The Marino Family's Battle Against Autism
by laurie brookins
Dan and Claire Marino at their home.
You miss those Sundays, don’t you? Miami Dolphins fans often greet with disbelief the idea that it’s been 14 years since we watched Dan Marino pace along the sideline, itching to get onto the field to either protect a lead or engineer a fourth-quarter comeback. Seventeen seasons of Sundays, thanks to his lightning-quick right arm, were nothing less than dazzling.
These days are somewhat different for the Hall of Famer and wife Claire, who celebrate their 29th anniversary on January 30: His travel schedule isn’t quite as hectic (during football season, she often accompanies him from their Weston home to New York each weekend for his work as a CBS Sports studio analyst), but an equity partnership in Anthony’s Coal-Fired Pizza chain, a wine collaboration with fellow former Dolphin Damon Huard, and longtime spokesperson gigs with Levinson Jewelers and Nutrisystem keep Marino’s schedule far from idle.
But it’s another project that currently ranks top of mind for them both. On a Monday afternoon in October, the couple was inspecting the empty, freshly painted classrooms of the Marino Campus in Fort Lauderdale, which opens its doors this month as a resource for young adults age 18 to 28 with disabilities, a school where they may develop life and vocational skills. “Place looks good,” Dan says, coffee in hand. “I can’t wait to see it filled with kids,” Claire adds.
Joey, Michael, Daniel, Lia, Dan, Claire, Ali Claire, and Nikki Marino, with dog Sammy.
The campus is the latest layer in the work at the heart of Marino’s eponymous foundation, which the couple created in 1992 after their second-oldest son, Michael, was diagnosed with autism (the Marinos have six children, ages 17 to 27). Now 25, Michael was almost 3 years old when the Marinos recognized a problem with his verbal and behavioral skills. “But back then even a diagnosis was difficult,” Claire remembers. “They would tell you, ‘We think this is what it is,’ or, ‘These are the things we think you need.’” Resources in South Florida, the couple quickly discovered, were almost nonexistent. “We watched other families leave,” she says.
Michael’s diagnosis and treatment soon became a full-time job for Claire. “She really did everything, especially while I was playing,” Dan says, reciting a catalog of regular trips to Los Angeles, Chicago, and Pittsburgh for therapies and medical treatments—“and very often, all the other kids came with me and Mike,” Claire notes.
This month, the foundation hosts one of its key fundraisers, the WalkAbout Autism & Expo, set for January 25 at Sun Life Stadium. Over the years, the foundation has raised more than $45 million, and the WalkAbout, now in its fourth year, is one example of the Marinos’ dedication that funds raised locally stay local.
The Marinos at The Dan Marino Foundation WalkAbout Autism & Expo at Sun Life Stadium.
In many ways, its growth has mirrored Michael’s own: In 1998, the Miami Children’s Hospital Dan Marino Outpatient Center opened in Weston as a resource for early diagnosis and treatment. Meanwhile, even as they watched Michael successfully mainstream into adulthood, Dan and Claire realized developmentally disabled young adults needed a next step after high school. Partially funded by the state of Florida, the Marino Campus offers vocational classes in hospitality, information technology, and entrepreneurship, as well as life-skills programs, such as how to be successful in a job interview or how to interact socially with other young adults.
The Marinos weren’t alone in these decisions, preferring to credit foundation CEO Mary Partin as being integral to its growth plan. Partin, meanwhile, understands the Marinos’ significance as role models. “I’ve seen Dan and Claire in huge crowds, and they’ll stop 100 times to talk with parents, who just want to say thank you,” she says. “There’s still such a stigma attached to autism, and the number-one thing they did was they stood up and said, ‘Support your child, be proud of your child, and value who they are.’”
The Miami Children’s Hospital Dan Marino Outpatient Center offers services for kids with autism and other disorders.
Like the Dan Marino Center, the Marino Campus promises to become a pilot program for others like it in the US and beyond. And that’s when the question comes up, how does he balance a legacy created during 17 seasons of Sundays against what has been born out of the foundation’s work?
“Impacting kids with developmental disabilities and autism is a legacy that will last a lot longer than the football legacy; eventually that gets outgrown,” Dan says. “If there’s a way we can affect kids with something that lasts for the next 50 years or more, that’s huge to me.”
Indeed, as for thoughts of those long-ago Sundays, you’re not alone. “Don’t get me wrong,” Dan adds, his smile growing wider. “I sure do miss football.” The Dan Marino Foundation WalkAbout Autism & Expo, Sun Life Stadium, January 25, from 9 am–1 pm. For more information, go to danmarinofoundation.org
photography by jim arbogast; michael hopkins/gerlinde & michael photography (walkabout)
Cover shoot: Behind the scenes with Pitbull for the October 2014 issue of Ocean Drive magazine.