NFL Urban Legends: Dan Marino, Drug Rumors and the Draft-Day Slide

Mike TanierNFL National Lead WriterAugust 11, 2015

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Editor's note: This is the fifth installment in Bleacher Report's series on NFL urban legends. Part 1 looked at Bo Jackson's hard-to-believe 40-yard-dash time, Part 2 at Ray Guy's purported helium-aided punts, Part 3 at the NFL's first 1,000-yard season, Part 4 at Donovan McNabb and the much-talked-about Super Puke.

 

The 1983 NFL draft was a turning point in American sports history, the event that suddenly got casual fans interested in the once-dreary business of announcing which amateur player would play for which professional team. 

It was a perfect confluence of circumstances: a historic class of college greats, a rival league adding intrigue and a new medium—cable television—eager to turn the recitation of names into programming gold.

It's no wonder that it has become the stuff of legend. But it is also the stuff of urban legend.

Modern fans find it hard to believe that a future Hall of Fame quarterback fell to the bottom of the first round due to ordinary draft forces. Some sinister foul play had to be afoot.


The legend: A drug rumor caused Dan Marino to slip to the 27th overall pick in the 1983 draft. The rumor was started by someone inside the NFL, perhaps someone in the Dolphins organization, to cause Marino to fall into a successful team's lap.

What we know: The 1982-83 Marino drug rumors were real. Real rumors, anyway. Marvin Demoff, Marino's agent, heard them in the weeks leading up to the draft. "I started representing him, and I realized there were at least questions," Demoff said.

The rumors wafted their way down to the media. Ray Didinger covered the NFL for the Philadelphia Daily News in 1983, and he heard the rumors about the popular cross-state college star. "It was certainly out there that there were 'issues' with Marino," he said.

The rumor was pervasive and convincing enough that former Steelers coach Chuck Noll admitted in a 1992 Associated Press interview to passing on Marino specifically because of the rumor. The Steelers, of course, were close to the epicenter of all things Marino in 1982—Marino grew up in Pittsburgh and went to Pitt—at a time when being geographically close to a story made a big difference.

But the impact of the rumor may have become overstated as the decades passed. And the rumor does not seem to have originated within the NFL.

"I never heard it from a team," Demoff said. "Ever."

Teams were more likely to give Demoff football-focused reasons for passing over Marino, and the agent doesn't believe they were beating around the bush.

"I heard more about how he held the football," Demoff said.

Does this guy look like he parties too much? Wait, don't answer ...
Does this guy look like he parties too much? Wait, don't answer ...Ron Heflin/Associated Press

Also, the drug rumors originally suggested that Marino was a partier, not a serious drug abuser.

"It started off with just the idea that he was partying," Didinger recalled. "Then it grew more sinister from that."

"People absolutely looked at it that there was a group of guys on the Panthers that just had too good a time," Demoff said. "It was never about addiction."

The Marino drug rumor was so prevalent at the end of the 1982 college season that Pitt actually tested Marino for drugs. Demoff knew about the test.

"[Marino] told me that the school had heard about a group of players using marijuana or drugs, and they internally tested all the players. They were all clean," Demoff said.

News of the test was public by 1984, when the New York Times reported about it during Marino's rise to record-breaking stardom. But in those crucial spring days leading up to the 1983 draft, the drug test was locked away in some university office.

We should probably reorient ourselves to what "draft season" was like 32 years ago.

Agents like Demoff were relatively new arrivals to the draft process; some high-profile players still did not retain agents before the draft, and the agent's role had not been formalized and standardized.

National reporters like Didinger covered the draft—really, the entire NFL offseason—using mimeographed press releases and landline phone conversations. "Draft coverage" was a handful of articles about collegiate superstars in the local paper before the draft, some profiles of the home team's picks after the draft and a few features in Sports Illustrated.

No mock drafts, no national television coverage of the combine, no tweets, no daily "23 Safeties the Eagles Might Draft" slideshows, no easy way (or real precedent) for an agent to text message dozens of general managers, reporters and insiders with news that drug rumors were unfounded.

In fact, the whole concept of "drug rumors" was new. The national conversation about drug abuse as anything more than some hippie phenomenon was still in its infancy.

Nancy Reagan first uttered "Just Say No" to school children in 1982 while Marino was struggling through his senior season. The sports world was still two years away from the Curtis Strong trials, the average fan's first real exposure to the prevalence of cocaine in team clubhouses in the early 1980s.

A news report from autumn of 1982 reveals the state of sports-drug conversations of the time. The Big Ten issued drug-use questionnaires to its student athletes, concluding that "less than 5 percent" were using "heavier" drugs than marijuana, and stating that the conference did not have a major drug problem.

"It's minimal at Ohio State and we deal with it like any other illness or injury," said Dr. Robert Murphy, the Ohio State team physician, in a UPI story from August 1982.

So we aren't exactly dealing with the modern infrastructure for collegiate drug use. Noll said it best in his 1992 interview: "This was a time when no one knew anything about drugs at all."

There are two other 1982-83-specific variables to deal with: the USFL and the NFL player's strike. Marino was drafted by the USFL before the NFL draft. Anyone starting a malicious drug rumor to lower Marino's draft stock would have been playing a dangerous game of chicken. Marino could easily have followed Herschel Walker and Jim Kelly to the USFL if he didn't like his NFL situation.

The 1982 strike made Marino the most important active quarterback in the United States from late September to early October. Not the most important college quarterback, but the most popular, important and potentially best quarterback anyone had a chance to watch each weekend.

The pros were on strike. John Elway played for a so-so West Coast team. Pitt was coming off an 11-1 season and a Sugar Bowl win in 1981; Marino threw 37 touchdowns as a junior. The Panthers were national championship contenders with a 1982 schedule front-loaded with ranked opponents like North Carolina and archrival West Virginia.

Thanks to the strike, those big games became the biggest games on the typical fan, sports writer and gambler's schedule.

Marino stunk in those early contests. Even Demoff, not representing anyone in that 1983 class yet, noticed when he watched the Panthers edge the Tar Heels 7-6 in the season opener. "It was a very nothing game. We started wondering about what was wrong."

Marino struggling vs. West Virginia in 1982
Marino struggling vs. West Virginia in 1982CAROL BAUMAN/Associated Press

"What's wrong with Marino?" became a national story as Marino threw interceptions and the Panthers narrowly edged, then began losing to, other powerhouses. They also gained a reputation for sloppy play.

Writer Ron Reid itemized a list of Pitt blunders in a 1982 article for the Philadelphia Inquirer: The Panthers burned two timeouts getting the right personnel on the field in a narrow win over Syracuse; Marino and a linebacker had a sideline scuffle in the West Virginia game; the team seemed to quit in a loss to Notre Dame.

"Pitt thus has generated more catcalls than applause this season while enduring a constant drumbeat of fan and media criticism," Reid wrote, noting that much of the criticism for a then-9-1 team was a little silly. But sideline scuffles and wrong-guys-on-the-field confusion are exactly the kinds of mistakes that can provoke whispers that players may have other things on their minds than the opponent.

Foge Fazio, Pitt's first-year head coach in 1982, hinted in a 1984 New York Times article that gamblers started the rumors.

"A lot of it was disappointment we didn't beat the point spread," Fazio said. "That's where the viciousness came out."

The Panthers did, in fact, fail to cover the spread several times in 1982. But the viciousness went beyond disappointed gamblers: Reid's stories from 1982 are full of tales of Marino, Pitt and Fazio getting booed or subjected to withering criticism. And neither professional handicappers nor bookies get any juice from spreading drug rumors that could skew the very point spreads they depend upon to make money.

The rumor probably didn't have one traceable source. It was just speculation that took on its own life. But Demoff doesn't remember it as a conspiracy that doomed Marino to fall to 27th in the draft.

"People started finding reasons to not like Marino, and I think that the drug rumors were just another thing that they threw on the pile," he said.

Once a few teams passed on Marino at the start of the NFL draft, a herd mentality kicked in.

"This happens in a lot of drafts," Didinger said. "Once a guy starts falling, everybody runs the other way. Everyone assumes everyone else knows something, and they back away."

After 32 years, we have forgotten the details of Marino's miserable senior year and the primitive nature of scouting, player representation, reporting and NCAA and NFL drug policies in 1982 and 1983.

We have also forgotten what exceptional prospects Todd Blackledge and Tony Eason were and what a state of upheaval the NFL was in just months after a players strike, with the USFL poaching outstanding college players.

The drug story, easy to comprehend and salacious, has been retconned from minor to major because of Marino's slide.

Demoff said, "I think it is a lot easier for people to explain this now by saying something like that versus saying, 'Well, the horse ran a bad race in the mud, so we figured how that's how he's going to run forever.' "

There is still one element of the 1983 Marino draft story that can never be explained. Jets coach Joe Walton was a close friend of Fazio. Demoff remembers Fazio calling Walton just days before the draft to vouch for Marino.

Draft day came, and the Sheraton Hotel balcony was crowded with eager Jets fans. Didinger recalls "Dan Marino" chants emanating from the rafters. Commissioner Pete Rozelle stepped to the microphone and announced that, "With the 24th pick, the New York Jets select quarterback…"

Pause.

"I don't think Rozelle did it on purpose," Didinger said. "But for dramatic effect, he couldn't have done it better."

"Ken O'Brien, University of California Davis," Rozelle finished.

The Jets are the Jets are the Jets.
The Jets are the Jets are the Jets.G. Paul Burnett/Associated Press

"The cheers turned to screams of anguish—and then boos, in just a second," Didinger said.

Yeah, O'Brien had a nice little career. But he was no Marino. No amount of drug rumors can explain how the Jets always manage to be the Jets.

 

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Reports referenced in the series were accessed through NewsLibrary.com, Newspapers.com and NewspaperArchive.com. Links to those sources have been provided where possible.