'I didn't even know what autism was. We had to look it up in the dictionary,' the ex-NFL quarterback said Thursday.
Now, Marino is teaming up with sponsors of the American Century Celebrity Golf Championship and leaders of the nonprofit group Autism Speaks to help raise money for research into the developmental disorder during the annual golf tourney at Lake Tahoe July 15-17.
'We've successfully harnessed the collective power of the celebrity players and the Lake Tahoe casino community so that charities like Autism Speaks can use the tournament as a platform for fund-raising and publicity,' Jon Miller, senior vice president of NBC Sports, announced Thursday.
In addition to trying to raise $100,000, American Century has donated to Autism Speaks a portion of its commercial time during NBC's broadcast of the second and final rounds of the tournament next week at Edgewood Golf and Country Club in Stateline, Nev.
'We are committed to funding an acceleration of research into the cause of autism in hopes of finding a cure,' said Mark Killen, senior vice president of the investment company based in Kansas City, Mo.
'We sure hope to exceed $100,000 for autism research but just as important is to raise awareness,' he said.
The 16th annual $100,000 tournament at Edgewood Golf and Country Club draws a field of 80 sports hall of famers, actors and other celebrities to the shores of Lake Tahoe, including Michael Jordan, John Elway, Donald Trump, Ray Romano and Charles Barkley.
'The reason I play on the celebrity tour in general is they raise a lot of money for a lot of great causes,' Barkley said Thursday.
Autism is a complex developmental disorder best known for impairing a child's ability to communicate or interact with others.
'Autism truly is reaching epidemic proportions,' said Alison Singer, senior vice president of the New York City-based Autism Speaks.
Today, autism strikes one in 166 children, compared with 20 years ago when it was one in 10,000, she said. It's unclear how much of the apparent surge reflects better diagnosis and how much is a true rise.
'Every 20 minutes, another set of parents receives the devastating news that their child is autistic. As the mother of an autistic child, I know that was the very worst moment of my life,' Singer told reporters on a teleconference call.
'But I also know that this is a time for hope because more researchers are working on autism now than ever before,' she said.
Ten years ago, there only 12 researchers in the field of autism science but now there are more than 400, said Singer, whose group was created four months ago by NBC Universal Chairman Bob Wright and his wife, Suzanne, whose grandson is autistic.
'The only thing slowing their critical work is money to fund their research,' Singer said. 'Thanks to the support from people like Dan Marino and Charles Barkley, we can raise the critical funds and also raise awareness.'
Marino's son Michael, now 17, was 2 years old when he was diagnosed with autism.
'I had the resources to help Michael at an early age. He is doing terrific right now,' said Marino, the former Miami Dolphin who will be inducted Aug. 7 into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
'We want to try to make it better for other people and other families so they are not in the same situation,' he said.
'Early intervention is a key component to treating any child with neurological disabilities and specifically dealing with autism.'
The Dan Marino Foundation in Miami has raised about $1 million a year since 1992 for developmental disabilities programs in Florida and elsewhere, including treatment of autism, he said.
'We have a facility that sees about 6,000 kids a month and it's been expanding,' Marino said.
'When I go over there and a mother or dad comes up to me and he says, `Hey, Dan, this facility has really helped and it's made a difference in our family's life and our son or daughter's life,' that's everything you dream of as far as being able to raise funds and make a difference,' he said.
Singer said there's a strong genetic component to autism and that some cases may be trigged by environmental factors.
'We are committed to supporting and funding research that investigates all theories about what causes autism. Right now there's no clear understanding, but we are looking to cast a wide net in terms of autism research.'
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