Everybody's flying now. It has been a tremendous morning for the crew—Gavi the manager, Pat the design guy, Craig and Bruce the lawyers—even the money boys from Brazil seemed to have a super time. Couldn't you just see it? Dan Marino's American Sports Bar & Grills all over Brazil.... O.K., maybe you would change the name, but who knows? Anything's possible. It's been that kind of day. Duval Street shines like a new penny, and the May sun has yet to browbeat Key West into its usual liquid laziness. The crew can smell money on the boil, and, of course, Danny provided that. Danny was the difference.
This is an article from the June 6, 1994 issue
There's no calculus to explain the stir Dan Marino makes just by being...Danny. Sure, he inspected the gutted storefront that will soon be his newest restaurant; certainly, he nodded as Pat the design guy explained the concept; and, yes, it was he who suggested—all right, commanded, because "that's right, I'm the quarterback and don't you forget it! Hah!"—that bikinied babes on Rollerblades be sent to greet the cruise ships. But who else could transform a sidewalk the way Marino did, spurring dozens of hungover tourists to race for a look? One bleary-eyed woman grabbed Marino's hand. "You're like a god to me," she said.
She knows: There aren't many genuine greats left. There are Elway, Montana, Gretzky, Barkley, Bonds, maybe a few others—and there's Marino. Even with that slight limp—ever seen a man swagger with a limp?—he still has the bona fides of a star. He's still the quarterback. And by the time Marino's career ends, he'll probably be the quarterback. Though he has never led the Miami Dolphins to a Super Bowl championship, though no one knows if he'll rebound from the torn Achilles tendon that ended his season last October, this much is clear: In the end, a quarterback is a passer, and Marino is the best ever. He owns 18 NFL passing records and, if he recovers, will overtake Fran Tarkenton as the NFL's career leader in completions, passing yardage and touchdown passes sometime in 1995.
You can't put a price on that—but you can certainly charge a cover. Marino's restaurant in Miami's Coconut Grove section is booming, and he has plans for this new one in Key West and another in Plantation, Fla. This jaunt to Key West is his chance to stir the pot, and who could ask for better publicity? Marino has been mobbed everywhere he has gone in Key West, and everybody has promised to come by his new chow house. The crew is ecstatic. And now there's this hotel press conference. The place is jammed, Pal the design guy has just wowed the locals with his presentation, and everyone is loose. That kind of day.
Maybe that explains how Pat lost his head. There they were behind the microphones—Marino, Gavi the manager and Pat the design guy—and Gavi is talking about the franchise now. "Dan's the greatest quarterback ever—he's about to finish breaking all the records," Gavi says. And just as Marino turns theatrically to Gavi and says. "Thank you," Pat leans into his mike and says, "If he doesn't break his leg again."
Someone starts to laugh, but Marino doesn't move. He stares at the table, one eyebrow shooting to the ceiling. His face goes crimson. The joke dies, the giggling dies, Pat mutters an apology. Marino suddenly can't hear him, six inches away. Finally someone asks if the new restaurant is a sign that he's going to retire, and Marino says no, his first priority is to play again. "They're probably going to have to drag me off the field someday," he says.
"They did that last year," a reporter cracks, and Marino points at him. "Yeah, they did," he shoots hack. "And that's not funny, either." Marino smiles as he says this, so the room convulses. But Pat the design guy isn't laughing.
Neither is the quarterback.
Marino will be 33 come September. He can feel time now as he never has before. Part of that is the Achilles, how it forced him to miss football for the first time in 25 years. Part of it is the four kids, growing so fast. But mostly it's knowing he can count on one hand the seasons he has left.
He has been playing ball for as long as he can remember, and he has never won a championship. Not in peewee football, not in high school, not at the University of Pittsburgh. The only time he was in a Super Bowl was 1985, his second season as a pro. He thought he would be back often. Now Marino is beginning to rationalize why it may never happen. "There are great players who never get to win a championship, because of circumstances," he says, shrugging as if it doesn't matter. "I don't know why."
But then there's a moment in the limo, driving around Key West. Everybody is making guy small talk, jock chatter, and someone wonders if Miami Heat coach Kevin Loughery will keep his job. "Who gives a crap?" Marino says. "What does it matter? They're not going to win a championship, so what's the difference?"
Later Marino says, "There was a guy I was college roommates with—Tommy Flynn. He was the high school quarterback for a team that went to the state championship the years I was the big guy in Pennsylvania. Then he plays defensive back for Green Bay. They cut him, and the Giants pick him up and go win the Super Bowl. He blocked a punt in the playoffs, and he got a Super Bowl ring. He was in that unique situation, he has a special part in it"—and here Marino shakes his head at fate's callused hand—"and it might never happen for me."
He is sitting in a crowded bar off Duval Street, and the crew is at the next table, jabbering. Yes, Marino says with a grin, he watches Michael Jordan win three titles, he watches Jimmy Johnson win two Super Bowls in five years, and it gives him goose bumps. He wants that feeling. "Yeah! When's my turn? It's my turn to have the chance!" Marino is shouting over the din. "I'm not taking anything away from the Bills, but, hey, give us a chance. I think we can do a better job."
He has been working out harder than ever. The Achilles told him it was time. Marino has never been a body guy, pumping up his chest, curling himself silly to look good on the beach. Five times he has undergone off-season arthroscopic surgery on his left knee, but that was routine, something Marino likened to an oil change. He had the arm, and that was plenty. "I took it for granted," Marino says. "I went 145 games in a row, and I was like, Nothing's going to happen to me. I'll keep doing this another five years, and I'm never going to get hurt."
But the injury did happen, last Oct. 10 in Cleveland, on a pass, of course: Marino faded back, rolled to his right, hit Terry Kirby for 10 yards. No one touched Marino. He simply came down on his right foot, and the Achilles snapped. Dolphin doctor Dan Kanell ran out to the field, and Marino said, "I'll be O.K. Just get me up." He wasn't O.K. Season, streak, Super Bowl run—all finished. Marino spent the rest of the year on crutches, watching his team flourish under second-string quarterback Scott Mitchell and then collapse under a flurry of injuries.
Marino hated it, just standing there, body twitching with the passes he couldn't throw. "It made me realize how much I appreciate playing," he says. "You go to an away stadium and everybody's against you, and there's a certain feeling: You can take on everybody and make it happen. I missed that."
Marino is out of the house by 8 a.m. these days. He spends hours lifting weights, stretching, doing calf lifts, trying to pump his scrawny right leg back to where it again looks something like his left. He has been going regularly to yoga classes, contorting his body, stretching. He can bend over and touch the floor, something he hasn't been able to do in years. "It's kind of neat," he says.
There were times, especially when Miami climbed to 9-2 last season, that the thought hit Marino: Hey, these guys might win it...without me! For 11 years he had been the one constant for the erratic Dolphins. Going into last season, he was sure Miami had its best chance in years of making the Super Bowl. Yes, it would have been nice for the Dolphins to win it all last year. "But I sure didn't want them to win without me," he says. "I want to be the guy calling it."
He always wants to be the guy. That is how it is with Marino. His crew knows: When Danny decides he needs a new pair of sneakers—now!—everybody just says, "You're the quarterback." When there's a conversation, they all make sure there's a spot for him to jump in, because there's no doubt he will. Marino has a high-volume story for every occasion. Sometimes it's about the Dolphins, or Don Shula, or some goon he knew at Pitt, or his favorite part of The Godfather.
But today, in the limo, he's mostly talking about Pittsburgh. No, he's acting Pittsburgh, showing how it was growing up the son of a newspaper delivery man, growing up in a working-class Italian-American neighborhood; how it was to be in sixth grade and play football for the St. Regis Vikings. "We'd be in church in our uniforms," Marino says, "and the priest would say, 'Our Father....' And all of us would answer"—suddenly his head snaps down in prayer, and he's murmuring—"Who art in heaven...." He's capturing how it was then, a couple dozen kids wearing shoulder pads in church. "And then we'd all march out of there, and the cheerleaders would lead us down the street," he says.
"Nice to have God on your side," someone says.
"Yeah, 'cept he was on everybody's side!" Marino yells. "It was a church league!"
Big laugh from the crew. Marino—millionaire, famous, a sure Hall of Famer—is off now, afflicted by this galloping nostalgia. What about those summers in high school, cutting grass? The guy would leave Marino on a sun-blasted hill in the morning, tell him to weed the entire thing. He swore he would never cut grass again. He hasn't.
Kanell knows Marino. Kanell grew up in Pittsburgh too in Johnny Unitas's neighborhood and for him Marino is a last gasp of that city's once-mighty industrial class, a tough, multiethnic breed, religious and sentimental. "He's got that mentality," Kanell says. "Blue-collar. They give you everything they have. You can't take it out of him. I see it all the time. I use him as a role model. My son is a quarterback at Florida State, and I tell him, "You've got to be tough. You've got to play like Marino, you've got to play sometimes when you're hurt.' He didn't grow up in Pittsburgh, unfortunately."
Marino doesn't get back much. The patch where he learned to play has been renamed Dan Marino Field, but when Marino talks about the area, all the lightness goes out of his voice. "There are drug dealers on the corner," he says. "When I was a kid, you could go out in the street, but you can't do that now. Now when we go out in public, I like to play man coverage—a parent for every child, you know what I mean? You can't be playing zone coverage, because the next thing you know, man, your kids are gone."
The kids, he'll tell you, made him a man. Especially Michael. "It changed both of us," Dan's wife, Claire, says. "When everything in your life is fine and great, you tend to forget about everybody else." Four years ago everything was great: house, friends, football. The only thing was Michael. Two years old and he still wasn't talking. Tests confirmed autism, a developmental disorder, and both parents felt as if the air had been sucked from their lungs. "The first thing you say is, 'Did we cause this to happen? Is there something wrong with us?' " Dan says.
Nothing was wrong with anyone. Michael's number just came up, and he was born with an affliction that will never go away. But he can speak now, and he looks and plays like any six-year-old boy. Still, he can be unresponsive at times. He goes to a special school in Fort Lauderdale. No one likes it, but what do you do?
"You want your children to have every opportunity," Dan says, "but it could've been worse. He's got brothers and a sister, and he's healthy...he's not very severe. He's mildly autistic, so he might have an opportunity to be successful. From that standpoint, we've been blessed."
Both Claire and Dan say Michael's condition changed them, made them see football and fame in a starker light. It also turned the two of them into a charity bonanza. His Touchdown for Tots program raised $300,000 for children in the last two years, and he is putting his name behind a drive to build a $50 million children's hospital in South Florida. And Claire oversees the Dan Marino Foundation.
But don't get Dan wrong: Although family comes first, he still wants what he doesn't have. "If I win, my children would be the same," he says. "I'd still be their dad; it wouldn't change anything. But it would make me a lot happier."
First things first. In May, Marino took snaps in the Dolphin minicamp; he expects to do more in the next camp in June and to compete fully when training camp opens in July. He has filled his time with plenty of business since the injury, but it wasn't until he returned to the field last month that he felt close to whole again.
"I'm a quarterback," he says. "I'm not a cook, I'm not a restaurant manager. Throwing is what I love to do. It brings me the most fun and the most pleasure: When someone's in tight coverage and you throw it by the guy who's covering him like a fastball to complete a pass. And the guy knows: He had great coverage, and he still couldn't do anything about it."
Marino is in a small lounge at the Key West airport, unwinding. He is talking again about growing up in Pittsburgh, about firing spirals at stop signs, telephone poles, any target—just to feel himself gun the ball. And then he remembers: One of his favorite times ever was just a year ago, at the Orange Bowl, during the filming of Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, in which he had a minor role. The director, key grips, cameramen were bustling about, adjusting lenses, setting up shots. Then Marino picked up a ball.
"Once it was in his hands, it was a little magical," the director, Tom Shadyac, says later. "I'd be in a t‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√ë¢te-à-t‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√ë¢te with my producer, and I'd look over my shoulder, and there are these grips with their gloves off doing down-and-ins." Asked if he tried to maintain his authority, Shadyac says, "I made the catch of my life from him. Did a little down-and-in, beat the defensive back. The catch of my life."
And Marino, sitting in a dark corner, gets excited just thinking of it. He starts talking fast. "These guys working the cameras—they'd be looking at me, and then they'd just take off running. Like this....," Marino says, hands out and looking over his shoulder, acting out how it must be to catch one of his own passes. "The lighting guys would just go! We're standing around on breaks, and I'm throwing, like, 40 balls to these guys. These guys are diving! Oh, I enjoyed doing it too." He's laughing at the memory now, and it's infectious how much Marino loves this. It makes you want to go outside. It makes you want to throw a football hard, and very far.