I feel a gaping hole in my chest.
I’ve known for some time that Coach Shula wasn’t in the best of health.
In recent years, this giant of a man – the man who patrolled the sidelines at the Orange Bowl and Joe Robbie Stadium with a quiet, intense focus and who seemed unshakeable – was relegated to waving from golf carts. You could tell from his appearance that time, life really, had taken its toll on him. But still, he was more than just a mortal man. He led the Miami Dolphins to two Super Bowl victories and the 1972 perfect season, the feat on which every Dolphins fan hangs their hat. He won more games in his career than any other coach in NFL history.
He was an icon.
And yet, I find myself shrouded in a kind of sadness that I didn’t expect. I mean, I knew I’d be sad. You’re always sad when someone you regarded as a hero growing up passes away. But this hurts more.
Perhaps it’s the fact that we find ourselves in the midst of a global pandemic where so many pieces of our culture feel like they are the brink of extinction. Perhaps it’s because I’ve all spent the better part of the last two months harboring a sort of baseline anxiety that has constantly been on the edge of bubbling over. Perhaps it’s because I’m already mourning the loss of so much of what I love about life. Perhaps I’m overreacting.
But perhaps it’s because I’ve also lost someone who was – in essence – a part of my family. His infamous hardened stare was on my television screen on innumerable Sunday afternoons. For years, I spent Monday nights watching Coach Shula on The Don Shula Show right before I fell asleep watching Monday Night Football. I got to hear him deliver his own brand of coach-speak in a way that made sense to a 10-14 year-old kid. He made the game accessible and came to define for me what it meant to be a man of honor. A man of determination. A man of character. A leader.
I remember being stunned when Coach Shula was – in my mind, at least – forced into retirement by Wayne Huizenga. I was in turns, enraged, confused, and sad. Of course, those are all emotions that are experienced by every teenager, but this man had been the coach of the Dolphins for my entire life. Literally my entire life. And now he was being forced out of his job because he refused to cede control of his team.
Fortunately, Coach Shula remained something of a staple in South Florida cultural life, appearing in television commercials and in conjunction with his line of steakhouses and other businesses. He eventually became an ambassador for the Dolphins and appeared semi-frequently with some of the players from the perfect 1972 team to celebrate their achievement. It was comforting to have him around, especially in light of the Dolphins’ continuing inability to find their way back to the Super Bowl.
But now he’s gone.
And I’m struggling to cope. Coach Shula was a man I idolized. A man I adored. A man I loved. There will never be another like him. And his career win mark may never be topped. Bill Belichick is still 43 wins behind him.
I will remember him always as that strong presence on the sideline. Perhaps with a baseball cap on. Perhaps with his hair impeccably combed. Perhaps wearing glasses with a gradient tint. Probably not in a scooter. Always with the firmly clenched jaw. I don’t think I could have asked for a better football coach to grow up with. If it wasn’t for him, I’m sure I would still be a Dolphins fan, but who knows what this franchise would look like. His contributions, to the game of football in general and the Dolphins specifically, are immeasurable and I will always thank him for that.
As I think about his passing, I’m reminded of a quote from Glenn Blackwood, who played safety for the Dolphins from 1979-87, upon Coach Shula’s retirement. “It’s kind of like what Bob Kuechenberg once said, that if an atomic bomb drops on the U.S., two things would last–AstroTurf and Don Shula. This is something you never thought would happen.”
His death, like his retirement, is something I never thought would happen.
But now he’s gone. And I join Dolphins fans and football people the world over in mourning.