Published: Sunday, September 14, 1997
Section: Tropic


BY DAVE BARRY, Herald Columnist

I'm standing in the lobby of the Miami Dolphins' swank training center at Nova Southeastern University in Davie, across the street from an apartment complex called Sunforest (actual slogan: ``A Rental Community'').

I'm looking up at the wall over the front doors, which is a shrine. It's not a shrine to Dan Marino, even though he's by far the best-known, and best, player ever to play here. No, it's a shrine to the 1972 Dolphins -- the team that turned Miami into a dynasty; the only team in NFL history to have a perfect season; the team that won Miami's first NFL championship, then went on the next year, with basically the same people, to win Miami's second -- and last -- NFL championship.

These were the ruthlessly efficient, unstoppable, kick-your-butt Dolphins. They could shut your offense down, and when they got the ball they could throw it on you, short or long, or they could hand it to Larry Csonka, who would run it right through your defensive line, your defensive secondary, your concrete stadium wall.

Csonka is depicted on a plaque up on that wall, and so is Don Shula, and Bob Griese, and Paul Warfield, and all the other guys who gave Miami its most glorious sports moments ever. As I stand in the lobby and look up at the faces of those legendary men, the thought that comes into my mind -- call me sentimental -- is: ``Those legendary men had some bad hairstyles.'' It was not their fault. It was the '70s, when every adult male in America who was not a hippie got the official sideburn-intensive Burt-Reynolds-in- Smokey-and-the-Bandit model haircut. The 1972 Dolphins look, on their plaques, like an old Ramada Inn lounge band with a name like ``Disco Don and the Funk-O-Matics.''

But never mind how they looked. The point is, they won . They won it all . Two Super Bowls, baby. And so those Dolphins are revered in Miami, a town that loves winning and does not tolerate losing, which is defined as ``finishing anywhere other than No. 1.'' This is not a loyal or patient sports town. This is not Detroit or Chicago, where people will sit out in the sleet and root for their Lions or their Bears through one mediocre decade after another, the way their fathers did, and their fathers' fathers. This is Miami, where almost everybody's father's father grew up someplace else, Brooklyn or Bogota, Houston or Havana, Memphis or Minsk. Most people haven't been here long; many don't expect to remain here long. The local teams are not in their blood.

Sure, the Dolphins, the Heat, the Marlins, the Panthers and the Hurricanes all have their hard-core, thick-or-thin followings. But most fans are part of a free-floating cloud that forms around whatever team happens to be winning. (If no team is winning, the fan cloud goes to the beach.)

In the 1980s, the cloud swirled thick around the University of Miami Hurricanes, because the Canes were winners, always in contention for No. 1. But in recent years they've usually been, what, only in the top 10 or 20 . . . Losers! More recently the fan cloud moved on to the Panthers, and for about 15 minutes there we were, all waving plastic rats and cheering passionately for small-town Canadians and explaining ``icing'' to each other. But then last season the Panthers didn't even make it to the Stanley Cup finals for God's sake, which meant they were . . . Losers! And so the cloud formed around the Heat, couldn't get enough of them -- Pat Riley was a genius! -- until they played the Chicago Bulls and . . . They can't shoot! They suck! Next!

Right now the cloud is disorganized, with some fans clustering around the Marlins (as long as they're in the playoffs) and others swirling around the Hurricanes (until they lose a game). But this is, in its soul, a pro-football town, and the cloud would love, more than anything else, to wrap itself close around the Dolphins once again.

But only if they win.

They have to win.

That's why Jimmy Johnson is now the head coach. That's why Don Shula is not. Shula won more football games than any other professional coach; he almost always got his teams into the playoffs; there was no question that he'd be in the Hall of Fame the instant he was eligible. You could make the argument that he's one of the best coaches -- maybe the best coach -- in any sport, ever. But he had not won the Super Bowl, not been No. 1 , since 1973. Way too long, for Miami. The sports-talk-radio callers -- who of course know everything; who are convinced that you can acquire a running game simply by going to some big vending machine somewhere and putting in a few million quarters and pushing a button that says ``RUNNING GAME'' -- said that Shula had lost his edge, was getting old, was letting the game pass him by, wasn't tough enough, had grown soft. The Miami fan cloud had decided that Don Shula -- Don Shula -- was a loser. Next!

You never hear anybody say Jimmy Johnson is soft. Oh, sure, Johnson is likable. He's outgoing and often funny, and he loves to party. He doesn't seem to care at all what people think of him: He makes amusingly self-deprecating TV commercials; he laughs with you when you laugh at his hair; he bought his girlfriend, Rhonda Rookmaaker, a pet dog named Buttercup, which is a teacup Yorkshire terrier, one of those terminally cute scuttling things about the size of a Raisinet, a daringly wussy dog for a pro-football coach to be associated with. So Johnson comes across as accessible and human, much less intimidating to be around than Shula, who always seems, even in social situations, on the verge of ordering everybody to do wind sprints.

But when it comes to making personnel decisions, Johnson is legendarily ruthless. Not an ounce of ruth in him. It doesn't matter if you're a respected and beloved veteran player who has given years of service to the team; the instant that Jimmy thinks you're no longer giving him what he needs to win now, you're gone. I don't mean this in a critical way -- I really like Johnson -- but you get the feeling that if you were on his boat in the middle of the Atlantic, and it started to sink, Jimmy would not give you a life preserver unless he was 100 percent sure he didn't need it for himself, or a key offensive lineman, or anybody else he thought was more likely than you to help his team win. Including Buttercup.


This day in August is not a happy one at the Dolphin training center. Partly it's the usual late-preseason crankiness. Everybody except the owners, who make money on it, eventually comes to hate the preseason, because it goes on too long, and players get injured, and the teams have to play too many (five) bogus ``preseason games'' -- putting ``preseason'' in front of ``game'' is like putting ``impersonator'' after ``Elvis'' -- that are basically an excuse to charge fans good money to watch scrimmages.

There's a lot of tension around all NFL training camps at this time of the year because the coaches have to cut a lot of players to get their rosters down to regular-season size. A lot of guys who have worked their butts off see their careers go down the toilet in late August. It's a scary time to be a fringe player; and on a Jimmy Johnson team, almost anybody can be a fringe player.

But the big reason for the bad mood at Dolphin camp is that a couple of days earlier, in the scrim . . . excuse me, in the preseason game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Dolphin regulars looked bad. This was not supposed to happen. Traditionally, the Buccaneers are to excellence in football as Hialeah is to ethics in government. If the Dolphins are going to be winners this season, they should have handled Tampa Bay; instead, they got pushed around, causing Johnson to address the team in a postgame speech that melted lockers.

On top of that, there was the Lamar Thomas episode. Thomas, a Dolphin receiver, was supposed to start in Tampa, but he got into a loud argument -- loud enough to alarm a security guard -- outside the team hotel with his girlfriend, Ebony Cooksey. Johnson, who does not want his players thinking about anything other than football, was so angry that he sent Thomas home before the game.

Team sources said that the cause of the argument between Thomas and Cooksey was that he didn't want to let her have the keys to a house he maintains in Tampa. But Thomas' agent, Howard Weinberg, told The Miami Herald that the real cause was -- I am not making this up -- flatulence. (You did not read this in The Miami Herald, because the subject matter of the story, written by our excellent Dolphins beat writer Armando Salguero, was deemed to be below the taste standards of our sports section. Fortunately for you, here at Tropic magazine we have no taste standards.)

Weinberg claims that while Thomas and Cooksey were sitting in her car, talking calmly, Thomas -- to use football parlance -- sliced a major hunk of Limburger, thereby causing Cooksey to rapidly exit the car and yell at Thomas in a laughing and good-natured fashion. The Dolphins contend that it was not good-natured. We'll probably never know what really happened, but since an agent is now involved, the whole matter could easily be tied up in some kind of arbitration for the next 10 years.

So anyway, the mood is not terrific at the Dolphin training center as the morning practice ends and we members of the news media are allowed, briefly, into the team locker room, where, as is so often the case in professional sports, we are as welcome as head lice. The problem is that, by the 30th or 40th day of preseason, not only have the players totally run out of things to say, but also they're tired; they're hot; and they're worried about getting cut. They just want to eat lunch, get some rest, call their wives and girlfriends, flatulate, whatever.

But we in the media have to come up with new stories every day, and so we must go up to players and make them give us quotes, which most of them have learned to do without really having to think about what they're saying, which is why almost every quote you read from a professional athlete sounds like it could come from just about any other professional athlete in any other sport. Everybody is executing; everybody is focusing; everybody is avoiding mental errors, getting the job done, stepping up to the next level.

A lot of players avoid us. As we enter the locker room, wily veteran quarterback Dan Marino, a man who has faced NFL pass rushes for 14 seasons, sees us coming, reads the situation, makes a move to his right and -- showing great agility despite the fact that he has a bad knee and a bad ankle and is holding a plate of food -- is gone. Showing less wiliness is backup quarterback Craig Erickson, who gives several interviews. When the cameras are rolling and the notebooks are out, he speaks in Quote Mode, talking about the need to focus and the failure to execute in the Tampa Bay game; when his words are no longer being recorded, he tells a reporter, human to human: ``It was just too many mistakes, man. Too many `What the (bleep) is going on?' ''

In the middle of the locker room, linebacker Anthony Harris is telling a camera, with great sincerity: ``I put 150 percent into it every time I'm on the field.'' This makes me feel old; I had no idea that we were all the way up to 150 percent. I grew up in a world where athletes always gave 110 percent, but I guess that's no longer going to get the job done, not if you want to step up and execute at the next level.

While the other media folks gather quotes, I read the posters on the locker-room wall. Some of them explain the official NFL policies on drugs (No); on gambling (No); on tackling (``Don't block or tackle with the top of your helmet . . . See what you hit!''); and on acceptable player image (``Players must . . . present a professional and appropriate appearance before the public on game day. Among the types of activity that are prohibited are the use of tobacco products while in the bench area and use of facial makeup . . . ''). The poster does not state explicitly that a player may not flip the bird at an entire stadium with both hands, but we know from what happened to Bryan Cox in Buffalo that this is also frowned upon.

After reading the posters, I weigh myself on the computerized locker-room scale, which is next to a chart showing all the players' weights before and after each practice. I weigh the same as cornerback Sam Madison before practice, although he has a definite edge on me -- I'd estimate five minutes -- in the 40-yard dash. This is why Madison reportedly makes $280,000 a year, although for the purpose of the salary cap his value is $461,300. I mention this only because it's a violation of modern journalism ethics to write a sports story without using the term ``salary cap.'' Truthfully, I don't know what it means. I asked The Herald's Salguero to give me a simple explanation, and for a minute there, as he was speaking, I thought I understood the salary cap, but now it's gone from my brain, and when I review my notes, they look like this:

``$41m player's base plus a pro rata portion of (illegible) based on number of yrs of his (looks like `congress') add those up that's what (illegible) cost 53 players unless two or more (illegible) filing joint returns.''

I never understood the Infield Fly Rule, either.


After lunch we go outside to watch the Dolphins' afternoon practice. Coaches in shorts and ball caps are frowning at the players, sizing them up the way a rancher sizes up a bull; guys are yelling mysterious-football-code instructions such as ``SET 190! 190!''; everybody's dripping sweat; testosterone fills the air. Huge offensive linemen -- who look almost fat in the locker room; who lumber when they walk -- hunker down into their stances, and then, when they hear the signal, raise up all at once with a quickness that seems impossible for their size, their legs moving with Rockette-like coordination, their steps precise and almost dainty. Elsewhere, a fullback explodes into a blocking sled, lifting its front off the ground (later, when there's nobody around, I try running into the sled, and bounce off like a Ping-Pong ball from a locomotive). Elsewhere, the special teams are practicing punt returns; the ball rockets off the punter's foot into the sky, out of the atmosphere, around the troubled space station Mir; then it comes screaming back to Earth toward a slim, lonely looking player who, somehow ignoring the herd of very large men thundering down the field toward him, manages to catch it. (He'd better catch it. Jimmy is watching. ) Elsewhere, the quarterbacks are limbering up their arms, Marino holding a ball, joking with the guy next to him, then casually turning to look downfield and -- ZIP -- there it is, the famous Quick Release, the ball hissing through the air like the head of a striking snake, so that from 20 yards away it would hit a physically normal person in the face before he could get his hands up. But of course there are no physically normal people playing this game.

On the sidelines, we mortals in the media watch the practice and chat, waiting to see if anybody breaks a leg, waiting for our chance to get quotes from Johnson. I'm watching and chatting with Armando Salguero and Harvey Greene, who is the Dolphins' director of media relations, which means that his job is to keep the media AND the players AND Jimmy Johnson happy, which is impossible, which is why Harvey often has the expression of a rabbit at a dog show.

But he's one of the best in the business, and we in the media love him, and not just because he decides who gets game-day parking passes. He also entertains us. On this day, he and Armando are talking about the time, several years ago, when the practice was suddenly canceled because lightning struck a nearby tree, setting it on fire. Harvey points out the tree, then he and Armando have this exchange:

HARVEY: What's amazing is, the tree still works.
ARMANDO: The tree still works? You mean like, it's performing photosynthesis?
HARVEY: Whatever trees do.

Just before the practice ends, cornerback Calvin Jackson goes down and has to be taken off the field on a golf cart. This is something the Dolphins do not need; injuries have already put several key players out for the season. Also apparently the practice did not go well, because when Johnson comes off the field, he holds an extremely short press conference, consisting almost entirely of Johnson staring straight ahead and saying, through gritted teeth, ``We'll be fine.''

``Any more questions?'' asks Harvey, his tone clearly warning that any fool who asks a question when the coach is in this mood will never, as long as he lives, get another parking pass. Nobody says anything.

``See you later,'' says Johnson, striding away.

So we are left to find other sources for our quotes. I decide to try Drew Rosenhaus, who is a sports agent and also, in the minds of many sports lovers, Satan. Drew will not be offended that I called him Satan: Drew is the ultimate example of a guy who doesn't care what you say about him, as long as you spell his name right. These headlines would be OK with Drew:


Rosenhaus often attends preseason Dolphins practice, watching from the stands with his ear glued to his cellular phone, which rings immediately whenever he finishes a call. I ask him why he comes to practice.

``It's good to see what happens, see how guys are doing,'' he says. ``If I see [defensive tackle] Tim Bowens make four sacks, when I'm negotiating with Jimmy, he's not going to be able to tell me Tim's not doing well. And it's good for recruiting. The players get to see you. Guys like to see their agents out here.''

Rosenhaus is famously aggressive in pursuing players whom he wants to represent, even if they're already represented by other agents. Defensive tackle Daryl Gardener, who is the size of several Florida keys, claims that Rosenhaus, making his pitch, once followed him into a men's room and locked the door. (Rosenhaus denies the part about locking the door.)

``My competitors don't like me,'' Rosenhaus tells me. ``They think I'm out here to recruit their players.''

``But you are ,'' I say.

``Yes, I admit it,'' he says. ``But it's a free country.''

It troubles me to say this, but I find myself actually kind of liking Rosenhaus. He's slimy, but he's openly slimy. It's refreshing. It's as if Bill Clinton suddenly stopped trying to sound like Billy Graham and shouted, ``Hell YES I inhaled!''

I spend 10 minutes talking to Rosenhaus. Actually, I spend 10 minutes listening to Rosenhaus, who, when he gets warmed up, talks much faster than I can think. He tells me he has a new book coming out, called A Shark Never Sleeps , which will have a cover photo showing Drew on a football field, wearing a suit and standing in front of a table covered with a lot of money. (``The idea was being on the football field with a suit and a lot of money,'' he explains.) He introduces me to one of his newer clients, Olindo Mare, who has just beat out Joe Nedney to become the Dolphins' kicker. Rosenhaus manages to make it sound as though he, Drew Rosenhaus, is primarily responsible for this; as though Olindo Mare, when Drew found him, was lying comatose in a ditch with only one leg.

Finally, by (really) holding my hand over Rosenhaus' mouth, I am able to quiet him long enough to speak directly to Mare. I'm trying to ask him if the coaches have warned him against trying to pass the ball, the way Garo Yepremian did in that legendary play from Super Bowl VII in 1973. You remember: The Dolphins were leading the Redskins 14-0 with about two minutes left in the game -- and their perfect season -- when Yepremian tried a 41-yard field goal. The kick was blocked, and Yepremian, instead of falling on the ball, picked it up and threw a . . . well, you couldn't really call it a pass; Garo looked like a man trying to swat away a rabid bat. The ball was caught by Mike Bass, who at the time happened to be playing for the Redskins, and who returned it for a touchdown. Suddenly the perfect season was in jeopardy, a fact that did NOT make Garo a popular individual when he returned to the sidelines. It is very fortunate for Garo that the Dolphins won the game, because now he is a beloved local sports personality, as opposed to a local sports personality with a permanent crater in his face shaped like Larry Csonka's fist.

So I'm asking Olindo Mare about this famous bit of Dolphins lore, getting deeper and deeper into the story, and he's looking at me with this mystified expression, and suddenly it hits me: He doesn't know what I'm talking about. Mare is 23 years old; when the Dolphins had their perfect season, he did not exist. He seems a little offended that I'd compare him to some old guy who couldn't even throw a pass.

``We're athletes, not kickers,'' he says.

Now I'm feeling really old. I'm afraid to ask Mare what percent he puts out. I'm thinking it could be as high as 175.

The kicking game is important, of course. But the kicker is only one player; there are more than 50 other men out here -- big men, tough men, men who are trying to survive in one of the most violent sports, men who have spent the past two months toiling and sweating day after brutal day in the South Florida heat and grime. And the question that we must ask ourselves, as we look at these 1997 Miami Dolphins, is: What are their laundry procedures?

For that information we turn to Tony Egues, the team equipment manager, who's in charge of a large, spotless, well-organized facility next to the team locker room that contains, among other pieces of equipment, three computerized washing machines that look like they belong on the space shuttle. These are in a room behind doors with signs that say: ``CAUTION BIOLOGICAL HAZARD.'' This warning, contrary to what you might think, does not refer to the massive daily accumulation (try not to even think about it) of unlaundered jockstraps. It refers to the laundry chemicals, which, Egues explains, have to be a lot stronger than ordinary household detergents to get out those stubborn stains you get when very large men stomp and sweat and spit and puke and bleed all over each other's garments.

But the biggest problem, Egues says, is getting the Dolphins to put their laundry in the two mesh bags that each player is assigned.

``In a Utopia,'' Egues says, ``they would all use their own mesh bags. But in the real world, they leave stuff around, and they go into other players' mesh bags.'' He sighs. ``It's like children.''

Egues says that, because of all the loose laundry, the equipment people eventually learn to recognize individual players' garments.

``You'll see something,'' he says, ``and you'll think, `This belongs to Danny.' ''

Speaking of Marino: His jerseys are never washed. Right after each game, Marino hands his jersey to Egues; so that it can be auctioned off to raise money for Marino's charitable foundation.

Marino is not an intellectual, and when it comes to eloquence he is not Winston Churchill, or even Winston Churchill's cigar. (Reporters love to do imitations of Marino, speaking in very short sentences consisting primarily of very bad words.) But Marino is one of the genuinely good guys in sports, regularly giving his time to a number of causes. For example: As I'm leaving the practice field one afternoon, I stop and watch Marino and guard Keith Sims hang out with some kids who have been brought to Dolphins training camp by the Make-A-Wish Foundation of South Florida, which grants wishes to terminally ill children. Sims is talking to a 13-year-old boy named Dylan, who has cancer. Dylan is showing Sims his trading cards.

``What,'' Sims is saying, in mock indignation, ``you don't have a Keith Sims card?''
A few feet away, Marino is talking to a wide-eyed 8-year-old named Brian, who has had major surgery lately and is clearly not doing well. Brian looks at the scars on Marino's much-repaired knee; he then raises his T-shirt and shows his own scars, which are far too big for his tiny body.

Marino, who looks so uncomfortable when he's surrounded by the media, appears totally relaxed here, in no hurry to leave. He chats with Brian's family and patiently signs his name on every article of clothing being worn by Brian and Brian's brother and sister. He also signs a football, then stands up to grant one of Brian's wishes, which is to catch a pass thrown by Dan Marino, the quarterback who has thrown for more yards, and more touchdowns, than anybody else in NFL history. Brian goes out for the pass, maybe five yards. Marino gently tosses the ball, and Brian, who is not going to miss this ball for anything in the world, grabs it and hugs it to himself, smiling radiantly, and I'm telling you that this was the greatest catch I've ever seen.

Then Dylan, who would also like to catch a Dan Marino pass, comes over, and Marino grabs a ball.

``Where should I run?'' asks Dylan.

Marino surveys the practice field. It is vast. It is the size of Connecticut. It is empty. There is not a single person on it, other than Dylan.

``Just get open,'' says Marino.

Dylan starts running; Marino throws the ball right to him; Dylan drops it.

``Bad throw,'' says Marino, as Dylan trots back. ``You're gonna catch this one. Just don't go so far.''

Dylan starts running again. Marino throws the ball; it's a tight spiral, but it's thrown so softly that it hardly seems to be moving. A statue could catch this ball. It floats to Dylan and drops securely into his hands. I'm telling you that this was the greatest throw I've ever seen.

As Marino is leaving, he promises the two boys he'll see them the next night in the Dolphins locker room at Pro Player Stadium, after the final preseason game against the Redskins. Dylan, joking, says, ``Don't be mean to me if you lose!''

``We're not gonna lose,'' says Marino.


And they don't. They beat the Redskins fairly easily in a weeknight game at Whatever Company Is Currently Paying To Have Joe Robbie Stadium Named After It Stadium. The Dolphins build an early lead, thanks largely to the fact that the Redskin quarterbacks -- perhaps as a symbolic gesture of thanks to commemorate the 25th season since Garo Yepremian's pass to Mike Bass -- keep throwing the ball to the Dolphins. Most of the action comes in the first half, when the Dolphins look dominant, much better than they did at Tampa Bay, prompting George Richards, a Herald sportswriter sitting next to me in the press box, to remark: `` Somebody opened up a can of whup-ass.''

``A what ?'' I ask.

George explains that this is an old country saying, meaning to act in a very aggressive manner. I think it's a wonderful expression and everybody should use it whenever possible.

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton, responding firmly to reports of Iranian troop movements near the Kuwait border, today sent an official communique to Saddam Hussein stating: ``Don't MAKE me come over there and open up a can of whup-ass.''
The Redskins game, as preseason games so often do, turns boring in the second half, as both coaches, not wanting to injure key people, send in their marginal players, their high-school seniors, their mail room personnel. Earl Morrall starts the fourth quarter. The fans are leaving; the press box is snoring. Everybody wants the real season to begin already.

I feel especially sorry for the Dolphins cheerleaders, who have to keep cheering and smiling and doing perky synchronized dances long after the crowd has lost all its enthusiasm. (Dorie Braddy, the director of cheerleaders, told me that the cheerleaders, who rehearse three or four nights a week for three or four hours a night, make only $25 each per game. She also said that the biggest problem with pro-football fans, in South Florida and elsewhere, is that they are, in a word, dead. ``They just sit there,'' she said. ``You want them to react. If you're yelling `Defense!'you want them to yell `Defense!' '')

After the game we media people head down to the locker rooms for quotes. The players are strewing laundry everywhere, not using their mesh bags. I go to Marino's locker; I want to get a quote from him on the game's Official Giveaway Item for fans age 12 and under: a Dan Marino figurine, made in China. The striking thing about the Dan Marino figurine is that there are few people on Earth that it resembles less than Dan Marino. It's wearing No. 13 and passing a football, but it has a disproportionately large head with strange coloring and a sinister grin. I would not want to be a child age 12 and under and wake up from a bad dream and look at my nightstand and find myself staring at -- BigHead, the Vampire Quarterback!

Marino, having given his quotes to the media, is getting dressed when I walk up and show him the figurine.

``Does this look like you?'' I ask.

He examines it.

``No,'' he says. Then he examines it again and adds, by way of amplification, ``No, no, no, no.''

``So that's a `no,' '' I say, writing it down.

After he's dressed, Marino goes over to the Make-A-Wish kids, Brian and Dylan, who are waiting with their families near a locker-room exit. He signs some more stuff for them, poses for more pictures, spends a few minutes talking quietly to the two boys. Then he says goodbye.

``See you, Dan,'' says Dylan.

``See you,'' says Marino.

``See you,'' says Dylan, again.


Finally the preseason ends. Finally it's opening day, a game that counts, against the Indianapolis Colts. The crowd -- around 70,000; not quite a sellout -- gathers early at Whatever Stadium, getting mentally prepared for the game by buying licensed merchandise and barbecuing enough meat to feed North Korea for a year. People are also taking pictures of each other posing next to the statue of Don Shula, which accurately reproduces that scary Shula Stare, the one that looks like it could burn a hole through eight inches of steel. This is an intimidating statue. I think that if you replaced an actual NFL head coach with this statue -- put it on the sidelines, mounted on a swivel base so you could point it at players, referees, other coaches, etc. -- it would probably get you into the playoffs.

The opening-day crowd is in a festive mood. Tailgaters whoop as they watch a small motorcade go past, featuring a float with some cheerleaders and the Dolphins' mascot,

``T.D.,'' which is a guy in a costume shaped like H. Wayne Huizenga.

No, seriously, it's shaped like a dolphin wearing a football helmet, which more and more of your smarter dolphins are now doing in the wild. Leading the motorcade is the legendary Dolfan Denny, who has been inspiring the fans by making hard-to-describe pelvic motions on the sidelines of Dolphins games since shortly after the Civil War. He's wearing a shiny silver helmet and driving a swoopy three-wheeled motorcycle. Riding all alone in the back seat of this motorcycle, like a head of state in a ceremonial parade, is: a hamburger. Go, team!

Inside, the crowd is being entertained by an on-field competition featuring the Hooters Owl, which is the official owl of the Hooters restaurant chain (motto: ``Proof That Men Really Are Scum''). The Hooters Owl is a person inside an owl costume the size of a UPS truck. The owl walks erratically, jiggling and twitching and staggering ( Today on Geraldo: Big Owls On Drugs! ) as fans try to win prizes by hitting it with footballs. As a sports-event promotion, this truly captures the intellectual essence of the Hooters restaurant chain.

And then the game begins. It's a game that lives up to the words of the Miami Dolphins Fight Song:

We're in the air,
We're on the ground,
And then we're in the air again, because we're not doing so well on the ground.

They're not doing so well in the air, either; Marino is having an off game. But the defense and special teams are playing very well, and Olindo Mare -- athlete, not kicker -- is having a spectacular first game. He's not only kicking off and making field goals; he's also, suddenly, punting -- something he has barely practiced with the Dolphins -- in place of John Kidd, who has pulled a hamstring. I'm beginning to wonder if maybe they should forget about that Yepremian incident and let Mare try throwing the ball.

The Dolphins put one good drive together and lead 10-7 at halftime. The halftime show features a musical number by the Dolphins cheerleaders dressed as biker chicks, plus a bunch of guys on Harleys, plus (Why not?) a team of U.S. Navy SEALs parachuting onto the field, sending this message from the American military to the nation, and the world:

``We will go anywhere where there are women in really tight shorts.''

Mare kicks two more field goals in the second half, but the game gets tense at the end, as the Colts start moving the ball on the wet field, kicking a field goal to make it 16-10, and then getting the ball back with an onsides kick. And now they're driving again, and the game is on the line, and the stadium is bedlam, and the hitting on the field is fierce, and players are covered with mud and sweat, and Tony Egues, passing by on the Dolphins' sideline, shouts into my ear: ``LAUNDRY NIGHTMARE, BABY!'' And Jimmy Johnson, the way coaches do, is going clinically insane, whirling away from the field in disgust as the Colts complete a pass, spitting out profanity, then whirling, his face red with rage, to scream something at a line judge, getting in the man's face, looking as though he's a millimeter away from opening up a major can of whup-ass.

No need. The Dolphins' defense holds, the game ends, the players, dirty and dog-tired, trudge off the field. In his postgame press conference, Johnson praises the defense and special teams, but shakes his head over the offense.

``Obviously, we gotta play better,'' he says. ``Dan wasn't throwing the ball very well.''

In the locker room, Marino, speaking to the crowd of reporters that always forms around his locker, agrees.

``I'm missin' throws,'' he says.

When the reporters leave, Marino puts on a polo shirt and Bermuda shorts and walks slowly away from his locker. He's had operations -- you don't want to know how many -- on both legs; he walks with a limp. His right calf is shrunken, distinctly smaller than his left. He will not be playing forever. The way it goes in football, he may not still be playing by the time you read this. I hope he is; hope it's a good season; hope the Dolphins get into the playoffs with the fan cloud roiling wild around them. It'd be fun to see them make the Super Bowl, although nobody really thinks they will, at least not this year; Jimmy's official timetable says that's for next year, when Marino will be a year older -- maybe too old, maybe too gimpy.

And the team has to win. Jimmy will not let this team not win, and if he thinks he has to, he'll bench No. 13.

I don't feel sorry for Marino, exactly; he makes millions, and his place is secure in the Hall of Fame. But he has never been on a team like the 1972 Dolphins, the guys whose faces are up on the wall at team headquarters, whose names are permanently inscribed in the hearts of the bedrock Dolphin fans. Marino has played superbly, played his heart out, played with injuries that would have most people on crutches; but he may never be able to give this town what those guys did.

I say we root for him anyway.

Illustration: color photo: Dan Marino (a), Dorie Braddy with others cheerleader, Dorie Braddy (a), Drew Rosenhaus watch Dolphins pratice (a), Tony Egues (a), Harvey Greene (a), Dolphins players (a), Dolphin logo (n-ran on the cover; photo: Dan Marino with Make-a-Wish Kid Dylan Herder (n), Dan Marino with Brian Clifford (n), Don Shula (n), Bob Greise (n), Paul Warfield (n)

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