Marino could always throw it

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Ever grow weary of those I knew him when people, the folks who have perhaps contended to you over the years, likely a few too many maddening times, that they were long-ago friends and confidants of some now-famous celebrity?

Yeah, me too.

At least until Saturday afternoon, that is, when I became one of them.

So pardon me, readers, on the glorious occasion of Dan Marino's election to the Hall of Fame on Saturday, for an uncharacteristic I knew him when moment. Because, you see, I knew Marino long before he became the most prolific passer in NFL history, decades before he was the possessor of most every record that deals with propelling a football through the air.

Known him, in fact, since he was just 13 years old, and proud of the relationship that has existed since then.

Funny thing how history goes round and round and you're never quite certain, once the carousel of time winds down, just where it will stop. Thirty years ago, Marino was just a gangly teenager I wanted my team to beat in the junior high matchups between the team for which he played and the one I coached. On Saturday -- and I don't think I'm violating any Hall of Fame confidentiality rules here -- I was part of the selection process that catapulted him to his greatest honor. And my vote for Marino, a true Pittsburgh guy, was cast with honor and pride, I readily acknowledge.

I've told the story of my background with Marino dozens of times, hopefully keeping the facts in order on most of those occasions, so indulge me one more reprisal.

The year was 1974 and two buddies and I coached the junior high football team at St. Joseph Elementary School in the Bloomfield section of Pittsburgh. The endeavor helped me score points with the unofficial team nurse, now my lovely wife of 30 years. And, because we were the only ones willing to take on the coaching chores and the long evening hours it involved, it kept the neighborhood school that we all had attended as kids from disbanding its floundering football program and investing the bingo money on textbooks instead of tackling dummies.

Two years out of college, it was a good excuse not to look for a real job, and to avoid having the local newspapers once again tell you they didn't have any vacancies in the sports department.

Admittedly, our coaching expertise was about as short as the AstroTurf-carpeted 80-yard surface of Dean's Field, where we played our home games. But at least, and this clearly was a redeeming grace of sorts, we were long on good intentions. And every season we managed to develop a couple of solid prospects -- mostly by happenstance, or dumb luck, or despite ourselves -- to send on to Central Catholic High School, the beloved alma mater that Marino and I share.

The scores from the 1974 season in the Pittsburgh Catholic League, the loose amalgam of elementary schools that fueled Pittsburgh's several private prep institutions, will forever be committed to the recall of those whose memories are far keener than mine. The records, alas, were long ago lost or discarded.

This much, though, the ravages of 30 years of brain-cell deterioration and 27 seasons of trying to make newspaper or electronic deadlines have not purged from my oft-flawed memory bank: In 1974, St. Joseph school somehow twice defeated St. Regis, our archrival school from the nearby Oakland section of Pittsburgh. And, yeah, that means we stumbled into a way to twice stop Dan Marino, the most incredible 13-year-old player these eyes have ever seen.

Arduous research has revealed that there have been only nine coaches who ever bested a Dan Marino-quarterbacked team more than once in a season. And, believe me, I am honored to share the company of an illustrious roll call that includes Bill Parcells, Marv Levy, Raymond Berry, Marty Schottenheimer, Joe Walton, Ron Meyer, Pete Carroll and Bruce Coslet. I'm ever more honored, though, to have cast a vote on Saturday that helped to validate his greatness.

For 17 seasons, those NFL coaches watched Marino from a sideline vantage point. For those same 17 years, and for the four before them when he played at the University of Pittsburgh, I scrutinized Marino through binoculars, usually with my elbows resting on a laptop computer. I'm guessing that I enjoyed the experience a lot more than did they.

So how good, you might be wondering, was Dan Marino at age 13?

Good enough that, as an eighth-grader, he probably could have beaten out any quarterback Central Catholic coach Joe Scully had playing on the varsity squad at the time. Good enough that, everywhere St. Regis played that year, large crowds showed up to watch the wunderkind Marino, and the home team always banked a few bucks more when it passed the hat through the bleachers at halftime. Good enough to be a hometown legend before he started shaving.

Last week, I read with some interest an Associated Press feature on Marino in which he was asked about his passing prowess and how it had developed. "Oh, I could always throw it," Marino said. Trust me, folks, he always could.

Because of Marino, and an incredibly convoluted offense designed for him by St. Regis coaches Shorty Mafeo and Chick Sciulli, the floodlights at Dean's Field burned late into the night as we tried to devise a defense that might hold him under 30 points. Once we even dispatched a spy to Frazier Field, where St. Regis played its home games, cleverly hoping to infiltrate a practice session.

The gambit failed, likely because our would-be saboteur suffered from asthma and the hardscrabble dirt field, since renamed Dan Marino Field (rather aptly, huh?), overlooked the blast furnaces of the Jones & Laughlin steel mill. The mill churned out more smoke, even, than Marino's red-hot right arm. So we plotted against a St. Regis passing game that featured myriad flea-flickers and double reverses, all of which ended with the ball in Marino's hands. We schemed against a run game whose staple play, I swear, was the old Statue of Liberty.

I remember that, on those occasions when St. Regis was on the schedule, we sent home a form letter to the parents of our players. It essentially reminded the mothers and fathers that we were playing St. Regis that week and that their offense demanded that we keep their sons for an extra half-hour of practice every night. I think it also, and not too subtly, requested donations to help defray the costs of keeping the field lights burning overtime.

When my buddies and I relive and relish the outcomes of those two 1974 games against St. Regis, we like to pretend the scores were the residue of outstanding coaching on our parts, but not even the grandest embellishment could turn that into fact. We all know it was pretty much good fortune.

A few days after the '74 season ended, our staff was chosen, largely by default, to head the East squad in the annual Catholic League all-star game. Our quarterback, of course, was Marino and our instructions to him were something along the lines of: "Here's the ball, Danny, throw it as much as you want."

Just how dubious were we as coaches? Well, we installed our minimalist offense, which maybe included a handful of pass plays and, with Dan Marino as our starting quarterback, lost the all-star game.

Marino went on to Central Catholic and I moved on, finally to writing about the game that he played so brilliantly and that I love. For four years -- one of which included a season when my younger brother, Joe, served as his right offensive tackle -- I watched Marino hone his skills at the prep level. For four years after that, as a reporter and also a season-ticket patron at Pitt Stadium, I watched him in college. And then, as our careers continued on parallel but very separate paths, I saw him play all 17 NFL seasons.

I saw Dan Marino mature as a player and, just as significantly, as a person. And I'm not too ashamed or abashed to say that I'm proud of him in both respects.

Back in 1998, when Marino was set to make what would be his final appearance in Atlanta, where I worked for the Journal-Constitution at the time, I first authored an early version of this column. Two days later, Miami Dolphins public relations impresario Harvey Greene phoned to say that Marino had requested a few copies, to send to family and friends back in The 'Burgh. A few days after that, a hand-written note, gracious and funny at the same time, arrived at my house.

In it, Marino thanked me for the column, and noted that if he'd had Mark Duper and Mark Clayton at his disposal in the eighth grade, "we'd have kicked your ass." My wife and kids long ago had the note matted and framed and it hangs, in a place of honor, in my home office. It serves as a daily reminder of the skinny, angular, 13-year-old kid with the whip of an arm, who grew into a great player and an even greater person.

You see, Dan Marino is -- and this is probably the highest honor I can bestow on anyone -- the consummate Pittsburgh Guy. This is said about a ton of people but about Marino, I can personally attest, it is fact: He has never forgotten the people that he knew, and who helped him in even the most miniscule way, on his way to the Hall of Fame.

He is a man whose private graciousness outshines even his public performances. When his son, Michael, was discovered to be autistic, he helped raise funds for a program at the Miami Children's Hospital to offer comprehensive care for similarly challenged kids. He and his wife, Claire, have adopted two Chinese orphan girls to add to their own brood of four. When the Dolphins played in Pittsburgh toward the end of his career, Danny ducked out of the locker room to visit with my brother, whom he hadn't seen in years. When he decided to retire, a family member tipped me off the night before the announcement, and gave me the opportunity to get a break on the story.

In 2001, I sat with Marino in Tampa, during Super Bowl XXXV week there, for a feature story on one of his charitable endeavors, and for a sidebar piece on his legacy. Halfway through the interview, he recalled, typically, that his father, whom I'd known years earlier, was up in his hotel suite. He phoned him, Dan Sr. came down, and we had a great visit.

Let's just say that, if you think Dan Marino was the man with the golden arm, well, his heart of gold shines even brighter. Which is why I'm so proud that, in July at Canton, Ohio, he'll get a bronze bust to go along with it.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.