Shula was two practice fields away, so I decided to have some fun.
Introducing myself as Shula’s oldest son, I led them to a nearby bench, got them both a soda and asked if maybe they would like to sit in the air conditioning in dad’s office.
They said, oh no, they didn’t want to impose. As we sat and talked, I told them I was sort of the black sheep of the family, that “Dad” didn’t approve of my hair and some of the foolishness and sometimes he barely acknowledged me out here.
“He’s all business on the football field,” I said.
After that, I went off to get my interviews and when I returned, there was Shula standing with them. They pointed to me and mentioned how accommodating his son had been.
Shula shot me a glare and then politely informed them “I was just fooling around.”
I winked to them and they just smiled.
They had a camera and asked if I’d take a picture. As Shula got in between them and put an arm around each, I told them I’d count to three.
“One … two … whoa….wait a minute!” I yelled. “Don, your zipper!”
Shula’s smile faded as he looked down and reached to fix things. The nuns stared down, too, and that’s when they all heard “Click.”
I’d taken the picture, then quickly handed them the camera and beat a retreat as Shula – whose zipper had been up all along – hollered for my return.
Before the nuns left, I gave them my address and sure enough they mailed the photo.
It remains one of my favorite sports souvenirs, one I focused on again Monday when I got news that Shula had died at age 90.
He was the NFL’s winningest coach – his 347 victories coming from 26 years as the Dolphins head coach and seven leading the Baltimore Colts. He led the 1972 Dolphins – who went 17-0 ad won Super Bowl VII – to the league’s only undefeated season.
In 1997, he was inducted in Pro Football Hall of Fame.
I’d known him since 1973. After graduating from the University of Dayton the year prior, I’d moved to South Florida and got a job at the South Dade News Leader in Homestead.
A couple of months after getting hired, I got sent to the Dolphins practice facility even though I didn’t know much about pro football.
I headed into Shula’s office after practice and sat down next to a few veteran reporters. Shula took one look at my long hair and Hawaiian shirt and asked “What in the hell do you want?”
I froze and finally blurted out the first question that crossed my mind: “So what do you think of that marijuana t-shirt Mercury Morris is wearing today?”
I might as well have gone up and relieved myself in Shula’s shoe.
Looking like he had a mouth full of castor oil, he said:
“What kind of horse(crap) question is that?… Get outta here!”
I continued to show up at the Dolphins on occasion after that and then covered them on a regular basis through the 1980s when I was with the Miami News. I was at practices, all the home games at the Orange Bowl and I went on the road with them.
Shula and I became friendly, in part because we both grew up in small Ohio towns, both were Catholics and went to Catholic colleges.
He used to remind me how, when he played at John Carroll, they came down to Dayton and “kicked the butts” of Chuck Noll and Killer Kilbane and the rest of the Flyers.
In his 26 years with the Dolphins – he took them to five Super Bowls and won two (1972 and ’73) – Shula had just two losing seasons.
I remember when the team lost three straight early in the 1986 season, my mom, Agnes. who was a huge sports fan gave me some special rosary beads to give to him.
The team won six of its next eight games, and the following year, when she visited practice with my dad, Shula treated her like a queen.
In his 33 years in the NFL, Shula missed just 2 1/2 days of work: One was for his first wife Dorothy’s cancer treatment. One when he had his Achilles tendon surgery and he took a half day when he got a knee replaced.
To say football came first, well, Dorothy once told me a story of how he proposed to her in a letter – on page 2. The first page was all about football.
When his son Dave was with the Cincinnati Bengals coach, he told me a story about his mom and dad’s honeymoon:
“They were walking on a beach somewhere in Delaware and all of a sudden he asks my mom to start backpedaling across the sand. He told her he wanted to get an idea what kind of athletes their kids would be …”
The couple had five children and after 32 years of marriage, Dorothy died of breast cancer in 1991.
Two years later, Shula married socialite Mary Anne Stephens, who did her best to polish his football edges. She got him in Italian loafers, silk shirts and $2,500 designer suits.
But some things didn’t change.
Several years back, former President George Bush showed up at a Florida Marlins baseball game and sent word down to Shula – who was sitting in the stands – that the coach should come up to his private box.
Shula sent word back that he admired Bush greatly, but why didn’t the former president come down to see him instead?
The messages went back and forth all night long. Each man refused to get up. They never did meet.
Hall of Fame lineman Bubba Smith once famously said:
“If we’re ever hit by a nuclear bomb, the only two things I’m sure are going to survive are AstroTurf and Don Shula.”
Shula had a granite-like presence. When it came to football he was laser focused, highly disciplined and extremely competitive.
And that sets the stage for one more story.
We were in Los Angeles for a game with the Rams. Both Leo Suarez, who was our young beat writer at the Miami News and my great friend, and I were staying at the team hotel.
The Saturday afternoon before Sunday’s game, I had gone to Shula’s room to interview him. That night Leo and I went out on the town until past 3 a.m. As we made our way home – both feeling absolutely no pain – I noticed a sidewalk box offering free magazines filled with ads for escort services and strip clubs.
I took one and when we got back to the hotel I had the “great” idea we ought to stop by Shula’s room.
I got down on my knees by the door and Leo tore out one page of X-rated pictures after another and I slipped them under the door.
We were giggling and then I lost my balance and crashed head first into the door, which suddenly opened. And there stood Shula in his underwear, looking none too pleased.
“What in the hell are you doing?” he growled.
Looking up, I said, “Aaahhhh…ooooohh….sorry…wrong room!”
Back then we used to ride the team bus to the game and that Sunday morning when I got on the elevator there stood Shula. Neither of us said anything until just before the door opened.
“Can I ask you one thing?” he finally said without a smile. “Do you even like football?”
That’s when I remembered the perfect response from years past:
“What kind of horse(crap) question is that?”