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Raising autistic teens grounds Dolphins GM

Dolphins GM Jeff Ireland talks about his job as a father of twin autistic teenage daughters.

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Jeff Ireland holds one of the most scrutinized jobs in South Florida as general manager of the Miami Dolphins.

Admitting he’s in “a big offseason for us,” Ireland perhaps faces more pressure than at any point during his five years on the job.But every night he goes home, Ireland embraces another challenge — raising 17-year-old autistic twin daughters Haley and Hannah.

“It grounds you, because you know there’s something bigger than football,” Ireland said before leaving for the Senior Bowl. “That’s hard for me to say, because I live in a world where nothing’s been bigger than football my entire life. 

“But when you have kids, you have a wife, and you have a family, you learn very quickly that that is your passion — helping them, making sure they are provided for, and making sure they have everything they need.”

Most people have heard the term autism, though many cannot sufficiently define it. It is a developmental disorder that appears in the first three years of life and affects the brain's normal development of social and communication skills.

Autistic people often are extremely intelligent, though they lack the ability to clearly express themselves and display repetitive behavior. It’s estimated that one in 88 children (one in 54 boys) will be diagnosed with autism.

When Ireland accepted the Dolphins GM job in 2008 and moved his family from Dallas to South Florida, he and wife Rachel relied greatly on Dan and Claire Marino.

The Hall of Fame quarterback and his wife, parents of an autistic son, started the Dan Marino Foundation in 1992 with hopes of helping other families affected by autism and other developmental disabilities.

The foundation has accomplished much in its 20 years, including partnering with Miami’s Children Hospital to open the Dan Marino Center in Weston, Fla. The Center provides treatments and therapies for children with developmental disabilities.

The next project is the planned 2014 opening of a vocational college in Fort Lauderdale.

The Irelands will join the Marinos at Sun Life Stadium this Saturday morning for the Dan Marino Foundation WalkAbout Autism, a fundraising effort that generates awareness and crucial funds for autism services.

Michael Marino, 24, was diagnosed when he was 3 and his father was quarterbacking the Dolphins. He now shows virtually no signs of being autistic, and works as a South Florida DJ. He also co-hosts a Sunday morning sports talk show on 560-AM WQAM.

Although it’s hard to fathom, Dan Marino might be better known by future generations for the foundation and its affiliations than his football career.

“It seems crazy to think like that, but it’s the same way with the Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital,” Mike Marino said. "There are people who don’t know who Joe DiMaggio was as a baseball player but they know the hospital.

“As much as my Dad loves his playing career, I think he would take a lot of pride in the foundation being even more of his legacy than his playing career.”

Mike Marino recently joined the foundation’s board and is heavily involved with the formation of the vocational college.

“Somebody has got to be able to take the reins,” Mike said. “It’s one of those things where my parents want me in on it now so I can learn what we’re all about and I can pass that on.” 

Ireland, too, has become a spokesperson for autism awareness and the Dan Marino Foundation. As the father of autistic teenagers, he understands the need for a learning facility for autistic young adults.

“We’re no longer in the diaper stage, or the toddler stage. We’ve got developing young ladies,” said Ireland, who also has a son, Riley, 11, and daughter Annie, 6. “So our whole phase of autism is a different phase. We’re now trying to get them intertwined with the real world.”

Whereas it used to be trying to teach Haley and Hannah how to read, write and communicate, Ireland says now it’s about helping them understand money and how to balance a checkbook. They currently are high school sophomores at a specialized school.
 
"“There are so many dynamics involved with teenage girls," Ireland said. "You have puberty, you have teenagers and you have autism and you have all three things hitting at the same time.

“Sometimes you don’t know, is that the autism talking or is that the 17-year-old back-talking teenager?” 

Holding the title of Dolphins general manager fails to help in such situations.

“My girls don’t care what I do, they don’t,” he said. “Sometimes I’m not even sure they know what I do. So when I walk in the door, I’m just Dad, and that’s a great thing.”