hi Dad, hi David, hi Ricky." It's a house with a lot of love, unashamedly so.
Dan Sr. started writing notes to Danny last year because their schedules made it difficult for father and son to get together. Dan Sr. drives a newspaper delivery truck at night and his all-everything son is so pushed for time that occasionally it's hard for them even to get together on the telephone.
Marino really believes in the notes from his father. "They're not corny, are they?" asks Danny. Come on, of course not. They could be, in another context, but not in the white frame house on Parkview Avenue. For what we have here is a family whose members not only care about, and for, one another but also know what counts. Over the fried chicken Dan Sr. is saying, "It's much more important for him to be a good person than a good player."
Note from Dad: "Play relaxed and things will fall into place. On days when they don't, it's not the end of the world. You can't force success."
Keeping things in perspective forged Danny Marino. Today, with All-America written all over him, he is no different from what he was as a freshman playing second fiddle to Trocano. "If I knew how to act like a celebrity, I would," Marino says. "A lot of people who meet Danny for the first time think he's cocky," says his good buddy John Brown. "Even I thought he was. But it's just the strong self-confidence he has. Now that I know him and his South Oakland friends, I tell him everybody from South Oakland talks loud and points fingers."
It pains Marino enormously when he is asked to assess his own ability. Finally he sucks up his courage and blurts, "I throw better than anybody in college, and I can throw with anybody in the pros. There, that's what I think. That sounds awful, doesn't it?" No, not really. Brown, who caught 43 passes for 530 yards and eight TDs last season, says, "Some of Danny's passes are like bullets; other times, he'll just loft one in. There's no one better at knowing which pass to throw. He's a phenomenal natural talent." Receivers Coach Joe Naunchik suggests, "Danny knows he has good ability but he figures a lot of people have good ability. The only way I can see to improve him is to give him a ball for each hand."
See, we're talking about perspective. And when it's true that nobody does it better, what's a guy to say? Dan Sr., a Runyonesque fellow with a clarity of vision that reaches a good deal further than 100 yards, says, "The point of sports is just to go out and have fun and see what happens. Then, if you're not successful, you lose interest. A lot of people watch Danny and think how hard it is to do what he does. But that's not true. If you do something long enough, it's not hard."
Danny walked across Parkview Avenue to St. Regis School for eight years. He excelled at sports, although his father says he was "just another kid playing ball in the street." Unfortunately, grammar-school classrooms didn't hold quite the charm of a spiral into the end zone; in fact, a sixth-grade teacher told Danny's parents that he'd never graduate from high school. Danny's mother, Veronica, cried. Dan Sr. had a somewhat different reaction. "Danny could recall everything on a bubble-gum card but couldn't remember when the Civil War started," says Dan Sr. That deficiency was corrected via earnest conversation between father and son. Today, Danny is a 3.2 student in communications at Pitt.
After St. Regis, Danny walked four blocks farther, to Central Catholic High, where in one game he threw 39 passes (completing 17) in the team's 55 plays. His coach, Rich Erdelyi, says, "He has always had his feet on the ground. He has never been starstruck with himself."
All along, Marino never ever got in trouble...if you're willing to overlook the pell-mell dashes he was required to make through the neighborhood to escape cops who weren't amused by the underage keg parties held by Danny and his buddies. Spend five minutes with Dan Sr. and you'll understand why Danny wouldn't dare go very far astray. "Kids are kids," says Dan Sr., "and Danny was no different. He'd walk in and leave the door open. I mean, how much athletic ability does it take to close the door? But he was always so cooperative. We'd ask him to do something, anything, and he'd say, 'That's no problem. I'll handle it.' Then he wouldn't do it." The whole family—Dad and Mom, Danny, Cindi, a sophomore at Pitt, and Debbie, 15—laughs.
What's special about Danny is that he's a young man with roots. Pittsburgh roots. He still plays ball down at Frazier Field, a somewhat grandiose name for a patch of hard-packed dirt with a few particularly valiant blades of grass overlooking the idled Jones & Laughlin steel mills, shut down in 1980. Danny Marino is Pittsburgh through and through. "That he chose to stay at home and play football," says Gil Brandt, the Dallas Cowboys vice-president of personnel development, "tells you a whole lot about him." Indeed, it tells you he is a Pittsburgh Guy.
Those are heavy words, as Fazio, another Pittsburgh Guy, explains: "A Pittsburgh Guy carries himself with an air that he knows what's going on. He smiles and has something nice to say about everybody. He can relax on either side of the tracks...but basically is a shot-and-beer guy. A Pittsburgh Guy doesn't see the bad in the town. The factories and the smoke are a thing of beauty and the aroma of steel being made is something great."
Flynn, the Panthers' free safety and punt returner and another of Danny's good buddies, says, "Danny is so down to earth and so human. Everybody puts him on a pedestal and compares him to Na-math and Unitas. But I like to refer to him the way he refers to himself—as just another derelict from South Oakland."
Marino toyed with going to UCLA or Clemson, but, gee, they're both so far from Pittsburgh. Upstairs in his room at home are jerseys worn by some of the Panther greats (Tony Dorsett, Trocano, Cavanaugh, Green), trophies, plaques, All-America this and that. But what means the most to Danny are two pictures—one of his high school baseball team, the other of his high school football team. "Those," he says, "are the real memories." Roots. Nothing can mean more than the guys at Central Catholic, including a certificate honoring Marino as SPORTS ILLUSTRATED'S Offensive Player of the Week for his performance in the '81 game against South Carolina.
Danny and his father are showing a visitor around the old neighborhood, and as they walk by Schenley Park, a department of public works truck pulls up. Everybody is shaking hands and laughing and telling stories, at which point the truck's driver, Camel Verratti—a card-carrying Pittsburgh Guy—is asked who is Pitt's all-time best player.
"Marshall Goldberg," booms Verratti.
"Marshall Goldberg?" says Danny, laughing.
"Yeah, and after him Mike Ditka. And then you're third, Danny."
"Yeah, and you ain't never gonna be no better than third."
No need to discuss the criteria for the ranking. It's Goldberg, an All-America in 1937 (at halfback) and '38(at fullback); Ditka, an All-America end in 1960; and Marino. That's what Verratti says, and that's the way it will be. And everybody accepts it in good spirit. Finally Dan Sr. says, "We'll see you guys."
Danny says, "Marshall Goldberg?"
Camel says, "Yeah. Then Ditka. Then you."
Back home an hour or so later, third-place Marino sits and thinks about his ranking, when suddenly something occurs to him. "Hey, Camel didn't even mention Dorsett." The talk quickly turns to where everybody should eat lunch. Danny's first choice is the Original Hot Dog Shop, which he's dubbed "the Dirty O." A guy who wants to go to the Dirty O for a Buzz Burger hasn't gotten completely carried away with himself. Dan Sr. suggests Lasek's and defends his choice: "It's cheaper than McDonald's and you can get filled up and wiped out for $5." A compromise is Frankie Gus-tine's, named after the old Pirate second baseman. Once there, Danny sits in a booth and reads a copy of Pie Traynor's 1939 contract with the Pirates, which hangs on the wall. Traynor's salary: $16,000. "That," says Danny, who'll sign for zillions next year, "is a shame."
Note from Dad: "Who is best is an opinion and opinions don't get first downs."
Question: Would the Pittsburgh Steelers like Danny to succeed Terry Bradshaw when Bradshaw retires? "We would like him very much," says Dick Haley, the team's director of player personnel. "The only thing is, we don't want to do what probably will be required to get him." Which is called losing. Lose often enough and the Steelers could get the first draft pick. Imagine Danny in a Steeler uniform. In sport, it's O.K. to dream. And to hope for luck.
Which brings us to Danny's number: 13. He first got it playing baseball for American Legion Post 663 when uniforms were handed out. The big-size uniforms had numbers 13, 14 and 15. Two older players claimed 14 and 15, which left Marino with 13. "I'm not superstitious," Danny says.
"And besides, you're lucky," says his father.
"I ain't been lucky yet," says Danny. Which is not to say he hasn't played it smart. Three years ago, the Kansas City Royals drafted him and tried to sign him for a $30,000 bonus, but Danny figured his college education would be worth at least that much.
For all Danny has accomplished, what's important to him is the future—the next pass, the next series, the next game. As Brown recalls, "Ice and I roomed together in New Orleans. The night before the Sugar Bowl game, the hotel gave us a bottle of grape juice and some champagne glasses—so we could pretend. And we made toasts to everything. Danny and I got to talking about the game and I said, 'Wouldn't it be great to throw the winning touchdown? And wouldn't it be even greater catching the winning touchdown?' Then, all of a sudden my dreams were answered. There I was injured in five places, I was tired as hell, and it was fourth-and-five on the 33 with 35 seconds left. Our offense is so wide open, you never know when the ball's coming. I blew by my guy and saw Ice release the ball. I was concentrating so hard I didn't even have time to say, 'Oh my God.' All I remember is wishing I wouldn't have been on the bottom of the pile when the whole team went crazy and the Superdome came crumbling down. I had four or five guys on my neck, and my limbs were turned every which way."
Marino makes one exception to his yesterdays-don't-count philosophy. In his dressing-room cubicle is a shirt that reads "48-14." That was how badly Penn State whipped Pitt last November—Marino threw four interceptions—and the reason why the Panthers lost the national championship. Danny sometimes wears that shirt in practice because he thinks it's instructive for him to remember what everyone else wants to forget.
Everybody likes to say that Marino stands 6'4", but he's only 6'3¾" and 215 pounds. He throws three-quarter motion with a strong, snappy wrist and has a quick release. His mechanics are impeccable. He can throw short, delays, screens and swings or show off his up-the-field arm by throwing 60 yards, laughing. Dick Steinberg, the New England Patriots' director of player development, says, "He can handle it when the receivers adjust the routes, he can see above the rush, he's a leader, he has played in lots of big games and before lots of big crowds. I don't know anything negative about him."
Isn't Marino a trifle slow? "Yeah," says Steinberg, "just like Ferragamo, Bradshaw, Plunkett and Jaworski."
The only serious knock on Danny—and he's the first to bring it up—is that he still tends to force long passes, a sand-lot inclination to go for the quick six instead of the quick fix.
Note from Dad: "First downs are the best way to keep momentum. Only go deep when you and your receivers really think it will work. Only take it when it's there."
Of course, being guilty of trying to score touchdowns is a questionable fault in a quarterback. Most college and pro QBs tend to force the short patterns and the curl-ins when the going gets tough, and the results are often devastating. Flynn, who gets to see Marino in practice from his free-safety position across the line, says "Danny looks at every receiver at least once [Pitt's offense nearly always puts five out, which ensures single coverage], then he will come back and look you off. You can't make a commitment until the ball is in the air, and by then it's too late." Says Pitt's junior flanker, Dwight Collins, "He throws a bullet, an absolute bullet. I just get loose and the ball's there. There's no pressure on me. It's all on Danny."
Predictably, the Pitt backs aren't so keen on the scorchers Marino delivers. Last spring Danny threw one right through the hands of Bryan Thomas, known as the B.T. Express. In the ensuing huddle, Marino said, "Look, I threw it hard because the scouts are here and I want them to say, 'Hey, that B.T not only can run, he can catch.' " Thomas looked down at his hands to see if they were still smoking and responded, "But you've got to leave me some skin on my hands, man. See, I use these hands for a little bit of everything."
Marino reads defenses so well—"I'm really trying to become a student of the game," he says—that all his receivers share in the wealth. Last season six Panthers had 20 or more receptions, with Wide Receiver Julius Dawkins and Thomas the leaders with 46 apiece. "If Danny reads things correctly," says Daniels, "every coverage can be defeated." And then Daniels keeps clicking the films back and forth, Danny at his elbow, in a display that shows Marino so smooth he should get best actor and Pitt best film. "It's a challenge," says Danny in the dark. "But it is fun. Real fun."
Note from Dad: "I think you are at a point in your career where a defense which is preparing for a game against you is saying to themselves that they cannot stop you."
They can't. As with a runaway freight train, you know there's going to be a wreck, so the best you can hope for is to slow it down. Florida State's Bobby Bowden, whose Seminoles were whipped 42-14 by Pitt last season, thinks of Marino as "a pro quarterback in college, really." Other coaches just try not to think of him. Against South Carolina last season, for example, Marino threw six touchdown passes. The only Pitt record worth having that he doesn't have is most yards in a game. Matt Cavanaugh had 387 against Clemson in 1977; Danny is No. 2 with 346 in the South Carolina game. Barring injury, Marino should easily slide past Dorsett for total offensive yards in a career; he needs only 595 yards.
The only blip on the Marino screen came when Sherrill quit earlier this year to accept a six-year, $1.6 million contract at Texas A&M. The departure of a man who had guided the Panthers to a 50-9-1 record in his five years as head coach caused concern that Pitt's football program would be in disarray. No chance. Says the school's chancellor, Wesley W. Posvar, "Jackie resigned, we advertised the job, conducted a national search, interviewed, and named Foge. It all took 30 minutes." Fazio, a Pitt assistant since 1977, was the architect of the Panthers' best-in-the-nation defense the last two seasons; Pitt yielded an average of 224.8 yards in 1981, 205.5 the year before. He also was the man who recruited Marino. And a lot of others.
Fazio grew up in Coraopolis, Pa. (about 10 miles from Pittsburgh) and was an honorable-mention All-America for the Panthers in 1960. He may be new in the job, but he is a Pittsburgh Guy through and through. He understands that milk crate and what its contents mean to Dan Marino Sr. and Junior.
Note from Dad: "If you win or lose, I love you."
Dan Marino Sr.