MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — People always lament how sports stars aren't heroes like they used to be. Lance Armstrong lies. Tiger Woods stains his name. The entire Baseball Hall of Fame ballot is at issue.
But what if everyone's telling the wrong stories? Because this is what happened all Saturday morning. A young man approached Dan Marino. They began talking like old friends. They talked of the young man's martial arts, of his cooking studies, of what he plans to do afterward.
After a few minutes, as the young man walked away with his mother, Marino said, “Kenneth's been with us for years.”
Kenneth Wedderburn, 23, has autism. That was a common sight at The Dan Marino Foundation's WalkAbout Autism, though it's telling to note the event did begin like that, in all capital letters, with a healthy foundation and about 20,000 people gathered in Sun Life Stadium.
It began two decades ago when Claire Marino took her autistic son, Michael, across South Florida to a speech therapist. And across it the other way to an occupational therapist. And to Los Angeles for one specialist. And to Chicago for another. She became frustrated.
“Isn't there a better way?” she asked.
And so Dan and Claire Marino began to find a better way. They joined forces with an autism expert in Roberto Tuchman of Miami Children's Hospital. They assembled a team of experts. They built a facility in Broward that's essentially a one-stop shop for autism.
And now, two decades later, they've changed the world. No, really. They treat autistic kids from any country you can name. They show doctors everywhere how to give proper therapy.
Here's a story: A group of 20 Italian children with autism would fly over each year to the center. The Italian officials became so impressed with what the facility was doing they used it as a model to construct one of their own.
Marino College is coming in downtown Fort Lauderdale, too. There was no place for kids with autism to get help as they grew older. The college will help them learn skills and gain training for jobs. It opens with 40 students next January. It eventually will have room for 400.
“This has become a community of people who have become involved through the years,” Marino said.
Take Saturday's event. The Dolphins surely would have opened up Sun Life Stadium for Saturday's walk just from Marino's relationship with the franchise. But General Manager Jeff Ireland has 17-year-old twin daughters with autism. He threw his energy into the cause, too.
Ireland, always a numbers guy, said, “One in 88 children are born with autism. This is a day to bring awareness and help.”
Outside the stadium, Marino's son, Michael, now 24, spun music as a disc jockey. It turned out he had a mild case of autism. But every few feet Saturday you met a family like the Mizrachis. Jason and Melinda brought their 8-year-old son, Jonathan, to contribute to the event and, “to be around people who were just like him,” Melinda said. “This is an important day for him.”
Everyone wants their sports stars to be more than sports stars for some reason. And they compare this era to bygone heroes like Arthur Ashe taking on apartheid or Muhammad Ali saying, “I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.”
But if you look in the right places they're still doing good work. Nick Buoniconti founded The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis. Alonzo Mourning and Jason Taylor started youth learning centers.
It's been 14 years now since Marino played football in this stadium, and his records are beginning to vanish, one by one, as the NFL grows more pass-happy by the season.
Eventually, they'll all be gone. Eventually, he'll be replaced by another quarterback, as he once did Bob Griese. And eventually you wonder if Marino will be known more for his work with autism more than for football.
MCT Information Services