Saturday, August 06, 2005

Ed Bouchette: Dan Marino- A Football Player's Journey to Canton

Friday, August 05, 2005
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

WESTON, Fla. -- Painted footballs from big games, awards, citations, trophies, plaques, mementoes and the enormous basketball shoe autographed by Shaq crowd the glass showcases in the trophy room at Dan Marino's South Florida home.

None has a more special place of honor than the stack of 1960s Pirates baseball cards, nor the Bill Mazeroski bobblehead doll, nor the stamp of Willie Stargell, nor the football card of former Pitt quarterback John Congemi. Not far from the Johnny Unitas autographed trading card is an old IC Light beer bottle, part of the label replaced with a likeness of Dan Marino Sr., naked from the waist up, created by Dan Jr. in honor of his dad's 60th birthday.

You can take the boy out of Pittsburgh and drop him into the tropical paradise of an 11,500-square foot Mediterranean dream home behind two security gates in this exclusive Fort Lauderdale suburb, but you can't take the Iron City out of him.

His old, faded blue and gold Central Catholic helmet sits atop one case, the facemask crudely held in place by two thin pieces of wire. Marino carried that helmet with the rest of his high school teammates as they picked up rocks on the dirt field behind the school after each practice in the 1970s. They put the rocks in their helmets, then dumped them out. The rocks did not disappear until Marino helped to purchase an artificial turf practice field for Central.

The greatest passer in NFL history and one of Pittsburgh's most acclaimed athletic sons will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame Sunday. But first, on this day in June, he had to change shirts for a photo shoot because son Joey ripped out the pocket while the three Marino boys shot basketball with dad in their driveway moments earlier.

"I'm sure I'll be a little anxious," said Marino, 43, about his date in Canton. "I saw Joe Greene, and he said, 'Listen, make sure you sit down for a few days and reflect on everything and go in there humble because it can be overwhelming. When you think about all the people in your life and the effect on your life and the opportunity to go into the Hall of Fame, it can be humbling when you get up there on the stage.' I thought that was interesting, coming from big Joe."

Dan Marino, this is the summer of your life. Stories, streams of them, have been crafted since his unanimous Feb. 5 election into the Hall of Fame. At least two newly published books written for the occasion are out, one accompanied by a 30-minute video fashioned by Erie television producer Mike Gallagher, an old friend from Pitt, and KDKA radio morning host Larry Richert, Dan's brother-in-law. The video contains grainy film of Marino's playing days at Central along with fresh interviews of former teammates and coaches. A clip of him when Central retired his No. 13 jersey draws tears from his mother as she watches it again.

"I remember when he first played at St. Regis," Veronica Marino recalled of the neighborhood Catholic elementary school in South Oakland. "This one game, he had a concussion, and he actually played the game and then they took him to a hospital. That was really scary because he was so young.

"You think to yourself, is this good for your child? But, if they want something, how can you stop him? You can't."

Defenses certainly could not, from those elementary days to Central Catholic, then to the University of Pittsburgh and 17 years with the Miami Dolphins of the National Football League. Marino threw for 61,361 yards and 420 touchdowns in the NFL, and he holds more league passing records than anyone. During that time, the Dolphins did not have much of a running game. Imagine if they had that threat as well? Hall of Famer Don Shula, Marino's coach for 13 of those seasons, does not even want to think about it.

"Dan was the best pure passer who ever played the game," says Shula. "How he would have done with a running game and play-action might have taken away from what he did as a pure drop-back passer. Are you going to take the ball out of Marino's hands?"

A different kind of ball nearly did, for he excelled in baseball and it was his passion. He compiled a 22-0 record in three years as a pitcher at Central. Playing shortstop and outfield when not on the mound, Marino hit .513 as a senior with a .987 slugging percentage. The Kansas City Royals drafted him in the fourth round in 1979 and the tug-of-war began. Marino had three choices: Play football and baseball in college, play football in college and minor-league baseball in the summer, or pick one sport and pursue it solely.

"Danny wanted to play baseball, that was his first love," claims former Pitt coach Jackie Sherrill.
College baseball powerhouses recruited him: He visited Arizona State, Clemson and UCLA. They promised he could play both sports. The Royals offered him a $35,000 bonus to play summer ball in their minors.

Sherrill enlisted the help of then-Pirates manager Chuck Tanner, who told him that by going to a major-college baseball program, Marino would be at a disadvantage because while he was playing football in the fall, the other baseball players would get an advantage on him in their fall program. At Pitt, there would not be such a problem.

Then Sherrill had to trump the Royals' pitch. He did so during a meeting with him and representatives from the Royals at the Marinos' home on Parkview Avenue in South Oakland.

"Danny is a true, true family man," says Sherrill, who spent almost as much time at Central in the fall of 1978 and spring of '79 as he did on the Pitt campus. "Everything he does is based on his family."

Had Marino played ball in the minor leagues, NCAA rules would have prohibited him from getting a college scholarship in football. Again, Sherrill went to work on him. He noted the bonus, after taxes, might barely cover his tuition, and that his monthly minor-league salary of $600 might not even cover his expenses.

"I said, you answer this question: 'Who buys Danny's mother a Christmas present, a birthday present, a mother's day present?' I think the conversation was over after that."

So, too, was baseball. Marino played in summer sandlot games in the Federation League but, mainly because he became Pitt's starting quarterback as a freshman, did not play the sport in college.

"It was baseball's loss, is what it was," says Joe Emanuele, Marino's baseball coach at Central and an associate scout for 19 years with the Royals and the past three with the Atlanta Braves. "Baseball doesn't get the chance to have kids like him come along that often. Danny's one of those rare people. He hit every level of pitching. You could have put a uniform on him and put him on the Pirates and he would have fit right in."

And if Marino had chosen baseball over football?

"We would be in Cooperstown [this summer] celebrating."

It's hard for Emanuele or Marino to harbor regrets or second thoughts today about Danny's choice. Marino played elementary football and was married across the street at St. Regis. He played in those streets and down one of them at a field now named after him, and it was a short walk over the bridge into the grassy expanses of a vast playground known as Schenley Park.
"You could get a game any time you wanted," Marino says. "Pickup football, whatever. You could get plenty of action whenever you wanted it."

After playing at Central, he moved up Fifth Avenue to attend Pitt. It was just too bad, many said, that he could not also play a little farther down the road for the Steelers, because they had the 21st pick in the 1983 draft and Marino likely would be long gone by then. The Los Angeles Express made him the first draft pick in the history of the United States Football League Jan. 4, 1983, and Marino might have signed with them had the money been right.

Instead, he opted to wait for the NFL. And then he waited, and waited some more. For more than four hours, the first round of the draft groaned on and quarterbacks flew off the board. Five were chosen in the first 24 picks, not one of them Marino. As luck would have it, the Steelers were in position to draft the hometown quarterback, and they shocked many when they passed on him, taking defensive lineman Gabe Rivera from Texas Tech instead.

The boy would be taken out of Pittsburgh.

"We had him rated next to John Elway, at No. 2," Shula says. "Our scout, Chuck Connor, was a Pittsburgh guy who knew everything about Marino -- high school, family, his college career."
But when the Dolphins set up their draft board, they did not talk about Marino because they wanted a defensive lineman and figured Marino would not be there at No. 27 anyway.

"When it looked like we might have a shot," Shula says, "that's when we got excited."

As Marino slid toward Miami, Shula called Foge Fazio, who had completed his first year as Sherrill's successor at Pitt. He asked Fazio what was wrong, why was Marino still on the board?
"I don't know," Fazio told him, "but take him."

Pittsburgh's legend would flourish in South Florida. In case you hadn't heard, you can look it up. It was only a few games before he became the Dolphins' starter and had the greatest season of any rookie quarterback until Ben Roethlisberger came along.

In his second season, 1984, he authored the most prolific passing performance in the game's history, capped with a Super Bowl berth. The Dolphins lost to Joe Montana's San Francisco 49ers, but with Marino, they would have many more chances. They just weren't able to capitalize on them. Marino never made it back to the big game, and it still bugs him.

"I think about it a lot, but not as much as I used to," says Marino, as his two golden retrievers, five of his six children and wife Claire bustle about their home. "But that's part of it; I had a great career. I would not trade 17 years and the career I had for a Super Bowl ring and playing five."

Says close friend and former Dolphins teammate Don Strock: "It certainly doesn't downplay anything he accomplished by any means. There were teams I played with that went 8-8 that, without him, I'm not sure they were 8-8 football teams."

He's revered in South Florida, perhaps more than he ever was even in Western Pennsylvania, where the home football team also has not won a Super Bowl since it bypassed him in the draft.
"He just took South Florida by storm," says Rich Erdelyi, Marino's football coach at Central. "He just charmed their pants off down there. [Going there] was the best thing that could have happened to Dan Marino."

They named a street after him. Outside Dolphins Stadium a statue of him, a replica of which stands proudly in his parents' home situated on the water at the Weston Hills Country Club, less than a season's worth of his passing yardage down the road here.

Dan and Veronica Marino moved to Florida in 1993 after Senior -- that's what everyone calls him here -- retired from his Teamsters' job delivering the Post-Gazette in downtown Pittsburgh by truck starting at 2 a.m. daily. Sister Debbie, 38, and her family also live here; sister Cindy, 41, remains in Pittsburgh.

Dan Sr.'s job allowed him to have a front-row seat for all his children's activities. He coached his son in Little League baseball, wrote notes to him at Pitt on scraps of paper -- words of advice and perspective on life and reminders about self conduct. He watched high school practices from his truck, sometimes with both girls in tow while mom, who served as a school crossing guard, was back on Parkview Avenue making heaps of spaghetti and meatballs, Dan's favorite dish.

"We never went on vacation or anything; we couldn't afford it," Dan Sr. says. "I never did as a kid, either. We went to the school picnic at Kennywood, that was it."
Now, they take vacations to Pittsburgh. Dan and Veronica make the 20-hour drive in a Chevy van over two days.

"It's a beautiful ride," Dan Sr. says. "I'm not pressed for time; when we get there we get there. The point is getting there, that's the objective."

Enjoy the ride, a note from father to son 25 years ago might advise. It's been a great one. Marino is an NFL studio host for CBS and HBO, which requires two separate trips to New York each week during the season, journeys eased by the availability of a private jet. It's kept him around the game.

"It's nice," Claire says, "because I think it would have been really difficult to have him home year-round when he first quit. It wasn't a big change, like a whole new schedule. The kids were used to that."

The Marinos have six of them. Three boys and three girls, two adopted from China. Eldest son Dan-o, an award-winning high school thespian who will pursue his education in acting at college this fall, will introduce his father in Canton. It's why his dad cannot yet pinpoint his best memory over a long sports career.

"You know what," Dan Marino says, "I think it's coming up."

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