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.
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.
His first real sustained encounter with books came in a college freshman English class at the University of Pittsburgh. ``We had to read a book a week and do a paper on it. A book a week! For me at the time -- Hey! I didn't do that kind of thing.'' The course turned out to be the most valuable he took in college, giving him the skills he needed to graduate with a 3.0 grade average. What Marino found during his college career as an All-American quarterback is that the attention he gave to academics actually helped his athletics.
Since becoming a professional, this has been even more true, he says. In college, it's possible for an athlete to get by mainly on natural ability, he says. But the pros require the kind of mental concentration one develops in school: ``Here, playing quarterback is 50 percent mental and 50 percent physical. The number of plays is increased. You have to know what you are doing before you can throw, or you won't get the job done.
``There is a mental process in decisionmaking,'' Marino says. ``To understand what we want to do offensively requires learning -- as well as memorization and repetition. You have to think and study every day.''
Marino got immediate exposure to that kind of learning at his 1983 rookie training camp, where Dolphin head coach Don Shula had Dan call his own plays.
``You hate to think you've got a robot out there who gets the play from someone who whispers it in his ear,'' Shula says, ``then calls it without knowing what he's calling, or why.''
Dolphin quarterback coach David Shula, son of the head coach, confirms the importance of developing good study habits: ``Those kids in high school and college who talk about being pro athletes,'' he says, rolling his eyes, ``often have no idea of the need to develop learning skills.'' Being an All-Pro like Marino, he says, ``requires an enormous amount of mental conditioning. Our receivers, for example, run a variety of patterns.... Good receivers are adept at learning what's behind those concepts and how they relate. That requires study -- something a lot of young athletes don't understand.''
The most important skill Marino learned in school is the ability to take good notes. ``It may sound simple at the time,'' he says, ``but you find later in life that clear, organized notes are essential -- for being a quarterback, or for any profession, really.'' Marino takes notes ``constantly,'' whether viewing game films or at meetings.
``He's relentless,'' says Don Strock, Dolphin veteran reserve quarterback, of Marino. ``He asks the right questions and he listens to the answers.''
But whether it's taking an exam in school or competing in athletics, Marino says that even the best preparation may not be enough some days. The important thing is not to get discouraged. He remembers his first regular college game as a freshman on his 18th birthday. The first pass of his career was intercepted. The second was incomplete. But on the third attempt he fired a touchdown strike.
And things just got better. Today, Marino owns NFL single-season records for most touchdown passes, 48; most yards passing, 5,084; and most completions, 362.