The success has come, and now it's time for the image.
Here's one: Dan Marino, the tall, blue-eyed bachelor who posed bare-chested for Playgirl, guiding his Corvette down Miami's Palmetto Expressway.
Another: Marino in that car, wearing T shirt and jeans, chewing Red Man; behind him two crumpled bags, one from McDonald's, one from Burger King.
This kid—he's just 23 and in his second season with the Dolphins—is hot right now, but his image is in its pupal stage. After 15 games this year he had thrown 44 touchdown passes, eight more than anybody else has completed in a single NFL season, 10 more than Dan Fouts threw in his first five years; he had thrown for more than 400 yards for a record four times this season and for three or more touchdowns nine times. He is simply the most successful quarterback in pro football today.
December 24, 1984
But who is he, imagewise? Even Gary Stevenson, vice-president of Advantage International, the sports marketing and management firm that handles Marino, isn't sure. "This is absolutely the critical time for forming Dan's image," he says. "But it's impossible to describe it at this point. It's in evolution."
"He's similar to Namath," says Charley Winner, the Dolphins' director of pro scouting and a former coach of Namath's on the New York Jets. By that Winner means the obvious things—the brashness, the quick release, the vision, even the Pennsylvania steel-town roots. "Both are real fine people," Winner goes on. "I was surprised when I first went to New York to find that Joe was nothing like the image I had of him. Dan is very polite, too."
Which implies that the early image of Marino wasn't so good. Indeed, image might be the reason Marino was taken so late in the 1983 draft, No. 27 overall, after five other quarterbacks. Says Dolphins' head coach Don Shula, "You heard things about him, rumors from college"—of terminal cockiness, for instance, and possible drug use. "But the first thing I did when I got him down here was sit him in that chair"—Shula points across his desk—"and tell him what I'd heard and that I was going to accept him for what he did for me, that he'd be judged by that. He said, 'Coach, all I want is to be the best quarterback in the NFL and I'll do whatever you want me to do to be that.' He has."
"I did the Playgirl thing," says Marino, "because my buddy [backup QB] Don Strock did it. He did it because his wife wanted to see him in Playgirl. He's 34, and I thought it would be kind of a joke to show everybody the difference between a quarterback at 23 and at 34."
Marino is aware of this image business—this quest for a persona that will function for him off the field while the athlete in him works on the field—but he's not sure what he can do about it. Since his ordeal as a senior at Pitt, when he took a beating from the media and scouts alike, he has become wary of letting himself hang too loose. He probably won't be doing any more Playgirl gigs.
And what about the Namath comparison? "I don't know," he says. "He went to the Super Bowl when—1969? I was only seven years old then, know what I'm saying? What I look forward to is being consistent, the best over years. One thing, I hope my knees don't get as bad as Namath's."
Alas, his left one might be that bad now. He has undergone surgery on it twice. "The doctor told me it will be arthritic," says Marino, "but"—he smiles that street-corner smile, the one that says he's too young to worry—"hey!"
Fortunately, Marino was never fast. He ran a 5.1 40 coming out of school. He survives in the pocket with, as Shula says, "that little move" and an uncanny sense of time flitting by. He was sacked only 12 times through 15 games this season, least in the NFL, and for that his offensive linemen love him. Says All-Pro right guard Ed Newman, "You'll get juked by a linebacker and you'll say, 'Oh, bleep!' but Dan's so aware, the ball is gone. He's smart enough to use his God-given gift, which is a rifle."
To protect his bad knee Marino wears a Lenox Hill Derotation Brace. Ironically, it's a version of the brace that was designed for Namath. "It's funny, but today at practice I got a call," says Marino. "The Lenox Hill Brace Shop wants me to pose for a photo session wearing the brace." He reaches into his pocket and pulls out the note. He shakes his head. He'll have to talk to Stevenson about it.
It is early on a Tuesday morning, and the Dolphins have just defeated the New York Jets in the Orange Bowl, and Marino has thrown four touchdown passes to tie the league record of 36 in a season set by George Blanda in the AFL in 1961 and Y.A. Tittle in the NFL in 1963. Both Blanda and Tittle were veterans when they set the record, 34 and 37 years old, respectively, which makes it all the more stunning to think that Marino right now is no older than most redshirt college quarterbacks in their senior season.
Out in the parking lot some high school friends, Billy Sabo, Nicky Tudi and Carmine Casciato, wait for him. Nicky and Carmine are down from Pittsburgh on vacation; Billy has been here for several months, working as an assistant manager in a K mart and living in a spare bedroom in Marino's town house. Also down from Pittsburgh is a special guest, 21-year-old Claire Veazey, whom Marino will marry sometime after the season.
Unlike the others, who drink beer and chatter, Claire sits nervously on the hood of the car Marino has rented for his pals, and scans the stadium exits. The betrothal was supposed to have been a secret, but a wedding shop owner in Pittsburgh leaked it to the press, and The Miami Herald printed the news on its gossip page under the heading PASS COMPLETED.
Claire hasn't been in Miami long, but already she's homesick. "It's so flat here," she says.
People walk by carrying posters of Marino throwing the ball. Seventy-five thousand of the posters were passed out free tonight, and tomorrow they'll hang in dens and bedrooms throughout South Florida. It must be hard for a woman to share her man like that. "Claire's a good kid," Nicky had said earlier. "We were all at this thing the other night, and all these girls were coming on to Dan, and Claire understood. We talk to her about handling it, and she's good."
"I know he didn't get hurt tonight, but I always worry about him until I see him," says Claire now. After a while Marino strolls toward the car, and Claire, like the bride-to-be she is, brightens up.
On another day Marino is in a Miami rib place meeting with some men who want to market a T shirt that says THE MARINO CORPS WANTS YOU. The logo on the shirt resembles the Marine Corps crest, and if the gimmick catches on, some money could be made. Marino, who is doing this because the men are from Pittsburgh, has already said that his share of the profit will go to charity.
What he really wants to talk about is the house he's going to build outside Miami in a planned but as yet unbuilt community. "It will be on a peninsula on a lake," says Marino of his house. "And it'll have about 42 hundred square feet of space. Is that a lot?"
"I think 24 hundred is about average for a house," says one of the men. The deal is this: Marino gets a substantial amount off the price of the house as long as he promises to live in it at least two months of every year and act as a sort of figurehead for the development.
This is one of the blue-chip deals Stevenson has lined up for him. Last season, in a rookie frenzy, Marino was ready to put his name on almost anything. "He would have endorsed pesticide," says one friend. Now, says Stevenson, "Whatever it is, it has to be first class." It also should be something that is part of the South Florida community because Marino is becoming tied to this particular place the way Tony Dorsett is linked to Dallas and Joe Montana to San Francisco.
Tom D'Amico, the man who produced the '84 poster of Marino that shows him in black tux, gripping a football and standing against the Miami skyline, says, "Miami has adopted Marino like a son. And it wants to watch him grow up."
Simply being in Florida is still somewhat dazzling to Marino. He could have been drafted by the Steelers and lived his whole life without straying far from his old South Oakland neighborhood. And don't the Steelers now regret that they didn't draft Marino No. 1 when they had the chance. But each day spent in this subtropical lowland moves Marino further from his roots.
Outside the restaurant he'll note that here it is the Christmas season and look at this balmy weather. "Last year I went home for Christmas and it was 12 below, but it was the greatest 12 below ever. There's just something about the place you're from."
But even that is getting mixed up now. "Yeah, sometimes I'd rather be in Pittsburgh," he says. "I loved those big snows, when you're young and you take your car to a parking lot and do donuts forever, do 'em till your tires fall off. But when I'm there now, it's funny, I start thinking I'd rather be here."
It's the night before a Dolphin home game, and Claire, Nicky, Billy and Carmine sit in Marino's living room watching The Big Chill on a LaserDisc. Claire pets Dan's new puppy, Touchdown, who has already eaten a number of things in the apartment. The guys drink beer. Marino himself is with the Dolphins at their hotel, observing curfew.
Nicky looks at the framed black-and-white photo above the couch, a shot of Marino playing for Central Catholic High School. In the foreground a ballcarrier dives over a pile of bodies into the end zone, while in the background a storklike Marino leaps high in the air signaling the score with his arms. "We were on the sideline drinking beer that night," says Nicky, thinking back. "Look at how skinny Danny is."
Marino isn't skinny anymore, having had to struggle some weeks to make his Shula-appointed weight of 218 pounds. If Marino were here, though, he'd appreciate the ribbing from his pals. One Sunday morning last spring he got so lonely for the gang back home that he jumped on a plane to Pittsburgh and tracked them down at a USFL game at Three Rivers Stadium.
Claire has been considering her role in this men's club. Like Marino, she's caught somewhere between now and then, this and that.
"I just don't have much to do here yet," she says. "I don't know many people. And we don't want to start decorating this place because we won't be here long." She laughs. "Dan says I'll have to sit all day on the back porch at the new house holding a gun, waiting to shoot the alligators coming after Touchdown."
Carmine grins. "I told him to make it simple and just get rid of the dog and keep a pet alligator." The guys kid around, but they know things are changing. "There'll be a time when he won't be able to call us as much, and we'll only see him when he gets to Pittsburgh," says Nicky. "But we understand. We'll always be friends."
It is midweek and Marino sits in the twilight at an outdoor picnic table next to the laundry room at the Dolphins' practice facility. He made weight this morning by coming in early and sweating off four pounds.
"Hey, Billy," he yells, "how about cookin' me up a beer?"
Equipment assistant Bill Herman brings the quarterback a beer. People on the Dolphins do things for Marino because they genuinely like him. They like the way he always chases down the receiver after a TD pass and gives him a bear hug. And they like the way, as Newman says, "if he makes a mistake, he apologizes right there in the huddle." His much celebrated arrogance—"He's the only person I've ever seen who can strut standing still," says one local sportswriter—pertains to competition only, not personal relations. And that brassiness afield comes, ultimately, from self-knowledge. "I won't say the pro game is easy," says Marino. "But when you have receivers like we do, and when you emphasize the passing game, and you get time to throw, and the guys are open...for me, well, it's always been easy to complete a pass." Which is true.
In the Philadelphia game this year Marino got into a yelling match on the sideline with wide receiver Mark Clayton, after Clayton had argued with a referee and was in danger of getting a 15-yard penalty called on the Dolphins. Later Clayton said, "He gets so into the game that he may raise his voice a little. But he didn't need to tell me about my attitude. I can disagree with an official if I want." To Shula the exchange was ho-hum. Marino gets along so well with the players that the incident was more an example of a shared intensity than anything else. "I'm looking for fiery guys," says the coach.
Marino's fire has caused people to do strange things. Jim Vaccaro makes betting lines at the Barbary Coast Hotel-Casino in Las Vegas, and when he made odds on the Dolphins going undefeated this year, bettors came stampeding. "When Miami had about seven games to go, I figured the reasonable odds at about 10 to one," he says. "We put it up at eight to one and people bet it down to six to one, then four to one, then two to one. I could see what had happened: Marino had captured the hearts of the public. Girls were coming to the window and betting just because it was him."
Still sitting on the picnic table, Marino laughs when he is told about his impact in Las Vegas. "Are people going to change their opinion of me if I get married?" he says. "Should I concern myself with that? I guess it depends on what kind of marketability you're looking for—the playboy image or the corporate image." He swigs his beer. He's been joking. He's not concerned about it at all.
"I'm getting married because I'm in love with a girl and want to spend my life with her. You can't live your life doing what other people want you to or you'll be miserable. At some point you just have to be yourself."
A day or so later, Marino sits in a north Miami bar eating lunch and watching a football game on TV. A man several stools down who has recognized him points at Marino's red T shirt and says, "Were you in the Marine Corps?"
"No," answers Marino. "It says, 'Marino Corps.' "
"I was in Hawaii during the world war," says the man. "The Marines are a good unit."
"I'm only 23," offers Marino. This is bar talk, like being in a joint in Pittsburgh, only this place is chromed and new. This is Miami.
"Listen," says the man, "you oughtta have a second career—something to fall back on in case something happens to you. Get a real estate license. Land prices are going sky high."
"Tell me about it," says Marino. He's grinning now.
"I'm tellin' you. Things happen in football. You could be gone tomorrow."
Marino pulls his shades over his eyes and stops watching the game. He looks down the bar.
"I think I'm gonna be around awhile," the quarterback says. That is the image that lingers.