Thirty years ago, good fortune, and Dan Marino, fell to the Dolphins

Three decades later, the story of the '83 draft shows how lucky Dolphins were

Dan Marino remembers feeling surprised, then confused. He remembers thinking he'd be drafted high — "Maybe in the top five picks,'' he says — then sitting on the couch in his Pittsburgh home as those first five teams passed on him.

"And that was just the beginning,'' he said.

Thirty years ago, one of the NFL's most celebrated draft days and the luckiest in Dolphins history played out in ways that still resonate. Franchises rose and careers fell on that day's decisions.

And as the intersecting dramas began in each team's draft room, coach Don Shula started that day figuring Marino would be long gone when the Dolphins picked 27th. Shula's target: Syracuse defensive lineman Mike Charles.

The New York Jets, figuring the same, feared Shula would trade his entire draft to Baltimore for the No. 1 overall pick and take Stanford's John Elway, who said he wouldn't play for Baltimore.

But how Marino fell to the Dolphins, and why, shows how much of a dart throw any NFL Draft can be. The '83 draft was rich by historic measure, too. Six future Hall of Fame players were taken in the first round.

"The normal draft is about one-third busts in the first round, but there were only two players you'd say were busts in the '83 draft,'' says Joe Mendes, who was then New England's director of scouting.

So there was talent in that draft, deep and abundant talent. That contributed to Marino's free-fall through that day.

The Colts coach, Frank Kush, asked owner Robert Irsay to draft Marino.

"Irsay wouldn't listen to him,'' said Mike Westhoff, a Colts assistant.

After Baltimore indeed drafted Elway (trading him to Denver a week later), after those first five picks came and went, Marino figured Kansas City was his spot.

It had the seventh pick and, just a few days earlier, new Chiefs coach John Mackovic flew to Pittsburgh to work out Marino.

"I'm taking a quarterback,'' Mackovic told Marino. "After we're done, I'm driving to Penn State to visit with Todd Blackledge. I'm taking you or him."

This was Mackovic's first draft. He was a career college coach except for the two seasons as a Dallas Cowboys assistant. Still, as he says now from his home in La Jolla, Calif., "I knew what was at stake."

He passed on Marino. "I don't remember why,'' he says. He chose Blackledge.

What's clear are the results: Blackledge played five undistinguished years in Kansas City, two more as a reserve in Pittsburgh and retired in 1989. Mackovic was done by then as an NFL coach, too, fired after the 1986 season.

The next personnel man with a decision on Marino remembers exactly why he passed: Buffalo's Norm Pollom liked University of Miami quarterback Jim Kelly better.

"Dan was a great talent, but we had Jim rated higher,'' said Pollom, the Bills' head of college scouting.

Pollom said if Marino was drafted after his junior season when he led the country with 37 touchdown passes, he'd have rated with Elway. In fact, the Los Angeles Express of the fledgling United States Football League made a run at Marino after that junior season.

In 1984 the Express signed Steve Young for $40 million. A number like that would've pulled Marino from college. But the Express' offer to Marino was $800,000.

 

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