NEW YORK -- Dan Marino sat a turkey platter, mashed potatoes and steak plate away at the Thanksgiving dinner table Thursday night. Who better to spend a football Turkey Day with than the man with the golden arm?
But Dan wasn't the star of this table. In fact, his passing records, the touchdowns, the wins... they meant very little on this night. Because sitting at his right elbow was a living, breathing miracle.
|Mike Marino says, 'I'm always thankful.'(Getty Images)|
Mikey is about as normal a 14-year-old boy as there is. But it's his normalcy that's the miracle.
Mike Marino had autism as a young child. Mike Marino appears to have beaten it -- completely. Not a sign remains. Yes, that would qualify as a miracle.
"I usually don't bring it up much because I get this really cold feeling when I think about how I had autism," said Mikey, one of six Marino kids. "I think about how I am now and how I was then, and it's just too weird for me.
"I won't say I have been cured because you can't really be cured of autism. But I have overcome it. That's what you can do, you can overcome it. I don't notice it at all anymore."
Autism interferes with the normal development of the brain in the areas of reasoning, social interaction and communication skills. Children and adults with autism typically have deficiencies in verbal and non-verbal communication, social interaction and leisure or play activities. The disorder makes it hard for them to communicate with others and relate to the outside world.
It is conservatively estimated that nearly 400,000 people in the United States have some form of autism -- the third most common developmental disability. But the majority of the public, including many professionals in the medical, educational and vocational fields, remain unaware of how autism affects people.
My mouth drops as young Mikey Marino explains what it's like to be one those mysterious people stuck in a world that seems so unexplainable.
"The only thing I really remember about having autism was wanting to say something and not being able to do it," he said. "It's pretty weird to explain. It's like you are a perfectly normal person on the inside, you know what you want to do, but you just can't do it. You know you want to say something, pick up something or do something, but you are just not able to do it."
It's well known the Marinos had a child with autism because of the prolific charity work they contribute to the fight against it. But the fact Dan and wife, Claire, have seen their child beat the unbeatable is hardly known. The issue is rarely broached within the confines of their home because, well, it's really no longer an issue.
"Some of my friends have come up to me and said, 'We hear you have a brother who has autism,'" Mike says with a proud chuckle. "When I tell them it's not my brother it's me, they are like, 'No way.' They know that autistic people have problems saying things, but I guess I'm not one of those people anymore."
Mike's father might have been blessed with the golden arm, but Mike's story is inscribed in platinum ink. The improbable comeback story of their lives began when Michael was an infant.
"At first, we just thought he was such a well-behaved baby because he slept great, he didn't really cry, but then we began to realize something wasn't normal about it all," Dan said. "He wouldn't talk, he didn't really have any social dealings with other kids or his brother. He would just sit up in his crib. So we had him tested, and we learned that he was autistic.
"It was so difficult on me and Claire, because the first thing you do is think about what you did wrong for something to affect your family like this. But then after you come to terms with it, you have to learn as much about it as possible and then go attack it."
In order to attack it, Dan and Claire began a foundation to assist children with learning disabilities. That foundation then led to the Dan Marino Center in South Florida, where they actually bring in an average of 3,500 children per month for testing and treatment for a variety of disabilities.
"We were fortunate we could afford to bring in specialists in the house and we brought people in to help him every day," said Dan. "We had him work with occupational therapists, physical therapists, one-on-one teaching. We had the resources. That's where the idea for the center came about. It's a place where people who may not have the same resources can bring their children to get diagnosed and treated."
Marino sought a reason for Michael's plight, and maybe this is it. Had Mike not suffered from the disability, the Dan Marino Center might never have come to fruition.
"My mom told me that she and my dad made that whole Dan Marino Center because of me," said Mike. "That's really cool to hear."
When Mikey was 4, the Marinos began to see glimmers of advancement. Soon after, his progress began to accelerate, and the hope that their boy just might be able to break began to illuminate through the darkness.
"By about third grade we were able to get him into some mainstream classes in school," said Dan. "Eventually, he just progressed to the point where he was completely mainstreamed. Now, we really don't bring it up anymore because it's not even an issue in his life. He's as normal a kid as you'll meet.
"Forget anything I ever did on the field, this is the most incredible thing I have ever been around in my life. My kids are all really incredible."
Michael says he was unaware of his situation for years until his parents informed him of his mysterious past. He now remembers the feeling but has blocked most of it from his memory bank.
"I had an assessment testing when I was really young, and it was noticeable that I had autism," he said. "Then I had another test about eight years later, and the doctor said it was the highest improvement he had ever seen in those tests. I didn't really remember it until I was about 9 years old, I think it was, and my parents talked to me about it. It was kind of weird to hear and to think about. We don't even talk about it anymore."
As dinner winds down, Claire gives a personal one-on-one talk to each of her six children (two were adopted from orphanages in China) to let them know how thankful she is for them. Perhaps the biggest thanks is that when she talks to Mikey, she talks to a young man no different than the rest of the Marino clan.
"I know it's Thanksgiving, so I guess it's the appropriate time to be thankful but I'm always thankful," Mike said. "I really was blessed. To hear that I was one of the most remarkable cases of overcoming autism is really cool to know. I'd love the chance to help out other people like me. I really appreciate how blessed I am."