The success has come, and now it's time for the image.
Here's one: Dan Marino, the tall, blue-eyed bachelor who posed bare-chested for Playgirl, guiding his Corvette down Miami's Palmetto Expressway.
Another: Marino in that car, wearing T shirt and jeans, chewing Red Man; behind him two crumpled bags, one from McDonald's, one from Burger King.
This kid—he's just 23 and in his second season with the Dolphins—is hot right now, but his image is in its pupal stage. After 15 games this year he had thrown 44 touchdown passes, eight more than anybody else has completed in a single NFL season, 10 more than Dan Fouts threw in his first five years; he had thrown for more than 400 yards for a record four times this season and for three or more touchdowns nine times. He is simply the most successful quarterback in pro football today.
But who is he, imagewise? Even Gary Stevenson, vice-president of Advantage International, the sports marketing and management firm that handles Marino, isn't sure. "This is absolutely the critical time for forming Dan's image," he says. "But it's impossible to describe it at this point. It's in evolution."
"He's similar to Namath," says Charley Winner, the Dolphins' director of pro scouting and a former coach of Namath's on the New York Jets. By that Winner means the obvious things—the brashness, the quick release, the vision, even the Pennsylvania steel-town roots. "Both are real fine people," Winner goes on. "I was surprised when I first went to New York to find that Joe was nothing like the image I had of him. Dan is very polite, too."
Which implies that the early image of Marino wasn't so good. Indeed, image might be the reason Marino was taken so late in the 1983 draft, No. 27 overall, after five other quarterbacks. Says Dolphins' head coach Don Shula, "You heard things about him, rumors from college"—of terminal cockiness, for instance, and possible drug use. "But the first thing I did when I got him down here was sit him in that chair"—Shula points across his desk—"and tell him what I'd heard and that I was going to accept him for what he did for me, that he'd be judged by that. He said, 'Coach, all I want is to be the best quarterback in the NFL and I'll do whatever you want me to do to be that.' He has."
"I did the Playgirl thing," says Marino, "because my buddy [backup QB] Don Strock did it. He did it because his wife wanted to see him in Playgirl. He's 34, and I thought it would be kind of a joke to show everybody the difference between a quarterback at 23 and at 34."
Marino is aware of this image business—this quest for a persona that will function for him off the field while the athlete in him works on the field—but he's not sure what he can do about it. Since his ordeal as a senior at Pitt, when he took a beating from the media and scouts alike, he has become wary of letting himself hang too loose. He probably won't be doing any more Playgirl gigs.
And what about the Namath comparison? "I don't know," he says. "He went to the Super Bowl when—1969? I was only seven years old then, know what I'm saying? What I look forward to is being consistent, the best over years. One thing, I hope my knees don't get as bad as Namath's."