Marino's golden arm changed game
By Larry Schwartz
Special to

Anyone who saw the cannon that Dan Marino displayed in college can't be amazed at all the passing records he established in the NFL. What is surprising is that five teams thought they were selecting a better quarterback than Marino in the 1983 draft. With the Miami Dolphins picking late in the first round, they didn't even work out Marino, part of the Quarterback Class of '83 that is recognized as the finest in history. Coach Don Shula didn't give the University of Pittsburgh quarterback much thought. "I never dreamed we'd get a shot at him," he said.
 Dan Marino
 Dan Marino had one of the greatest seasons ever in 1984.

But when he still was available at No. 27, Shula picked Marino, disregarding the rumors of his drug use (never proven) and his throwing more interceptions (23) than touchdown passes (17) in his senior season. "When he was there," Shula said, "I wasn't about to let him get away."

With his golden arm and lightning-quick release, Marino became the most prolific passer in NFL history - the all-time leader in touchdown passes (420), yardage (61,367), completions (4,967) and attempts (83,58) when he retired on March 13, 2000 after 17 seasons. The 6-foot-4 quarterback set up in the pocket and dared defenses to stop him.

"You were basically at Dan's mercy," said Ronnie Lott, the Hall of Fame defensive back. "All the great ones see the game so quickly that when everybody else is running around like a chicken with his head cut off, they know exactly where they want to go with the ball. It's like they see everything in slow motion."

In his second season in the league, No. 13 made it look like a game of two-hand touch. Two records he set were especially staggering: 48 touchdown passes and 5,084 yards.

"What he accomplished is to have a better season than anyone who has ever played this game," said Hall of Fame quarterback Roger Staubach. "I'm talking about quarterbacks, wide receivers or anyone else. He was unbelievable."

"Marino is not just what some coaches call an impact player, a man who drastically alters the personality of the team," wrote Pete Axthelm in Newsweek. "He is a quantum-leap player who is changing the entire nature of his art."

The only prize that eluded Marino was a championship. Only once did he play in the Super Bowl, and Miami lost. "I'd trade every record we broke to be Super Bowl champs," he said.

He doesn't even bother wearing his 1984 AFC championship ring. "A loser's ring," he said.

Marino was born on Sept. 15, 1961 in Pittsburgh and raised in the sports-minded Oakland section, an ethnic, working-class neighborhood. His father, Dan Sr., delivered newspaper bundles for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on the midnight shift and spent countless afternoons playing catch with his son in the backyard.

Growing up a Steelers fan, Marino played football in the street, three or four on a team because the street was so narrow. Telephone poles were used for end zones and the curbs were out of bounds. Besides dodging opposing players, one also had to avoid cars and buses.

If Marino didn't have anything else to do, he threw at the telephone poles. He moved around cars like he was avoiding a pass rush and tried to hit a pole.

Besides becoming a Parade All-American quarterback for Central Catholic High School, Marino also was an outstanding pitcher and hitter. The Kansas City Royals drafted him in the fourth round and offered him a $35,000 signing bonus. But Marino turned them down and chose to play quarterback for the school five blocks away. "Something, maybe my heart, told me to stay home and go to Pitt," he said.
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He became a starter midway through his freshman season and led the Panthers to three consecutive 11-1 seasons, including victories in the Fiesta, Gator and Sugar Bowls. Coach Jackie Sherrill opened up the offense in Marino's junior year (1981) and the quarterback responded with 37 touchdown passes (12 more than his first two seasons combined) and completed 226-of-380 passes for 2,876 yards.

In the last minute of the Sugar Bowl, Marino fired a bullet on 4th-and-5 from the Georgia 33 for a touchdown pass to give Pittsburgh a 24-20 victory. "You fantasize about great last-second comebacks when you're playing on the schoolyard," Marino said, "but this was for real."

Then came his disappointing senior season followed by the NFL draft, in which John Elway, Todd Blackledge, Jim Kelly, Tony Eason and Ken O'Brien were picked before the Pitt graduate (degree in communications). After two relief appearances in 1983, Marino became the starter in the sixth game, and except for injuries, he didn't loosen his grip on the position.

Throwing 20 touchdown passes and becoming the first rookie since the merger in 1970 to lead a conference in passing, he took the Dolphins to the AFC East title. Voted the Rookie of the Year, he became the first first-year quarterback to start in the Pro Bowl.

If anyone ever made a mockery of the term "sophomore jinx," it was Marino, who in his magical 1984 season became the only quarterback to ever throw for more than 5,000 yards. He opened the season with five touchdown passes and ended it by tossing four in each of the final four games.

He averaged three touchdown passes and 318 yards a game. His 48 touchdown passes shattered the pro record of 36, held by Y.A. Tittle and George Blanda. "This boy is in a class by himself," Tittle said. "There is just no denying that."

In winning the MVP, he completed 362 of 564 attempts, with Mark Clayton and Mark Duper being his top targets with a combined 144 catches, 2,695 yards and 26 touchdowns. "He feels like every pass he throws should be a completion," Duper said, "and he's usually right."

Miami went an AFC-best 14-2 and Marino threw seven more touchdown passes in two playoff victories. But in the Super Bowl, the San Francisco 49ers sacked him four times and intercepted him twice in a 38-16 victory. They "held" Marino to his average of 318 yards, but he had to throw 50 passes (completing 29) to get it and he managed just one touchdown pass.

While Marino would never have another year like 1984 - and neither would anybody else - he had another sensational season in 1986. He threw for 4,746 yards (third highest NFL total) and 44 touchdown passes. It wasn't until 1999 that another quarterback even reached 40 (Kurt Warner with 41).

Marino also was durable for most of his career. He started 145 consecutive non-strike games before a torn Achilles' tendon in his right leg in 1993 ended the longest consecutive-game starting streak by a quarterback since the 1970 merger. In his last few seasons, Marino performed on creaky knees, a bad ankle and nerve root irritation in his neck that weakened his arms and legs.

While Marino sported a year-round Florida tan, he still retained the competitiveness of that kid playing on the Pittsburgh streets. Just ask a receiver who dropped a pass or a lineman who missed a block and found Marino in his face.

After a disappointing 1999 season (12 touchdown passes and 17 interceptions), Marino retired at 38. He owned 19 NFL records outright and shared five others. Among his marks: Leading the league in completions six times, throwing for at least 20 touchdown passes 13 times, throwing at least four touchdown passes in a game 21times (six in 1984), having 13 400-yard passing games (peaking at 521) and having 13 3,000-yard passing seasons.

"There were times on the field when I felt like I couldn't miss," said Marino, whose record as a starter was 147-93. "The ball was always on time, it was always catchable, and I was making the right decisions on who to throw to."