As someone who bleeds black and gold, one of the singular regrets of my youth was watching Dan Marino tumble down the 1983 NFL Draft board, only to see my beloved Steelers pass on him in favor of Gabe Rivera.
Marino was on drugs, you see, and was branded a high-risk passing savant who could easily fall through the trap door of his demons.
There was zero evidence that Marino actually did drugs. His own roommate told the NFL narcs he’d never seen the QB do anything but play football, have a little fun, and live like a college kid.
But these things have their own epic momentum.
Marino was born in Pittsburgh. He was raised in Pittsburgh. He played high school ball for Central Catholic, in Pittsburgh, and college ball at the University of Pittsburgh. He dreamed of playing for his hometown team. Yet despite the clean bill of health delivered by two local detectives who inspected Marino’s appetites, the Steelers still passed on him.
Don Shula and the Dolphins gleefully snagged him with the 27th pick, and fired the Marino cannon for over 15 years. Marino took a giant eraser to the record books on his way to the Hall of Fame.
In a moment of poignant symbolism, if not a karmic tax, Marino dropped 45 on my Steelers in the 1984 AFC title game, on his way to the Super Bowl in his second year. The Steelers never recovered, toiling and toying with QB stalwarts like Mark Malone, Cliff Stout, Bubby Brister, and Neil O’Donnell.
To this day, Art Rooney II, the son of the Steelers’ patriarch, still worries that when he reaches the pearly gates, the deity will demand an explanation for that draft day gaffe.
Fast forward to 2016: Laremy Tunsil, who, unlike Marino, has a real, printable rap sheet from his college days. Nothing disastrous, but enough to arch a few NFL eyebrows.
Tunsil was, by almost all accounts, the most pro-ready prospect in the draft, a nimble behemoth who would plant himself at left tackle and not budge for a decade. He would surely be plucked right after the Rams and Eagles bagged the twin cover boys of the night, quarterbacks Jared Goff and Carson Wentz.
Then, moments before Roger Goodell strolled out with the first pick, a video surfaced on Tunsil’s Twitter account of someone smoking from a bowl, a gas masked strapped to his face. We weren’t entirely sure when the video was made, or even if it was Tunsil.
Tunsil then morphed from troubled teen to Walter White, plunging down the board, toxic for twelve picks, until – you got it – Miami brought him to the Dolphins’ bosom.
Obviously, they hope they just found a monolith who, like Marino, was a victim of embellished fears and rampant rumors. Maybe Tunsil is eternally tormented, and won’t find his way into NFL lore, but rather slide out the back door of first-round failures. Or maybe he will double as a concrete wall behind Ryan Tannehill’s backside for years to come.
Even if Tunsil makes ten Pro Bowls and has his bust bronzed in Canton, he can never be Marino because he plays on the offensive line. But the parallels are interesting. And after decades of film study and charts and trial and error, the highest rungs of our biggest sport still can’t say with any certainty that they got the steal of the draft.
A lot has happened to the NFL Draft over the years. In 1983, it was a local, New York City affair in a smoky conference room stuffed with geriatric NFL sages, making their picks before a freckling of fans. Now it’s mushroomed into a national gala, broadcast all over the world, the marquee beaming from Chicago as if man just landed on the moon.
One thing that hasn’t changed is the water cooler talk that still rules like law over the NFL cognoscenti. One frightened GM triggers a line of like-minded dominoes, falling before fear of making the pick that haunts them down the decades.
Will Tunsil turn into Jonathan Ogden or Tony Mandarich? The Dolphins pray for the former, of course. And perhaps the teams that ignored Laremy Tunsil will have much explaining to do on judgement day.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.