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`Dol-fan' becomes Dolphin for a day

IT started as a lark, but I quickly found myself the water boy for the Miami Dolphins. Matt, my landlord's son, has been the New England Patriots' assistant equipment manager in charge of visiting teams since he was 13 years old. The New York Jets. The Kansas City Chiefs. The Chicago Bears: Matt has taken care of them all. Last week, the Dolphins were in town. Having grown up in Florida, I've worshiped the Dolphins all my life. Could he, at the last minute, get me into the game?

Yes. At 7 a.m. Sunday morning we left Boston for Sullivan Stadium in Foxborough - fortified with bran muffins, and Tracy Chapman blasting on the tape deck (``You've got a fast car. I've got a plan/ to get us outta here.''). At 8 a.m. we walk past stadium security and into the Dolphin locker room. (``Just don't say a lot,'' Matt counsels.)

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A bit of context: While Boston has three sports teams within five subway stops, the Dolphins were for years the only pro team in Florida. Their fans (``Dol-fans'') are loyal to the bone - especially to coach Don Shula, a Mt. Rushmore figure in football, who has led the team to five Super Bowls. My friends and I grew up copying quarterback Bob Griese's ice-cube-cool style; wide receiver Paul Warfield's fluid pass patterns. Like Dallas and Pittsburgh fans today, we had some bad years in the late '70s. We got to the Super Bowl in '82. Then came Dan Marino. Marino, a likely Hall of Famer, may be the best passer ever. Two weeks ago he threw for 522 yards, the second-highest game total in NFL history.

This was my team. They were a solid link to a time, a place, and Shula's ethic of smart, clean sports.

Yet they were also faraway, as home teams are for many fans: little figures on a TV screen. Brief quotes in a brief story (``I'm bitterly disappointed in my team,'' Shula said this fall). They are concrete heroes in an abstract world. In Florida, the closest I'd ever gotten to a player was an autograph at a shopping mall. I'd never been to a game.

And now this. Entering the locker room of my team on game day: 50 gleaming white helmets with the leaping Dolphin logo hung in a tight semicircle, above 50 pairs of white game shoes, cleatless for the Foxborough artificial turf. It was awesome - like seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time.

Of course, you have to act casual in these situations. I look over the huge plastic laminated shoulder pads. Some are black with orange underfoam, some are steel gray, some clear. These are new specialized strike-resistant pads - designed to disperse the shock of a hit (made by firms with names like Donzi and Gladiator which are displacing older firms like Rawlings and Wilson). In the 1970s, 180-pound receivers ran 40 yards in 4.5 seconds, Matt says. Now, 290-pound linemen clock a 4.5. ``It's like tractor-trailer coming at you. You need protection,'' he adds in what I take as an understatement.

Sideline supplies - trunks of team camera equipment, Gatorade mix, towels, wrapping tape, coolers, and such - are wheeled just out the door. I'm asked to ``watch'' them.

At 10:30 the team bus pulls up. Players file out, led by Shula. These are some dudes: alligator boots, cowboy hats, leather jackets, sunglasses. The faces are impassive - faces used to being stared at. One always hears how physically huge the pros are. It's true. The slab-faced titans who play on the line - from wheat-fed schools like Illinois, Wisconsin, and Oklahoma - dwarf everyone. But what's more rarely stated is how small many players are. Defensive and offensive backs are often well below 6 feet, speed and agility their means of survival.

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At 11:30 we wheel the equipment to the sideline. The stadium is mostly empty. But someone has to guard the water. I offer. Marino, happy-go-lucky, strolls onto the field in street clothes. He's checking the wind. For some reason, I remember that his dad drove a milk truck in Pittsburgh. Now he walks over to ... to me. ``Footballs?'' he queries. I panic, not knowing where they are kept and look back with the stunned stare of the roadside rabbit transfixed by oncoming headlights - but he's gone. Soon two bags of footballs are unloaded. NFL teams use 400 game balls a year, 24 per game, 6 per quarter - provided by the home team.

The team comes out in uniform, and players lope around like finely tuned sports cars in second gear. Sans portfolio, I'm offered a job filling water cups for the players.

By now, the stadium is full - full of noise, and full of expectation, as if some giant collective breath is being held.

Just before game time, Matt pulls me out to the middle of the field, the 50-yard line, to help punter Reggie Roby (all-pro, 1984). Thomas Aquinas couldn't have argued better for the existence of God: Just 12 hours before I was embroiled in business deadlines and car payments, and suddenly I'm running around the football field with my team, dodging Dan Marino's warm-up passes and throwing laterals to one of the finest punters in the NFL - 70,000 fans all around.

But after the all-male Highland Glee Club of Newton, Mass., uncorked the national anthem, I began to learn some cruel facts of sideline life. On TV the sidelines seem full of friends and family. I had assumed that once you got in, you got in - like getting backstage at a rock concert (``It's OK, man, he's with the band''). Not in the NFL. Security men visually scour you. Are you a spy? Officials in the press box look for street-clothed lingerers.

Your job becomes your ticket. Mine was water.

The fact is, the sideline isn't a great place to watch the game. There's a three-foot white ``zone'' around the playing area only coaches can walk on (you used to be able to stand right up to the field, but referees judging out-of-bounds calls got mixed up by all the feet). There's another three-foot-wide area for substitutes. Everyone else stands behind that, between the two 35-yard lines. It's hard to see past all the shoulder pads.

Not that I had the time. There were constant crises: a political struggle over the water-to-ice ratio in the cups, for instance. One trainer wanted more water, less ice. Another wanted just the opposite - so I dumped and refilled them several times. Hey, anything for my team.

It's also hard to get a sense of the game from the players. They don't strategize as much as you'd think. Jackie Cline, a tackle, tells Brian Sochia, a noseguard, that ``my guy is trying to spin me both ways.'' But the talk is mostly monosyllabic, expletive rich; the players seem locked in a private world of concentration.

In the second quarter everyone stands back as Shula rages to a player lagging on the bench: ``Son, get out there, this team needs you!'' The dressing down seems unfair. I later find out it's a Shula tactic for talking to the whole team. ``When coach Auerbach of the Celtics used to get mad at Bill Russell he'd yell at Tommy Heinsohn,'' says one coach. ``Everyone knew what was going on. That's what Shula is doing.''

Reggie Roby asks for help again shagging punts during halftime. He's the only player to speak to us underlings. I develop a ``lonely-punter theory,'' confirmed later, which attributes his friendliness to the fact that he's almost as low in social status as we are, going out five times a game for one play.

During the second half, Marino is my best customer, an inveterate sipper who grabs a cup and tosses it to the ground as quickly (and as often) as he throws a pass. A team assistant picks up after him.

The Dolphins lost. I had reverted to glancing at a small black-and-white screen kept by the TV crew behind the bench. Nobody drank much Gatorade. Glum city.

Afterward, the locker room was a mess. Yards of wrapping tape lay on the floor - disgarded leather gloves, shredded programs, single socks. We rake it up - and help ourselves to leftover sirloin steaks in the training room.

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