For the better part of a week, Dan Marino's pride and his personal values warred with his one competitive hunger that has never been appeased.
From Minneapolis, the coach of the Minnesota Vikings, Dennis Green, was telling the great Miami Dolphin quarterback that the disarray of his 1999 season was an imposter. It didn't mean Dan Marino was no longer capable of leading a team to a championship.
Green said he wasn't talking division or conference championships. He meant the Super Bowl. Never mind the physical erosions of 17 seasons in the National Football League, the injuries, and the rising clamor among both his friends and critics that it was time for Marino to yield to the evidence of his 1999 season and retire.
Marino listened to the Vikings because the Super Bowl was still the grail of his competitive life. He played it in once. He was a young quarterback then, clearly headed for some kind of stardom that would make him unique.
But the other quarterback in that game was Joe Montana, who was already there; the other team was the San Francisco 49ers, and the game was a wipeout.
As the years advanced, and Marino eventually re-created the record book for passing, the verdict of his peers in the National Football League was almost unanimous: Nobody who quarterbacked in pro football deserved a title more than Marino.
The television millions admired him, but only the men who played with and against him knew the true range of his football skills and gifts, his relentless drive, and his core toughness, mental and physical.
So in his final seasons, through the squabbles with coach Jimmy Johnson, and in the face of his declining powers, Marino kept his eyes on the grail.
He knew the traps of the Super Bowl mythology - that a quarterback can win football games by the boxcars, but if he doesn't win the Super Bowl, he isn't quite whole as a player for the ages. Marino knew that it was a theory fueled by arguments in a thousand armchairs every year, and it was so much baloney.
Yet the Super Bowl still mattered, and rather desperately, because Marino was first and always a quarterback who lusted for the big games and the duels with the Montanas and the Elways. And they had won the Super Bowl.
And why not a man who had thrown 420 touchdown passes and gained 61,361 yards through the air, figures so high they were once considered practically supernatural?
Marino might have led the Vikings to a Super Bowl. But that is speculative. What isn't speculative are some of the bedrock principles that honor his decision to retire today - even more extraordinary than the performances and statistics he leaves behind him.
Clearly, his personality won't get him nominated for sainthood.
He flew into furies when things went wrong and harangued some of his teammates. But each game for him was a mission, and nobody pursued it with more passion.
Sometimes people in public life who plead more time for family are lying about the reasons they say "no."
The people who understand Marino know that his family comes before all else, ahead of something remote and wistful like one more crack at the Super Bowl. They also know that one more year like 1999 for Marino, parading the worn garments of a once-matchless craft, would have been a horror that his pride could not absorb.
The defenses of the National Football League will applaud his decision to retire. They were witness to the years when he was at his best, when he would step back a few yards, scan all those shifting bodies in front of him, and whip the ball deep, to the sideline, anywhere there was a target. They saluted him for his quick release, his nimble mind, and his powerful arm.
But what the men who faced him admired most was his raw, uncompromising bravery as an athlete and an incendiary will that lifted him into a place where he belongs in football history, among the best who ever played.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society