There is a point in the movie Ace Ventura: Pet Detective when things look pretty grim for Dan Marino. The Super Bowl has just begun and Marino is supposed to be the starting quarterback for the Miami Dolphins, but—darn it!—he's all tied up. He's roped to a tackling dummy, held hostage by evil policewoman Sean Young, who is actually a former male kicker for the Dolphins, who is being pursued by pet detective Jim Carrey, who lives by the credo "I don't do humans" and who is...aw, forget it. A stupid movie? No dumber than, say, counting Marino out of real-life NFL stardom simply because he tore his right Achilles tendon last October, had surgery and has appeared slow, unfit, tentative, immobile, pained, awkward and grumpy ever since.
Marino's performance in the Dolphins' final preseason game this year, against the Minnesota Vikings, was so dismal—four completions in 12 attempts for 37 yards and two interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown—that some Miami sportswriters suggested that it might be time to bench him in favor of backup Bernie Kosar. At practice last Saturday before the season opener, against the New England Patriots, Marino grumped that he couldn't take much more interrogation or speculation.
"You get sick of it," he said. "How many times can you get asked about your ankle? It's been almost a year of the same thing—everybody asking, "How is it?' A lot of times the fans don't even know what's hurt, and they ask, 'How's your knee?' I even got a call from Al Gore while I was rehabbing [the vice president blew out his Achilles in a recent pickup basketball game]. I haven't talked to him yet. I will, I guess. But what am I going to tell him?"
Well, how about this: Drop back and throw bullets, Al.
Because that's what Marino did 24 hours later against the Patriots at Joe Robbie Stadium. Bad foot? Marino moved like Tinker Bell while leading the Dolphins to a 39-35 shoot-out win. He even scrambled 10 yards for a first-quarter first down, diving headlong into the rain-soaked slop that once had been base path dirt for the Florida Marlins baseball team, which doesn't play baseball anymore. But that's another story. Tentative arm? Marino threw for 306 yards and four touchdowns in the second half. He looked so good on his bad legs (his left knee is an arthritic mess from live surgical procedures) that you had to wonder what the surgeons implanted last fall when they sutured the rip of his Achilles tendon, which hadn't so much snapped in half as it had unraveled in a fibrous explosion from the base of his calf muscle to the top of his heel bone.
For the game, the 33-year-old Marino was 23 of 42 for 473 yards and five touchdowns. The yardage was the second-highest total in Dolphin history, behind Marino's 521 yards against the New York Jets in 1988. The day's touchdowns helped break an NFL record, which Marino had shared with John Unitas, for career games with four or more TD passes. Marino now has done it 18 times. The fourth-quarter comeback win—the Dolphins were down 35-32 with 3½ minutes to go—was the 26th of Marino's career.
"That's Dan Marino," said Dolphin wide receiver Irving Fryar with a shrug afterward, using minimalist pith to good effect. Fryar had just caught five Marino passes for 211 yards and three scores, including the game-winner on a testosterone-charged, height-of-arrogance, perfectly thrown 35-yard strike up the right sideline on fourth-and-five when a drop-off pass probably would have sufficed, and he sensed intuitively that the best way to praise a guy like Marino after a transcendent performance was simply to call the man himself.
That was what everyone had been wondering all these months as they watched Marino swell grandly—he hit 250 pounds while hobbled with his cast—and then work his way into fighting trim (224 well-muscled pounds) for his comeback: Was he himself?
Doing Ace Ventura had been easy, Marino said: "I just played myself." The irony was that the man who had thrown for 40,000 yards faster than anyone in NFL history could play himself easier on celluloid than in real life. "We're looking hard to see if he's lost any foot quickness," said Dolphin coach Don Shula somewhat ominously before the opener. Shula and Marino have been together longer than Arm & Hammer, but pro football is a cold business. Dan Marino, the gimp, is somebody else, somebody of no use to the franchise except as history.
The identity crisis was eating at Marino's soul, making him snappy with reporters, desperate to get the season under way, to play a game, to see for himself what he had lost or regained. "What I have to do is just play," he said, sweating through another scorching pregame practice. "I need to just play quarterback."