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Sports star spells it out for youngsters: learn to read, study

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 8, 1986


HE'S been called the best young quarterback ever to play football -- a man who can hurl a 40-yard pigskin thunderbolt faster than you can say his name: Dan Marino. Marino is the golden-armed quarterback of the National Football League's (NFL) Miami Dolphins -- the only team to defeat the world champion Chicago Bears last season.

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A key reason Miami won that game was Marino's ability to ``read'' the Chicago defense. Lately, though, Marino has been saying that, for young athletes, reading books is as important as reading defenses.

Marino is one of a host of well-known sports figures, including Arthur Ashe (tennis), Dave Winfield (baseball), Walt Frazier (basketball), and Joe Paterno (football coach at Penn State University), who are trying to be role models for young athletes, many of whom have decided that literacy and education need not concern them -- that they are going to be professional sports stars. This belief, which is widespread on city sandlots and basketball courts -- especially among young blacks -- is known as ``the `Dr.J' syndrome'' (named for basketball star Julius Erving, who is nicknamed ``Dr.J'').

According to one recent estimate, only 1 out of every 15,000 youngsters participating in organized football or basketball will ever make his way onto a professional team. That's one reason that sports heroes like Marino say it is important to tell kids that academics and athletics are not like oil and water. Last spring, Marino teamed up with the American Library Association to do a series of posters that appear in schools and libraries coast to coast, urging kids to read. ``I want to help kids at a younger age,'' he says, ``younger than I was when I first realized education is important.''

Marino grew up in an ethnic blue-collar neighborhood in Pittsburgh. Sports were high on his agenda. School was not. His father, Dan Marino Sr., once said that ``Danny could recall everything on a bubble-gum card, but couldn't remember when the Civil War started.''

In sixth grade, in fact, young Marino's teacher predicted he would never graduate from high school. But a series of abrupt awakenings made him aware of the need both to work hard and to work at things that might not always seem fun -- in this case, school. His first awakening came when he nearly didn't get into Central Catholic -- one of Pittsburgh's best athletic high schools.

The second awakening came when Marino discovered that grades were important, even for college athletic scholarships (all colleges require a 2.0 grade-point average in a core curriculum). During both ``awakenings'' it was Marino's father, at that time a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette delivery truck driver, who made the difference for him -- inspired him to keep working. For that reason, the younger Marino today urges parents of budding athletes not to let their children neglect their studies.

Returning to the Dolphins locker room after a recent practice, Marino pulls up an extra chair. Nearby, teammate Mark Duper, a wide receiver, clowns around, trying on a pair of sunglasses. But Marino is a 6 ft. 3 in., 215-pound picture of earnestness as he explains why he feels school matters.