He is gone now. It's hard to believe, hard to accept, hard to imagine what things will be like without him. South Florida will never again be the same. Neither will the world of professional football or, for that matter, so many of us whose lives he had touched in so many unforgettable ways.
Don Shula has taken that jutting jaw to heaven. Wonder if they have two-a-days there?
How can you frame this with anything other than sadness? How can you just accept it and move on? This was a one-of-a-kind human being, the greatest coach in the history of pro football – his career total of 347 victories the only evidence that really matters. First he gave us hope, then he gave us championships. One season he even gave us perfection. But he also gave us a commitment and a work ethic and a belief that there was very little that couldn't be accomplished with this stubborn, sometimes growling, Hungarian running the show.
It hits you right in the gut that we won't see him at Dolphins games anymore, sitting in his end zone suite or in his golf cart before the game holding court with former players, current players and even opposing coaches. It boggles the mind that the next '72 Perfect Season reunion will be held without The Coach in attendance. Uh, let me rescind that. If there is a way to be there, a way that his presence can be felt, Shula will find it. After all, didn't he always find a way?
We mourn today. We think about the accomplishments and what Shula meant to this community, and the impact that he had for so long, and it's hard not to grieve. But it's also important to celebrate because we will never again see someone come along quite like Donald Francis Shula. We need to celebrate the man, the father, the grandfather, the friend and, of course, the head coach. We need to celebrate the accomplishments, the records, the boys he turned to men, the assistants he turned to head coaches and, perhaps most of all, we need to celebrate the class and honesty he exuded in everything he did.
I was fortunate. I knew Don Shula very well. I had to prove myself to him early on, back in 1980 when I first started covering the Dolphins. See, the thing about Shula is that he had to respect you before he liked you. It took me about three years to earn that respect. I knew I had it one day when he placed his hand on my shoulder and whispered, "You're fair and you're honest, I like that."
That respect turned into a friendship and it grew to the point that whenever I would see Don Shula during the last 15 or so years of his life, I was greeted with a warm smile, a firm handshake and often even a brief hug. How ironic that a man who was as demanding and as tough as any I have ever covered, a man whose growl could knock you five feet back, would treat me with such sincere kindness. I never, not one single time, took that for granted.
I think of Don Shula and I think of personal stories, stories that hopefully will allow you to get to know him a little bit better.
It was 30 years ago and my father was about to have open heart surgery. Somehow, Shula got wind of it and called me into his office one brutally hot August afternoon. "Get me the number of the hospital," Shula said to me, far more an order than a request. A few minutes later, moments before my father was to be wheeled into surgery, Shula was on the phone. "Your son and I are here and we're rooting for you," Shula said. The surgery was a success and, after that phone call from Shula, I was told my father entered the operating room with a huge smile on his face and humming the Dolphins fight song.
That was Don Shula.
Back in the 1980's when I practically lived at the Dolphins' St. Thomas University practice facility – not a pleasant memory – I challenged Shula to a tennis match during the early stages of a player's strike. I'm not sure why I did it, maybe to get an offbeat story or maybe so I could someday tell my sons that I once played tennis with Don Shula. Whatever, the reason, I made a terrible mistake early in the match. I lobbed. Yep, right over Shula's head. Right after he worked so hard to get to the net. "That's a horse-bleep shot," Shula barked at me. "For now on, no more lobs." Again, this wasn't a request as much as it was an order. He ended up winning both sets and never let me hear the end of it.
That was Don Shula.
Shula was the most accessible coach I have ever covered. And I'm talking by a landslide. During training camp, he would make himself available after morning practice, during lunch and following the afternoon practice. You want to walk with him back to his office after lunch? No problem. You want a couple of minutes before dinner? He was there. Just ask good questions and never speak in the hypothetical and he'd be fine with it.
Well, one day after I attended all of his press conferences, including that walk back to his office, I had to call him at home late at night. I got wind that quarterback David Woodley was being traded to Pittsburgh and, in this pre-social media time, it would be a big scoop for the morning paper.
"YOU AGAIN!!!" Shula bellowed as he learned it was me. "I DIDN'T SPEAK TO YOU ENOUGH TODAY!!!!" Got to admit my knees were shaking just a little. I asked Shula about the Woodley trade. He refused to comment. I knew it was true, so I simply said: "Coach, if it's true, just hang up." The next thing I heard was a dial tone.
That was Don Shula.
I could go on and on. I could tell you about the fear he instilled in his players, the loyalty he had for his coaches, the way he could rip you apart one minute and then act as if it never happened the next. I could tell you how he stood in the hot sun signing autographs day after day, year after year, practice after practice. I could tell you about the day I asked him to name his favorite singer and he gave me a blank stare. "Anne," he yelled to his secretary, "what's that group I like?" A short pause followed, "Uh, it's the Carpenters, coach." He smiled: "Not a big music guy," he said.
Nope, there was no time for music. There was Mass in the morning, there was his family and there was football. It wasn't very complicated. Day after day, year after year, Don Shula coached football with every ounce of energy and commitment in his body. It was his profession. It was his hobby. In so many ways, it was his life. He was consumed with turning boys into men.
And now he is gone. It's hard to believe today and it will be just as hard to believe five years from now. Don Shula, you see, was larger than life. He didn't catch colds. "No time for that," he once told me. And he didn't back down to anything, anyone or any challenge. He was a throwback and, at the same time, he was so unique. A man's man. Firm handshake. That jaw always jutting. You bend the football rules, you do anything to damage the shield of the NFL, you lose his respect. In so many ways, he seemed impenetrable.
Yes, it is a sad, sad day. But soon that sadness will turn to smiles because the memories will replace the grief and those memories touched so many lives in so many different ways.
If I could have had just two more words with Don Shula before he passed on, those words would have come so easily and without the slightest of hesitation. And those two words would have probably said it all: