Dan Marino's right arm took him to greatness and eventually put his bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
But it was Marino's legs that helped make him a legendary high school football player -- and athlete -- at Central Catholic High School.
Before the knee injuries that plagued his college and pro career, before that ruptured Achilles tendon when he was in the NFL, Marino ran his way around WPIAL fields with speed and agility that was extremely rare for a 6-foot-4 high school quarterback. Sure, he had a howitzer for a right arm. But back when he was just "Danny," you should have seen his wheels.
This is the 35th anniversary of Marino's senior season at Central Catholic, when he passed -- and ran -- his way to being named a Parade All-American. He led Central Catholic to a 9-2 record as a senior and a spot in the WPIAL playoffs for the first time.
"I don't know if people realize the way he could run. He ran the 40 in 4.7 seconds," said Rich Erdelyi, who was Central Catholic's football coach during Marino's junior and senior years. "He was probably the biggest kid on the team and he could run that way. He was never injured until he went to Pitt. We used to run all kinds of bootlegs and waggles with him just because of his running ability. He was just a terrific athlete."
During Marino's senior season, Central Catholic had a 1,000-yard rusher in Nick Macioce. Marino threw for 1,596 yards that season, but attempted only 15 passes a game. His rushing statistics weren't available.
"But I bet Danny might have been close to what Nick had in rushing yards. That shows how he could run and how much we ran the ball," said Joe Carcia, a senior receiver at Central Catholic in 1978 who also played with Marino at St. Regis grade school in Oakland. "Even when we played at St. Regis he would throw a lot, but he was even lining up in the shotgun then and just taking the ball and running."
Lou Lamanna was Central Catholic's tight end in 1978.
"People were so enamored with [Marino's] arm that they didn't always look at the complete package," Lamanna said. "But he was the full package. He had it all."
The speed, the right arm and that overall athletic ability were the reasons the Kansas City Royals selected Marino in the 1979 Major League Baseball draft. As a pitcher, he had a 23-0 record at Central Catholic and also was an outstanding shortstop, hitting better than .500 as a senior. He thought long and hard about signing with the Royals after the draft, which would have broken the hearts of many Pitt football fans, not to mention Pitt coach Jackie Sherrill. Four months before the baseball draft, Marino had signed with Pitt to play football.
Marino eventually turned down a nice signing bonus from the Royals and went to Pitt for football only. Lamanna also went to Pitt and was Marino's roommate as a freshman.
"I will tell you that during our freshman year at Pitt, there weren't too many days he didn't spend in our room swinging a baseball bat," Lamanna said. "He'd put a dip in his mouth and act like there was a pitcher on the mound."
"If he didn't play football, he would've been a first-rounder all the way," said Joe Emanuele, Central Catholic's baseball coach at that time. "I figured if he went baseball, in one-and-a-half or two years he would be playing in the major leagues. He was so fast and had such a good arm, the Royals wanted him to play center field."
Carcia is a longtime friend of Marino. As a Central Catholic senior, Carcia remembers the time Erdelyi had to discipline Marino and Carcia and told them they couldn't go to a concert with the rock group "Boston."
"We went anyway," Carcia said with a laugh, "and just had to run the next day at practice."
Carcia grew up near Marino in Oakland and was a receiver for Marino at St. Regis. Carcia also played baseball with Marino for years. Marino's father, Dan Sr., was St. Regis' coach during Marino's seventh- and eighth-grade years.
"He always had the arm. Here was a kid throwing 40- to 50-yarders in grade school," Carcia said. "His dad was so instrumental in his career, too. Usually, fathers coach kids because they want their kids to advance. Maybe their kid is marginal. But his dad knew his son's ability and kind of let him alone. He was able to concentrate on the other kids."
Marino's arm -- and talent -- was one of the main reasons Erdelyi came back to Central Catholic when Marino was a junior. Erdelyi was an assistant at Central but left to become head coach Hempfield when Marino was a sophomore.
"I came back because I thought he could be pretty darn good," Erdelyi said. "I knew him since he was 11 because his dad used to send him to a camp I had for Catholic school kids."
By the time he was a senior, Marino was recruited by colleges across the country because of how he could throw. But high school teams didn't pass much back in the 1970s and especially not in Western Pennsylvania. As a senior, Marino completed 60 of 173 passes for 1,596 yards and 16 touchdowns. As a junior, he completed 81 of 161 for 1,080 yards and 10 touchdowns.
"Danny was somebody who wasn't the 'same old, same old' quarterback. He loved to throw," Carcia said. "But nobody had the idea of 'wait a minute, let's throw the ball and throw it a lot.' His legacy would be even better from his high school years if he would've been used the right way. My God, he doesn't even have any WPIAL records. This is a dude that should have some kind of records. He could've been throwing for 300 yards in the 1970s and people would've said, 'Oh my God.' But 15 passes a game his senior year? That's sickening."
Erdelyi is now the offensive coordinator at Carnegie Mellon. Two of his assistant coaches during Marino's years were Danny Smith, who is now the special teams coach with the Steelers, and John Fischetti, who later became Central Catholic's head coach.
"It was a different game back then, but we still threw more than anyone," Erdelyi said.
The senior year
Central Catholic had joined the WPIAL in 1975, but had not qualified for the WPIAL playoffs in the first three years in the league. That changed Marino's senior year -- and there were some memorable games.
The season started with a 21-0 victory against Erie Cathedral Prep. Central Catholic took a 4-0 record into a game at perennial power Gateway. Central Catholic got a signature win, 27-12, and the M&M Boys -- Marino and Macioce -- were terrific. Marino completed 12 of 21 for 219 yards and ran for 27 yards on five carries. He was also the team's kicker and punter and averaged 40-plus yards on four punts. Macioce rushed for 163 yards on 18 carries and caught four passes for 73 yards.
But the game was also memorable on how it started. On the first play after the opening kickoff, Central Catholic ran the sleeper play.
"No, it was the illusion play," Erdelyi said with a chuckle. "The sleeper play was illegal."
Lamanna said, "No, it was the sleeper play."
On the play, there were 10 players in the huddle. Another player came from the sideline late to the huddle. Carcia ran to the sideline, acting like he was out of the play. But he stopped just short of the sideline, facing Erdelyi with his head down and his arms crossed.
When the ball was snapped, Carcia took off. Marino hit him with a pass, and Carcia ran for a while before being tackled on a play that covered 60 yards.
"Yeah, but Joe got caught from behind," Lamanna said with a laugh.
Two weeks later, Central Catholic suffered its first loss, 20-17, to Shaler on a Saturday afternoon game played in the mud. The winning score came on a short touchdown pass from Shaler sophomore Ken Karcher, who would be a Parade All-American quarterback two years later.
Central Catholic rebounded with a 12-0 win over North Hills (Marino ran for one score and passed for another). Then on a Saturday afternoon at North Allegheny, Central Catholic won the West Penn Conference championship with a 19-18 victory on another muddy field. In the fourth quarter, Carcia caught a 58-yard touchdown pass from Marino for the winning touchdown. It would be the last scoring pass of Marino's high school career.
"As the years have gone by, that pass is up to 80-some yards now," Carcia said.
"It was a play called '49er pass,' and I still use the play today at Carnegie Mellon," Erdelyi said.
For the WPIAL Class AAA playoffs (AAA was the biggest classification back then), Central Catholic drew Penn Hills, which had won the 1976 title and tied Butler for the 1977 crown. Penn Hills featured two future NFL players in junior quarterback Tom Flynn and 6-4, 250-pound sophomore lineman Bill Fralic. In a game played at Valley, Flynn rushed for 100 yards and Penn Hills won, 13-0.
Marino was under constant pressure throughout the game and finished only 6 of 18 for 71 yards.
Afterward, Penn Hills coach Andy Urbanic said, "The defense just played a hell of a game. You can't blame Marino. There is no finer quarterback anywhere."
For more on high school sports, go to Varsity Blog at www.post-gazette.com/varsityblog. Mike White: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1975 and Twitter @mwhiteburgh. First Published September 27, 2013 4:00 AM