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OUT FRONT AMONG BACKUPS

Dec. 21, 1987
Dec. 21, 1987

Table of Contents
Dec. 21, 1987

Lakers-Celtics
Dallas Cowboys
Lady Longhorns
Team USA
University Of Miami
Bill Johnson
Morten Andersen
Television
Wrestling Padre
Focus
Point After

OUT FRONT AMONG BACKUPS

Behind every great Miami Dolphins quarterback, there has been Don Strock

His amplified voice drifts down from the pavilion atop the clubhouse at Doral Park, a palm-studded golfing community grafted onto the sandy flats to the north and west of Miami International Airport.

This is an article from the Dec. 21, 1987 issue Original Layout

Two dozen golfers have paid $25 each this breezy Monday for a round of golf preceded by an alfresco lunch—neat little rollups of ham, roast beef and cheese, plus potato salad—and the opportunity to quiz the club's permanent "Sports Host," Don Strock, about the Miami Dolphins' 20-14 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals the previous day.

"Well, Mark Duper only has so many ribs," Strock is saying in response to a question about why he does not call the "curl lateral" more frequently. Six years ago that play did more to enhance Strock's reputation than any other in his career. "As you might remember," Strock says, "we used that play in the San Diego game."

The golfers chuckle. Most of them are regulars who know Strock. They have heard the stories of him coming off the bench in the second quarter of the 1981 season AFC playoff game against San Diego with the Dolphins already trailing 24-0. In particular, they have heard the tales of the near legendary '87 curl lateral," a flea-flicker in which Strock passed to wide receiver Duriel Harris, who, just as he was to be tackled, lateraled to trailer Tony Nathan, who went on to score a 40-yard touchdown on the final play from scrimmage of the first half. The razzle-dazzle pulled Miami back to within seven points of the Chargers.

Even Strock must smile at the memory, his teeth flashing white against his sun-darkened face. No matter what the reason for a smile, it seems as much a part of Strock's image as the baseball cap and aquamarine warmup jacket he wears on the sidelines of Dolphin games. "He's just such a good-natured guy," says his wife, Debby. "Nothing seems to get him down for long."

And why shouldn't Strock be happy? He's only got the best job in football, if not in all of sports.

"No question about it," says Bob Griese, the six-time All-Pro Dolphin quarterback who is now an analyst with ABC. "The guy has made more money per bruise than anyone in the game."

In his 14 years with the Dolphins (15 if you count his rookie year spent on the taxi squad), Strock has played behind Griese, who started 152 games; Earl Morrall (who started 11 and was himself a famous backup for Griese and Johnny Unitas); David Woodley (41); and now Dan Marino, who has started all but two games since becoming the No. 1 quarterback in 1983, and who, midway through this season, had started 52 games in a row.

Nice work if you can get it.

In a 1985 SI poll of 200 NFL pros, Strock got a vote as the smartest football player in the league from Patriots linebacker Steve Nelson. "He has to be smart to get paid that much for carrying a clipboard," said Nelson.

At 37, Strock remains one of the highest-paid Dolphins, having signed a one-year contract worth an estimated $350,000 after a brief holdout during training camp. "Figure it out," says Griese, laughing.

All right. As of Nov. 1, with half the season played, if Strock didn't throw another pass all year—and deducting four weeks' pay for the strike—that would work out to $52,500 for each of his five completions. All of them came against the New England Patriots on Sept. 13, when Marino got kicked in the eye and left the game.

Actually that calculation is not entirely fair: Strock also was called on to punt seven times in that game after Reggie Roby went down. So his completions and punts were worth $21,875 apiece.

"A gravy train," concludes Griese.

Is Strock worth it?

"That '81 playoff with San Diego was a classic example of what he is capable of doing," says Dolphin coach Don Shula of the game in which Strock threw for 403 yards and four touchdowns only to lose 41-38 in overtime. "He deserved to be the winning quarterback in that one."

Between 1973, when he was drafted in the fifth round out of Virginia Tech after leading the nation in passing with 3,243 yards, and Nov. 1, the midpoint of this season, Strock has appeared in 155 games for the Dolphins. He has started only 20, but Miami's record in those games is 14-6.

"Everybody just has so much confidence in him," says Duper, who holds no grudges, even though he suffered torn rib cartilage the most recent time Miami ran the curl lateral. "He prepares himself so thoroughly you know he knows exactly what he's doing. We just feel that not only do we have the best quarterback in the league, but we have the best backup, too."

Since Strock's last start, a 34-14 defeat of the New York Jets in 1983, his playing time has come mostly in cameo appearances when Marino gets nicked or the Dolphins are way ahead or way behind. But if his value to the Dolphins were measured only by his arm strength, owner Joe Robbie would have found a cheaper cannon long ago.

What do you think the 6'5" Strock does when he stands there on the sidelines, aside from towering over people and looking conspicuous?

"What do I do?" asks Strock mildly. "Well, I stay ready, and try to help as much as I can."

Help? When New York Giants general manager George Young called Strock "a playing coach," he was close. "He has responsibility in the outcome of the game," says Griese. "If Shula takes too long to call a play, Don might suggest something. And Don Shula and Don Strock think a lot alike. They'd probably call the same play anyway."

Marino, the alltime top-ranked passer, with a 96.3 career rating according to the NFL's statistical formula, freely credits Strock with helping him develop into, well, the best pro quarterback in history. "I didn't know that much about Don, because I wasn't a big Dolphin fan when I was in high school or junior high school in Pittsburgh," says Marino, who went on to become an All-America at Pitt. "But when I got here, I kept asking questions. And he kept talking to me."

Although Marino's talent has meant less and less playing time for Strock, the older quarterback seems more content with the situation now than he did when he was part of the "Woodstrock" entity of the early '80s. That was a time when the Dolphins used two different offenses, starting off with a run-oriented game quarterbacked by Woodley, who, if he faltered, would be replaced by Strock and an all-out passing attack.

"He didn't say much about it during that time," says Debby. "But you could see the look in his eye. It was a frustrating time. There were some chances for him to go to other teams, but the thought of having to leave.... I would get really depressed about it. Besides, Don put a lot of effort into this team, and it means a lot to him."

The arrival of Marino as the Dolphin's No. 1 draft pick in 1983 changed the picture: Now Miami had two drop-back passers and Woodley was the odd man out. After that season, Woodley was traded to Pittsburgh. Strock, meanwhile, became Marino's best friend, despite the 11-year difference in their ages. Strock and Debby are godparents to Dan and Claire Marino's son Daniel Charles, born Sept. 4, 1986.

"With us both being quarterbacks and both being from Pennsylvania [Strock is from Pottstown], it was just kind of a natural thing," says Strock. "We're the same kind of people."

"Goofy," says Debby. "The two of them together are like a couple of kids."

The only real source of friction between the two quarterbacks occurs when one or the other is driving a car. Marino, says Strock, plays the radio buttons like a video game.

"After about 10 minutes, I'll turn to him and say, 'Do you realize we haven't heard a complete song yet?' " says Strock.

Strock is much more set in his musical tastes. The radio in his Chevy Blazer is invariably tuned to stations that specialize in what program directors now like to call classic hits. "Oldies," says Strock. "Like me. Both Debby and I love music from the '50s and early '60s. Martha and the Vandellas. Marvin Gaye. The Platters."

And anything at all by Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. Along with golfing trophies and footballs from memorable games (the earliest, dated Dec. 7, 1975, commemorates Strock's first Dolphin start, a 31-21 defeat of Buffalo in which he connected on 12 of 15 passes), one of Strock's most prized possessions is a photograph of himself with Valli.

"It was taken about six or seven years ago," says Strock. "I was in a restaurant in Buffalo with a friend when I looked over and said, 'That's Frankie Valli!' I sent a bottle of wine to his table, introduced myself and got the picture taken.

"Talk about longevity. Working My Way Back to You has got to be my all-time favorite Four Seasons song. I first heard it when I was between the 9th and 10th grades.

"I guess I have been around for a long time," says Strock, his face lighting up with amusement. "I never thought I'd be here for 15 years. And it kind of amazes everyone else, too, including some of my high school and college teammates who show up at games in Philadelphia or Cincinnati and ask, 'Are you still here?'

"When I tell some of the younger players I played with Paul Warfield, who played with Sam Wyche, who's the coach of the Bengals, they're stunned. Some of my early contemporaries were Carl Eller and Jim Marshall...the list goes on and on. And then you think that some of the guys here were born in 1965.

"Scott Schwedes asked me the other day if I went to Woodstock, and I said some of my friends did," adds Strock. "He just nodded and said his stepmother had been there."

The most likely reason Strock missed Woodstock in the summer of '69 was that he was playing golf somewhere. He claims to have shot 50 for nine the first time he tried the game and says his handicap at the moment is seven.

"He lies," says Griese. "He tells people that his handicap is anywhere from 7 to 13. I'd say it's about a 4. Plus he has all this illegal equipment, all sorts of drivers with real stiff shafts that wiggle a lot. And you have to look real fast to catch his backswing, or you'll miss it."

Strock, overhearing Griese's comments, just grins. If he buries himself in the team during the season, golf grants him time during the off-season to feel free.

"We do a lot of traveling to the different pro-am tournaments in the off-season," says Strock. "I love the game, I really do. I have no aspirations of being a professional, but I'd like to get as good as I possibly can."

Between his job at Doral Park, which entails mostly public relations work and running tournaments (80 last year), and his involvement with several charities (March of Dimes, Multiple Sclerosis Society, Boys Club, Juvenile Diabetes Foundation and the Fair Haven Center), Strock actually spends less time at home during the spring and summer than he does during the season.

"I asked him once if he ever got tired of golf," says Debby. "He just said, 'No,' and went out to play."

And while Marino may be the No. 1 quarterback of the Dolphins, there is no argument as to who the better golfer of the two is. Well, there's argument, but that's about all.

"I keep saying I'm going to beat him before he turns 40," says Marino. "And I guess I don't have much time left."

"You could definitely say I'm on the downswing of my career," Strock says. "I'm the only Dolphin around with a Super Bowl ring, and I'd love another one. I love being involved with the game. I love being a part of the team.

"Look at it this way: I run a 5.2 40-yard dash, I can't run far or jump high, but I'm still here."

Wouldn't you be smiling, too?

PHOTOANTHONY NESTEStrock has kept watch with Shula from the sidelines for 14 seasons.PHOTORONALD C. MODRAStrock left the bench and threw for four TDs in a 1981 playoff.PHOTOBILL FRAKESStrock has had a blast playing behind Griese and Marino.

Free-lance writer Jenny Kellner first saw Don Strock play in the 1981 AFC playoff.