Marion was prepared to tackle life after football
KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Fred Marion is drilling holes into a door with an electric drill, fixing a hinge problem before customers begin ordering lunch in his restaurant. His place is sandwiched among the tourist trappings of 78 specialty shops and 18 rides in Old Town. Damon's is No. 130 on the locator map, between a pizza place and the Turbo Force, described as "a psychotic version of a Ferris wheel."
Kissimmee's cheesy tourist hooks are an unlikely place for a man to reinvent himself quietly, transitioning from the egotistical highs of playing in the NFL to the quiet comfort of keeping company books in his home office.
Marion left the game 14 years ago on his terms, without thinking, "What if?"
His resume was complete: Playing for the Patriots for a decade, earning Pro Bowl honors in 1985, going for a Super Bowl ride with the Patriots against the Chicago Bears in 1986.
"I have no regrets," he said.
Still lean and fit at 46, Marion eases into a booth at his restaurant, reminiscing about his glory days as a free safety. There are a few of Marion's jerseys hanging along the walls, though he pays homage to his former AFC adversaries Jim Kelly and Dan Marino by hanging up their jerseys, too. The most interesting piece of memorabilia is an old Patriots helmet with the Pat Patriot emblem, enclosed in a glass case. NFL scrapbooks are cluttered with stories of players who never could adjust to life without pads and helmet. Marion thought his steps out clearly before taking off his Patriots uniform for the final time in the winter of 1991.
There was a twitch of indecision in the summer of 1992, when he tried out with the Miami Dolphins. He was recovering from hernia surgery but managed to run 7 1/2 laps in coach Don Shula's dreaded 12-minute run and looked good. But the Dolphins decided to keep another cornerback instead of a safety.
By then, Marion fit comfortably in business attire. As the mid-1980s approached, Marion networked with his agent to set him up in a business. He started as a partner in the Damon's store in the Mercado in 1986 and remained there until it closed in March 2003. He is now the principal owner of the franchise restaurant that opened in Old Town in 1999.
"During the offseason, I would come back and learn the ins and outs of the business," Marion said. "It is a business like any business -- managing people, being personable, communicating with people."
Marion's communication skills in his previous endeavor usually involved the crunch of a helmet to the chest or the thump of shoulder pads colliding. He was a star athlete at Gainesville Buchholz and the University of Miami under Howard Schnellenberger, leading the Hurricanes in interceptions in 1980 and 1981 and later setting a school record for career interceptions with 16. (Marion currently ranks fourth on that list.)
He would leave the tropical breeze of South Florida to play in the chill of New England after the Patriots drafted him in the fifth round in 1982.
Four seasons into his NFL career, Marion was playing in a Super Bowl with historic implications. Thing is, he was on the wrong sideline. The Chicago Bears hammered the Patriots, 46-10, in the Superdome in Super Bowl XX in January 1986.
Matched against an irreverent group of guys who made a "Super Bowl Shuffle" video that was released before the end of the regular season, the Patriots finished with 123 total yards, second-worst in Super Bowl history, and a record-low 7 rushing yards. No previous Super Bowl team had been beaten by as many points, and no team had surrendered as many points as the Patriots.
Da Bears. Da Pain.
And so a nice run ended for the Patriots, who qualified for the playoffs as a wild-card team and made NFL history by winning three consecutive road games.
"It is such an experience," Marion said. "Guys play 10-12 years, Hall of Famers, and never had the opportunity to say they've been in the Super Bowl. But being there is not enough. You want to win it. But just having that one time in your career, it was amazing. That was the ultimate. The Bears, that was their year. They overpowered you defensively."
Already midway into his NFL career, Marion had found the balance in life to deal with personal and professional adversity. He was born again in March 1985, directing his focus on what he called more positive pursuits. Marion had been caught up in the lifestyle of some pro athletes -- a little drink, a little weed . . .
"I was doing other things that would probably cause me harm or my family embarrassment eventually," Marion said. "Kids get caught up in the bling-bling, as they call it now -- the fame and fortune, how many cars you have, the size of your house. That's not important."
Marion and wife Annie recently celebrated their 24th wedding anniversary. They were high-school sweethearts. "We met at the start of basketball season in school, and we've been together ever since," Marion said. "It's been a long journey. We've watched each other grow up, and it's been beautiful."
They have four children. Monica, the oldest, graduated from Florida State in December. Natasha is a sophomore at South Florida. Twins Alycia and Fred Jr. -- nicknamed "D.J." -- are juniors in high school.
D.J. will start running track tomorrow, and Dad figured a little warmup wouldn't hurt.
"You want the old man to take you out there and dust you and see if you can run?" he asked his son recently before running a sprint around the long circular driveway of their home in St. Cloud.
"That boy almost made me pull a hamstring," Marion said, "but I got him."