The Seattle Seahawks flirted. Coach Mike Holmgren inquired about Dan Marino's availability. The Pittsburgh Steelers wanted Marino to return to his western Pennsylvania roots. The Minnesota Vikings? Marino knew they were the right fit for him. He knew it soon after coach Dennis Green walked into the Marinos' kitchen in Weston, Fla., on Feb. 29 for a lunch of chicken and tossed salad prepared by Dan's wife, Claire.
"Look," the 38-year-old Marino told Green, "I've got limitations. I can't throw the ball 70 yards anymore. And if you want me to throw it 60, you'd better put me in the shotgun."
"No problem," Green said. "We use a lot of shotgun anyway, and 45 yards is a deep pass for us."
Two hours later, after Green had described how Marino-friendly the Vikings' offense would be—"You'll have a power running game that works," Green said, mindful that Marino never had one with the Miami Dolphins—there was no question in the quarterback's mind that he wanted to be a Viking. Wow, Marino said to himself as Green left his house that day, I really want to do this.
Marino the competitor said yes. But Marino the loyal Dolphin and Marino the family man and Marino the sore-legged warrior said no. He waffled for two weeks about playing an 18th NFL season; he still loved to play, and his retired football friends were telling him how much he'd miss the game. ("It's never going to leave you," said Phil Simms, who retired in 1994. "It has never left me.") But after driving his kids to school last Thursday, Marino called together Claire and his parents, Dan and Veronica. Then, like the commonsense Pittsburgher he is, he did the right thing: He said he would quit football. He did it because going to Minnesota, even for the right reasons—for the love of the game and for a shot at that elusive championship ring—just felt wrong.
"We're sitting there at the kitchen table," Marino told SI on Sunday night, 14 hours before he would tell the world he was retiring, "and I said to them, 'I don't think I'm going to play anymore.' Claire cried a little. My father said it was the right decision and that I had had a great career. I know it was the right thing to do. In the end, the physical part of it was going to be hard. Minnesota plays, I think, 11 games on artificial turf this year, which would be tough on my legs. It was going to be hard on my wife and [five] kids, too. In this day and age, especially with the relationship I've built with this community, I didn't think it'd be right to go somewhere else for a year.
"It's tough. Believe me, it's tough. I still had trouble sleeping last night."
"Dan would love to play," Green said on Sunday from the NFL Competition Committee meetings in Tampa. "But in the end, he just decided he shouldn't. I could see the respect he had for the game and for his family."
So we have seen the last of Marino licking his fingers, giving that ice-blue stare, striding purposefully downfield after a completion. The most prolific passer in NFL history walks away with his dignity intact. He also leaves with almost every league quarterbacking record. He has 78 more touchdown passes than anyone else. He has thrown for 9,886 yards more than anyone else. Among starting quarterbacks, only John Elway won more games (148 to Marino's 147). His mark on the sport, professionally and personally, is indelible. "I love Danny," says Bruce Smith, the 15-year veteran defensive end who, with the Buffalo Bills, was Marino's chief AFC East tormentor. "Playing him, it wasn't just his talent that stood out. There was a professionalism, a mutual respect you didn't see very much with other guys. We'd get banged around and fall into a pile, and he'd look at me and say, 'You O.K.?' Going against him, I felt like baseball players must have felt playing against DiMaggio."
The hole in Marino's doughnut, of course, is that he never won a championship. This will diminish his stature in NFL history. Great quarterbacks win the Big One, and Marino lost the only one he ever played in: Super Bowl XIX in January 1985, a 38-16 loss to Joe Montana's San Francisco 49ers. Marino is certainly among the top handful of quarterbacks ever to have played, but he'd trade a bundle of stats for just one of the league titles won by Otto Graham (seven), Montana (four), Johnny Unitas (two) and Elway (two). In the postseason Marino was 8-10. His playoff losses included the game that he calls the ugliest he ever played: the 62-7 defeat by the Jacksonville Jaguars on Jan. 15, which turned out to be Marino's NFL finale.