Gracious Legend

January 18, 2012 – It’s difficult to imagine having as much fun at work as I did on Saturday Jan. 7.

On that balmy, 50-degree day, I had the opportunity to give Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino a VIP tour of Yankee Stadium before interviewing him in my office for a feature story on his trip to the ballpark, which will be published in the April 2012 issue of Yankees Magazine.

The day was especially meaningful for me, not only because I was in the presence of a guy who set NFL records for touchdown passes, passing yards and completions during his 17-year career with the Miami Dolphins, but also because Marino was my favorite athlete as child.

When I was 7 years old, my father and my grandfather took me to the Orange Bowl stadium in Miami to see Marino and the Dolphins take on the Atlanta Falcons. That experience left an indelible mark on me, and it was the foundation for my interest in sports.

The recent afternoon at Yankee Stadium was even more special because my wife, Tiana and my son, Alfred, joined me on the tour. To have the chance to spend time my childhood hero, and to share the experience with my family was as meaningful as anything I’ve done with the Yankees — save for the 2009 World Series. But what turned the afternoon into one of the great memories of my life was Marino’s kind demeanor.

As a kid, I rooted for the Yankees and for the Miami Dolphins. Dan Marino was my favorite athlete because of his ability to throw a football, his competitive fire and because from a far (I grew up in New Jersey), he seemed like a good guy.

While I had met Marino briefly in 2002 — when I worked in the media relations department of the Miami Dolphins — I really didn’t get to know him. But on this afternoon at Yankee Stadium, I quickly came to the realization that Marino is an even greater person than he was a football player.

Marino was gracious in every way. When we were driving to the Stadium from Manhattan, I told Marino that my young son would be joining us on the tour, and his response was, “that’s awesome.”

From the minute we walked through the lobby, Marino took time to talk with everyone in our group, including Alfred and Tiana. Marino thanked everyone who he met that afternoon from the security personnel in the lobby to New York Yankees Museum curator Brian Richards and Yankees team photographer James Petrozzello.

Our tour began on the football field — the 2011 New Era Pinstripe Bowl was played at Yankee Stadium a week prior and the field had not yet been converted back to a baseball diamond. Once we got to the 50-yard line, Petrozzello asked Marino to pose for a few photos while the quarterback was holding a football.

Before Petrozzello could take a shot, Marino was already throwing the football to anyone who was willing to catch it.

I quickly put my hands up and asked myself if I was really catching passes from Dan Marino at Yankee Stadium!

After Petrozzello captured the image below, Marino continued to toss passes to the people in our group. After about the fifth pass Marino threw to me, I complimented him by saying, “You’ve still got it. You can still fire that ball pretty hard.”

Marino responded with a laugh, and then told me that he was taking it easy on me. I then asked him to “throw me a real Dan Marino pass.”

That’s when I experienced what I had always heard about. Maybe it was an illusion, but it appeared as if the ball actually gained speed as it got closer to me. I had a few near misses, but fortunately, I was able to catch all of Marino’s bullet passes.

I had purchased a small football for my son when I picked up the pigskin for the photo shoot, and as soon as Marino saw the small football, he grabbed it and began playing catch with the pint-sized receiver.

As amazing as it was to catch a few passes from one of the single greatest quarterbacks in history, the experience of watching Marino throw passes to my boy was even more surreal and greater.

From the field, we walked to Monument Park, where Marino took in some of the Yankees storied history.

Following that stop, Marino was treated to an exclusive tour of the New York Yankees Museum, where Richards (museum curator) had taken out the bat that Babe Ruth used to swat the first home run at the old Yankee Stadium, along with Ruth and Gehrig’s jerseys and the hat that Mickey Mantle wore in 1961.

Marino held each of those treasures and posed for photos with them. Before we left the museum, Richards handed Marino the 2009 World Series trophy.

I interviewed Marino in my office after the tour of the Stadium. In our conversation, the Pittsburgh native, who was the Kansas City Royals’ fourth-round draft pick in 1979, discussed his affinity for baseball.

“I loved playing baseball when I was younger, and I was proud that the Kansas City Royals drafted me,” Marino said. “I started playing baseball when I was 7 years old. I was a shortstop, and I also pitched. I won 25 games my senior year, and I didn’t lose a single game. I could have played in the Royals system, but in order to play baseball professionally, I would have been required to forfeit my football scholarship at the University of Pittsburgh and to foot the bill for tuition. The Royals offered me a $30,000 signing bonus, but that would not have covered my scholarship, so I didn’t try to play both sports. I think I made the right decision in concentrating on football!”

Of course, Marino and I discussed the quarterback’s legendary football career, including the 1984 season, when he broke single season records for completions, passing yards and touchdown passes.

“We were just trying to win football games, but we broke a lot of records along the way,” Marino said. “Going into the last game of the year, Mark Clayton needed three touchdowns to break the single-season touchdown record, and I needed a certain amount of yards to break Dan Fouts’ record for passing yards in a single season. We also needed to win the game, so I wasn’t even thinking about the records. All of a sudden, I realized that I was the first person to throw for more than 5,000 yards. That record lasted for 27 years, and it’s great to think we did something that no one had ever done.”

I also asked Marino a few Yankees-related questions, including one about Alex Rodriguez, who grew up in Miami, and who admired the Dolphins quarterback so much that the third baseman chose number 13 when he was traded to the Yankees.

“It makes me very proud [that he wears number 13],” Marino said. “When I was playing for the Dolphins, I hosted a television show at my restaurant every week. Alex came to the show for the first time when he was 16 years old, and he introduced himself to me that night. I followed him in high school, and after he was drafted, he came to a few of our practices. Today, we’re members of the same golf club, and he’s a good friend. Alex’ stats speak for themselves. He’s been an incredible player for a long time.”

Finally, for this blog, I asked Marino to grade me as a receiver.

“At least you didn’t drop one!” Marino said through a laugh. “But when I saw your technique, I decided to take it easy on you because I didn’t want you to get hurt.”

–Alfred Santasiere III

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