This time it's: What's Dan Marino like, and how do you feel about not playing? Last time it was: What's David Woodley like, and how do you feel about not playing? The time before that it was: What's Bob Griese like, and how do you feel about not playing?
Don Strock has been to three Super Bowls with the Miami Dolphins, and all anybody ever really asks him about quarterbacking is, how come other guys on his team do it better? And through it all, regardless of how disappointed he may have been at playing second banana on a meat-and-potatoes team, Strock has talked softly, smiled sweetly, thanked everyone for coming and asked them to please drive home safely. Nobody ever had to tell him to stop feeling sorry for himself, because he never started. When you negotiate for satin sheets it's not a hardship to lie in the bed you've made. "I get paid an awful lot of money to keep my spirits up," he says. The reported salary is $270,000 per. Keeps a person pretty well stocked in tanning oil and Titleists.
If you've watched much pro football this year, you've seen a lot of Strock. He's the tall guy with the baseball cap, the aquamarine windbreaker and the great tan on the Miami sideline talking to Marino during timeouts. He's been a lot of things for Marino and Miami this season: a mentor, an adviser, a coach without portfolio, an insurance policy, a golfing partner. What he hasn't been is a football player; he's worn that baseball cap for so long you couldn't be sure if he'd go in the huddle and call for a sweep right or a suicide squeeze. Strock has thrown six passes in 18 games. Marino has thrown 630, 55 for touchdowns. "If things go the way we're planning, I probably won't play in the Super Bowl," Strock says. "Maybe I'll get to take the last snap for a fall-down; that'll be all right."
He smiles. His eyes are blue. His teeth are white. The thin blades of gray in his hair sparkle. He's playing in the Crosby next week. And his tan is awesome.
How does he like his job?
"It may be the best in the world."
For a long time Strock appeared to be the successor to Griese. Probably for too long, because when Griese finally retired the fashion in quarterbacks had shifted away from fundamentalist drop-backers to entrepreneurial roll-outers; Woodley was hot, Strock was not. By the time Marino came along, it wouldn't have mattered which type of quarterback was in vogue -- nobody who wasn't named Namath or Unitas was going to keep this kid off the field. Marino's not just good, he's a phenom. You don't begrudge a phenom; you'd be a fool.
Had Strock wanted to make a move to the USFL, or gone the play-me-or-trade-me route, he would have done it already. He's not kidding anyone, least of all himself. He's 34 years old, and past the point of indulging, or even inventing, an aching need. He says he wants to play more. Maybe he does. But let's face it: there are plenty of golf courses around Miami, the pay's good and you can't beat the hours. "I've talked to some of my former teammates who've demanded to be traded, and they've told me to remember that the grass isn't always greener on the other side," Strock says to a group of reporters wondering what he thinks of Marino and how he feels about not playing. "We're always going to be in the hunt in Miami; Don Shula has confidence in me; I know his system; my wife and I have been in Miami for 12 years now."
He looks across the table.
The people looking back at him, do they own houses? Do they have children? Have they learned that dreams don't always come true?
"You get accustomed to something," he says, assuming they'll understand that at 34 it isn't a surrender; it's a negotiated withdrawal.
The question comes up as to what might happen if Marino should go down to an injury during the game -- or get dizzy and have to leave -- what effect might that have on the Dolphins? It's not like Strock is a plumber. His moments have been brief, 20 starts in 11 seasons, but there was at least once when he posted the low score in the clubhouse: in 1982, in the playoffs against the Chargers, Strock came in when the Dolphins were down by 24-0, and threw for 403 yards and four touchdowns in three quarters. The Dolphins lost, 41-38, but Strock's stock soared. He can pass, and everyone knows it. "I am quite confident that if anything were to happen to Marino, Strock would step in and have a real good day," says guard Ed Newman.
But the Dolphins don't even like to consider the possibility of losing Marino, who is their Excalibur. "The heartbreak would be that this guy is so talented and such an important part of our team," says Newman. Says Roy Foster, Newman's offensive linemate: "Danny Boy's our bread and butter. God forbid he should go down. Strock could step in and our ability wouldn't be lost. But, psychologically, it would be a downer."
Strock knows that, too.
It's not so much that he wants or doesn't want to play on Sunday, but that he doesn't want to have to play. Better to stand on the sideline in the cap and the windbreaker, counseling, comforting, cheerleading. This above all is true for a team player: you do whatever it takes to win, even when the best you can do might seem like nothing at all.
What's Dan Marino like?
"He's my teammate and my friend," Strock says easily. "He's a rare talent, and I'm happy to help him all I can. He's easy to help, because he wants to learn."
How do you feel about not playing?
"I'd like to play more, but I can't get Dan to stop throwing touchdown passes," Strock says, laughing at the prescribed moment. "I prepare to play every game. If I play, fine. If I don't, fine. There are 49 guys on the team, and we all helped each other get here."
Can you beat Marino in golf?
"You want the truth?" Strock asks.
With no script to read from, he stands up and puffs out his chest like a blue jay. "I hammer him."