- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 14, 2000

DAVIE, Fla. - The headline in Sunday's Focus section of the Miami Herald read, "Dade, Broward mood more upbeat than we think."

Not yesterday.

It was a day of mourning in South Florida because Dan Marino, the soul of sports in the region, said goodbye.

The media honored and celebrated Marino yesterday with around-the-clock coverage, and fans stood outside the Miami Dolphins training complex dressed in number 13 jerseys and carrying signs that read, "Marino Forever" and "Thank You, Dan Marino."

"I am going to miss everything about it," Marino said, constantly fighting to keep his composure throughout the news conference at the Dolphins' training facility, with his family and friends, including former Miami coach Don Shula, there to support him. "I'm going to miss the friends I've made, my teammates, the fans.

"But most of all, I will miss Sunday afternoons," Marino said.

He won't miss Jimmy Johnson. The recently retired Dolphins coach was not there yesterday. Marino thanked everyone by name individual trainers, equipment managers and the public relations staff but he never even mentioned Johnson. He didn't even acknowledge his existence until the final question, when someone pointed out Marino hadn't mentioned his former coach.

"I would just have to say that our relationship was up and down at times," Marino said. "We had some great days together, some fun times. Sometimes I wasn't very happy here while he was coaching. And that's just being honest."

Everyone will miss Dan Marino more than Jimmy Johnson.

The NFL will miss Marino because it needs him more than ever. The league has taken one hit after another recently, drowning from bad publicity with so many athletes facing criminal charges. Some colleges have football-only dorms; the NFL could have a football-only prison.

With that hanging over the league, losing one of its stars and good citizens couldn't come at a worse time.

But it was time for Marino to leave. The final weeks leading up to this decision were made difficult by the Dolphins and new coach Dave Wannstedt, who wouldn't tell the veteran their plans for his future. There were mixed messages from Miami management about whether Marino was welcome back.

And when Marino said he had made his mind up to retire, Minnesota coach Denny Green called to recruit him for the Vikings. Anyone who saw Marino against the Washington Redskins in the final game of the season could see he couldn't throw anymore, but Green believed Marino wasn't healthy then and, even at age 38, was the man to throw to Randy Moss and Cris Carter next season.

Green's call was validation Marino could still play. "I was excited," he said. "Denny Green is a very persuasive guy, and I seriously considered it." He said he wavered; one minute he would tell his wife, Claire, he was going to sign with the Vikings, and hours later he would change his mind.

"I really struggled with this decision," Marino said. "This has been the hardest month of my life."

But a final season with the Vikings would have been no different from the gambler who plays one last hand to try to win the pot when the right thing to do is to walk away. The pot, in this case, would have been the Super Bowl ring that eluded Marino throughout his career and forever will. He reached the big game once, and that ended in 38-16 loss to the San Francisco 49ers and one of the few quarterbacks who was Marino's peer, Joe Montana.

"That was a burning desire of mine," he said. "I wanted to know how it felt as a player to win a Super Bowl."

What if he didn't next year, though? Would the risk be worth putting his body and his family through another season at 39? Plus, he built something special in Miami, playing with the same team for his entire 17-year career, and would have diminished his legacy with one last hurrah with another franchise. How good would it feel to win a championship with a new team after spending nearly half of his life with a team that meant so much?

"Playing 17 years for one team was very special to me," Marino said. "Not too many players have the opportunity to do that, and I'm proud of it."

No player has matched what Marino did behind the center. His body of work as a quarterback is so overwhelming it should smother any criticism about his lack of a title. He holds 25 NFL passing records and shares five others. His 420 touchdown passes are 78 ahead of Fran Tarkenton. His 61,361 passing yards are nearly 10,000 yards more than John Elway.

Marino's place among greats like Johnny Unitas, Joe Montana and John Elway will be argued because the others led their teams to championships.

But there is no argument for this the athletes everyone feels privileged to have watched play are a select few. And Dan Marino belongs among them.

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