This one is a bit of surprise, even to me, because I have often told the story of my most direct encounter with Dan Marino, and it wasn't the best. I was 25 years old and preparing for my first Masters as columnist for The Augusta Chronicle.
The good news was that I was quite excited about the opportunity.
The bad news was that I didn't know a thing about golf.
One of my assignments was to write a feature on John Daly, who had just shocked the world by winning the PGA Championship. He was a rock star then, a grip-it-and-rip-it Elvis figure, and the story was given to me because our veteran golf writer, David Westin, knew what a pain in the neck it would be to get Daly for the interview.
As it turns out, it wasn't a pain in the neck at all. Daly was impossibly nice, and he even offered to let me walk with him as he played in the Pro-Am before what was then the Doral Open.*
*Here's how nice he was: The next morning, I showed up to walk with Daly, and the crowd was enormous, and I had absolutely no idea how to get to him. I was just standing behind, I don't know, 750 or 1,000 people, when suddenly I hear a voice shout out: "Joe! Here! Come here!"
It was John Daly. I'd met him for less than two minutes. He didn't just remember that he had invited me to walk with him. He remembered my name. I'm not sure anyone I've ever dealt with in sportswriting would have remembered my name.
Anyway, I was walking with Daly, and he was smoking a cigarette and hitting great shots and regaling me with all sorts of great stories. And, yes, he was sort of ignoring the other people in the Pro-Am group. This included Dan Marino, who began grumbling right away. I would say we were at about the third hole when Marino finally blurted out, "Hey, pal, some of us PAID to play with John."
*I don't know if he used the word "pal," but that's how I hear it in my mind now.
I was horrified. I can only imagine what shade of red I turned.
At this point, John Daly became my hero for life. He turned and said, "You ARE playing with me, Dan." And he picked up right where he had left off in the conversation.
Anyway, you can see why John Daly would be an entry in my Happiness Hall of Fame. But why Dan Marino?
It's because when Marino showed up in the NFL in 1983 and 1984 -- particularly 1984 -- he blew up the game. Just blew it up. I can think of only a handful of athletes who have come along in my lifetime who instantly and fundamentally changed everything. It's like the Wizard of Oz black-and-white-to-color moment.
Wayne Gretzky is the most obvious of these. I'll save Gretzky for a later HHOF entry, but he came along and did things that were so impossible that it felt a little bit like looking at the game for the first time.
I'd say that Usain Bolt was like that. Seeing him at the Beijing Olympics ... well, I'll save that for a later HHOF entry, too.
Has there been a baseball player who instantly changed the game? You know, probably the closest one that comes to mind was Dwight Gooden, right around the same time as Marino, 1984-85.
Marino ... what's hard to recapture is that in 1984, Marino's first full season, passing the football was seen in an entirely different way than it is now. There was a statistic that I honestly remember they used to show on television all the time -- maybe you old timers will back me up on this one -- which would show when quarterbacks threw for more than 300 yards, their teams usually lost.
I swear I remember this (even if half the Twitter poll I put up doesn't believe me). Plus I looked it up and it was true. Between 1970 and 1983, when quarterbacks threw for 300 yards, their teams went 158-198.
In 1982-1983, the years leading up to the Marino madness, when quarterbacks threw for 300 yards, their teams went 42-60.
[caption id="attachment_24255" align="aligncenter" width="384"] A couple of legends, in 2010.[/caption]
All of this put a very specific image in our minds: Passing the football was mostly bad. You know that old coach's line about how three things can happen when you pass the ball and two of them are bad ... we BELIEVED that garbage. Sure, it was fun to watch Dan Fouts and Air Coryell fling the ball all over the field, but it was like a parlor trick, a Globetrotters thing. It had been pounded into our brains that you couldn't WIN throwing the ball that much, not championships, anyway. The Chargers at least made the playoffs, but once there they lost to the Earl Campbell Houston Oilers, the Jim Plunkett Oakland Raiders and they got smashed on that brutally cold day in Cincinnati against the Bengals.
And the other big passers? Lynn Dickey threw for 4,458 yards in 1983 -- his Packers went 8-8. Bill Kenney threw for 4,348 yards that same year -- his Chiefs went 6-10.
Establish the run. Win the battle of field position. Count on your defense. That's how you won titles.
And NOBODY believed in that stuff more than the Miami Dolphins coach, Don Shula. In 1982, two years before the Marino season, Shula had coached the Dolphins to the Super Bowl with a running quarterback from Shreveport named David Woodley. That team averaged -- now, it was a strike-shortened season, but bear with me -- that team averaged 155 yards passing a game. They had eight touchdown passes in nine games.
That's why Dan Marino in 1984 just exploded the football world. (And for Shula's Dolphins, no less!) He had started about half the season in 1983 and showed some amazing talent. But 1984 -- it was pure insanity. First game, at Washington, Marino completed 21 of 28 for 311 yards and five touchdowns. What was this witchcraft? In Week 5 he threw for 429 and 3 touchdowns. In Week 10, it was 422 yards, and in Week 14, he threw for 470.
It was stupefying. He had a couple of young receivers that more or less nobody had ever heard of, and both of them were named Mark -- Duper and Clayton -- and he had a pass-catching running back named Tony Nathan and an ancient local legend named Nat Moore who had been catching passes for the Dolphins since the Bob Griese and Earl Morrall days. How did THAT cast turn the league upside down?
Don't know. But it was insane. Marino didn't throw for 4,000 yards. He threw for 5,000. The NFL record for touchdown passes was 36 -- and nobody had done THAT since the 1960s. Marino threw 48. He had this mind-blowing quick release; it was like the ball was just drawn from him with a magnet. He led his receivers so perfectly that the momentum of his passes seemed to send them forward 15 yards. He even took the Dolphins to the Super Bowl (where they were stomped by a different kind of passing team and a different kind of quarterback, Joe Montana).
Everything we had ever seen in football seemed old and outdated after Marino.
Understand, I didn't like the Dolphins, so I didn't like Marino. But I would get close to the television whenever he came on -- either a highlight or real life -- and I would just watch this wizard at work.
Now, of course, everybody throws for 300 yards, 400 yards, 500 yards, everybody throws for 4,000 yards, Marino's untouchable touchdown record has been passed four times, including by a brilliant young quarterback who today seems to be blowing up the game, Patrick Mahomes. But I think back and realize, yeah, Marino really did make me happy.