Dan Marino was a portrait of dishevelment as he finished his final interview after engineering another victory for the Miami Dolphins. He already had rolled up the sleeves of his white Oxford, which made pulling on the tweed jacket especially difficult. The red tie wasn't cooperating at all, running off track behind his neck. His wet, stringy curls were falling all over. And he was in a hurry.
He quickly brushed through a few more answers. He looked up. "How's that?" he asked. It's his standard line for ending interviews. It's not meant as a question.
Someone professing to be from "English TV" protested, but Marino definitely was going. "I hope you understand," he said, and he blew out the door.
Ed Newman, one of Marino's blockers on the Dolphins' offensive line, has a new Marino word: "nifty." He uses it to describe the way Marino plays quarterback. He might as well use it for the whole life style.
Second-year pro Dan Marino, the top-ranked passer in the NFL, is as agile off the field as he is on it. This man treads lightly. He has been handed fame and fortune in huge amounts, but he acts as if he is getting it by the spoonful.
"He really is one of the guys," said Newman, the veteran guard. "Some other quarterbacks have such elite postures. But he is cussing and getting down in the mud with the rest of us."
There isn't too much cussing going on these days in Miami, where the Dolphins are 8-0 and Marino leads the league with a 120.9 quarterback rating, compared to Milt Plum's NFL season record of 110.4, set in 1960. He already has thrown 24 touchdown passes this season, breaking the team record of 22 held by Bob Griese, who took 14 games to do it. At this pace, Marino will finish with 48. George Blanda and Y.A. Tittle hold the NFL/AFL record at 36. Marino also has 2,390 passing yards. He completes two of every three passes he throws. He has been sacked just three times.
And he is only 23.
"He's just been a joy," Dolphins Coach Don Shula said. "He is everything you hope for in a young quarterback. Nothing ever fazes him."
Normally, nothing ever fazes Shula. You figure this man has seen just about everything in 21 1/2 years in coaching, which makes praise such as this all the more noteworthy. And it comes every week.
"I want to do it," Shula said. "He deserves to be patted on the back. So many people want to find bad things about him, and there aren't any."
Marino's success is often traced to his backyard in the working-class Oakland neighborhood in Pittsburgh, the place where he played all his football until he became the Dolphins' surprise first-round draft pick in 1983. In the backyard, his father played catch with him for hours on end (so did Willie Stargell, who lived in the neighborhood), but dad had one rule. Danny, as he still is called by his friends, was not allowed to bring his arm back behind his shoulder to throw, even though the ball was heavy for him. His father wanted him to use his wrist to snap passes off.
Now, when people talk about Marino, they marvel at the way he releases the ball to a receiver. "It's phenomenal," said wide receiver Jimmy Cefalo. "Before the safety can react, the ball is there."
Coaches have always wanted to take advantage of this great right arm. At the University of Pittsburgh, Marino threw 1,204 passes as Pitt won 42 of his 47 games. Obviously, he came to Miami with some experience. And Shula immediately told him he was calling his own plays in preseason to learn the Miami system.
Pretty soon, he was running the Miami system. In his sixth pro game, he beat out David Woodley, who had led the Dolphins to the Super Bowl the year before. In his first start, Miami fell behind Buffalo, 14-0, in the second quarter. Marino, undaunted, walked up and down the sideline, patting his teammates on the back, telling them not to give up, not to lose faith in him. He just had to get warmed up. Eventually, he completed 19 of 29 passes for 322 yards and, although Miami lost, 38-35, in overtime, a star was born.
Or, more accurately, reborn. Going into his senior year, Marino appeared to be the top prospect of the Quarterback Class of '82, which included John Elway, Jim Kelly, Tony Eason and Todd Blackledge. But he threw 23 interceptions and only 17 touchdown passes, and Pitt, a preseason No. 1, went 9-3, not 12-0. He was lucky to be drafted in the first round, taken on the next-to-last pick. NFL scouts thought five quarterbacks (Elway, Kelly, Eason, Blackledge and Ken O'Brien) were better.
Something had to be wrong. Rumors about drugs surfaced. Then, as now, everyone denies it. Pressure, which caused Marino to force the ball more than he ever did before, seems a more likely excuse.
"When you look back on it," Marino's father Dan Sr. said the other day, "that year was as beneficial as anything has been in his career."
Dan Sr. works nights driving a delivery truck for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. When Dan Jr. signed with the Dolphins for an estimated $2 million over four years, he offered to buy something -- anything -- for the members of his family. They settled on a satellite dish in the backyard so they could pick up all the Dolphins' games.
Marino never was broken of his giving mood. When he signed a contract with Brooks shoes, he had a clause added stating that for every touchdown pass he throws or touchdown he scores, three pairs of shoes will be sent to children of unemployed steelworkers. And he made sure some shoes were sent to the ground crew at Pitt Stadium.
The goodwill works on the field, too. Newman remembers the talk in the huddle following a play last season in which Marino threw to the wrong man. "That was my bad play," Marino told his teammates. "I'll take the blame for that one."
Said Newman: "That is one of the most impressive things about the guy. Dan is a self-correcting machine."
To a point. He gets a lot of help from Shula. Denver Broncos Coach Dan Reeves has been working with Elway as long as Shula has been working with Marino. Marino, the NFL rookie of the year, threw for 2,210 yards his first season, with only six interceptions. Elway, who was benched early in his first year, had 1,663 and 14 interceptions in 11 games (10 starts).
"If put in the same situation, I'm not so sure John couldn't be doing what Marino has done," Reeves said. "Shula brought him along slowly and played him when he was ready. I probably put John in too fast. And the supporting cast we had and he had were very much different. The Dolphins were coming off the Super Bowl. We were not."
Andre Tippett, the New England linebacker who watched four touchdown passes soar over him in Miami's 44-24 victory Sunday, said Shula and Marino are "a great combination."
Marino says he is "very fortunate" to be in Miami. "I've had great people helping me along with my success."
But wide receiver Nat Moore, a 10-year veteran, isn't so sure Marino should be dishing out assist credits. "I think he would be successful in any offense he went into because of his ability."
Marino is 6 feet 4, weighs 215 pounds and comes with the right pedigree. Western Pennsylvania has always been quarterback-rich; Joe Namath, Joe Montana and USFL star Kelly are from there. (And Bernie Kosar, Marino's college counterpart in Miami, comes from Youngstown, Ohio, just across the state line.) Marino never lacked for role models. "Playing quarterback was all he wanted to do all his life," his father said.
Wide receivers Mark Duper and Mark Clayton, who have three years of experience between them, certainly make Marino's job easier. If they aren't already, they probably soon will be the best receiving tandem in the game.
"Some day Marino is going to throw for 700 yards and no one on this team will be surprised," Duper said recently.
You won't get this kind of talk from Marino. He practically refuses to discuss what he is doing -- even when he calls home, which he does once or twice a week. "He doesn't act surprised by this," Dan Marino Sr. said. "I'm not surprised either. I've seen him all his life."
The Dolphins, like most professional athletes, are not easily awed. But they have a genuine star in their midst, and they know it.
"I don't think he thinks there is anything he can't do," Cefalo said.
"And he's right."