The Dan Marino Story

This newsletter is about Dan Marino, jet skis, and the kindness of strangers.

This week we’re doing something different for Sports Stories. We’re going to try a personal story. A nice one, I promise.  It’s about fandom, and football, and my childhood spent as an obsessive Miami Dolphins fan in Los Angeles. 

I guess that sets the scene. I grew up in a family of Dolphins fans. My mom’s family moved from Havana to Miami when she was a little girl. When the Dolphins got going in 1966, my grandpa Murray (who was originally from New Jersey) became a fan right away. He told me once that he was a season ticket holder, but truth was more of an emotional than factual thing when he told stories -- so I can’t say with confidence that he was. 

Fast forward to the 1980s, and my mom and her sisters are living in LA. They weren’t in Miami to watch Dan Marino throw a record-setting 48 touchdown passes and lead the Dolphins to the only Super Bowl appearance of his career in 1984. My parents were dating, though. They got married, and I was born in 1986.

That was a pretty average year for Marino, which means it was insane. He led the league in everything. He threw for 44 touchdown passes. The second place finisher in that category was Ken O’Brien with 25. Here’s a video of all of Dan Marino’s touchdown passes in 1986. It’s hypnotic. The colors. The face. The vibes. All of them are so good. Watch the ball coming out of his hands, and it doesn’t even look like a thrown object. It looks like it was added in afterwards with special effects:

Marino was just … transcendent. And I mean that in the most corny, cliched way possible. I’ve been thinking a lot about what it is that draws us to sports lately, even as the pro and college leagues become increasingly  cynical businesses, even as everything gets shinier and more corporate and the actual playing of the game is covered in layers and layers of brands and commercials and takes and all that stuff. I think this video is an example of why we still come back. Or at least I do. 

From a young age, I was taught that the Dolphins were my favorite football team, and that Dan Marino was my favorite football player. And why wouldn’t they be? And why, specifically, wouldn’t he be? The Rams and Raiders left LA when I was still pretty young. The Dolphins were cool. 

We used to go to Miami all the time to visit my grandparents. Usually we stayed with them, but they didn’t have a huge house, and sometimes, with brothers and cousins and aunts and uncles, there could be like a dozen of us in town at once. So sometimes we stayed in a hotel, and made a vacation of it. One year we stayed in a hotel called the Harbor Beach Marriott in Fort Lauderdale. I remember the name because this was where I met Dan Marino. 

It must have been the mid-90s. Post Ace Ventura. Peak of my fandom. It must have been summer, because I remember that I had been bugging my parents to take me to a Dolphins practice -- which, now that I’m a parent myself, I can appreciate was an insane request in the heat of Florida summer. Somebody at the hotel must have overheard one of these conversations, because I was finishing a cheeseburger at the little poolside restaurant with my mom, and a hotel staffer came up to us and said, under his breath, ahem, Dan Marino is down on the beach right now. 

I took off sprinting. And as I remember it, the beach was almost  totally empty. There was another hotel staffer wearing all white. There was a random tourist in one of those floppy hats. And there, in a tank top, unloading jetskis from a trailer that was somehow on the sand, was Dan fucking Marino. My mom came running up behind me holding a piece of paper and a pen. 

It all happened very fast. But I remember that first of all, Dan Marino was very nice. He signed my autograph. I remember that second of all, he asked if I wanted a picture. We didn’t have a camera. I was heartbroken. But the other guy -- the tourist in the floppy hat -- he had one. Because this was the pre-digital age, he offered to take a photo and mail it to us. 

We exchanged addresses. He took the picture. Dan Marino loaded his jet ski into the ocean, and he disappeared to frolic among literal dolphins (I presume.) This is where the story should end. But it isn’t where the story ends. 

Months went by. For a while, I was excited to see my picture with Dan Marino. But then I forgot about it. I was a kid, after all. I had other stuff on my mind. I still had the memory.  That was enough. I could play NFL Blitz, and throw touchdowns to OJ McDuffie, and remember how I met #13 on the beach. 

Then, about a year later, a big envelope showed up at my parents’ house addressed to me. The return address was in New York, which was weird. I didn’t know anybody in New York. A big envelope from a stranger is not the kind of thing a kid would normally get in the mail. 

I opened it with my mom. The first thing we pulled out was a letter that turned out to be from the tourist on the beach in Fort Lauderdale, the man who took my picture with Dan Marino. He wrote to apologize. None of his photos from the trip had turned out. This was the kind of thing that could happen at the time. It was a disappointment, but it was no big deal. 

What followed, however, was a big deal. Feeling guilty about his pictures not coming out, this kind stranger had written a personal note to Dan Marino explaining the situation. And amazingly enough,  Marino actually wrote back to the guy. He a signed personalized 8x10 photo and mailed it back to the stranger in New York. And now the stranger, this kind, random man, had sent it along to California. It’s still on the wall in my old bedroom in LA. The glossy photo of Marino with his arm cocked back, with the black sharpie lines across the middle. 

“Best Wishes, Eric

Dan Marino #13” 

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Related Reading

Not a lot of related reading here, but I’ll give some updates.

First of all, I wrote a book -- and Adam did the illustrations for it. It’s called STEALING HOME: Los Angeles, the Dodgers, and the Lives Caught in Between. I can safely say we’re both proud, and both excited about it. The book doesn’t come out until March, and you can expect to hear a lot more about it in this newsletter in the months to come, but you can win a free copy right now on Goodreads by entering this contest

Stealing Home

And if you want to preorder it, you can do so at your favorite online or in-person bookstore.  (Book IOUs make great holiday gifts.) 

Second of all, while down in a rabbit hole of Dan Marino highlights I came across this super random video from NFL Network where Alex Rodriguez talks about his love of Marino, and how he chose #13 with the Yankees in honor of the quarterback.

Third of all, if by some chance you are the person who took that photo in Miami, and then wrote to Dan Marino, and then mailed me his autograph, please get in touch so I can thank you personally. If you know that person, please pass along this newsletter.


This has been Vol. 12 of Sports Stories by Eric Nusbaum (words) and Adam Villacin (art). If you have any questions, comments, or concerns, please reply to this email or contact enusbaum@gmail.com. We’d love to hear from you. 

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