The football world lost one of its true legends and icons Monday when Don Shula passed away at age 90 in Miami.
He has held the mark for most wins by an NFL coach since 1993, and beyond football was a man of laser-focused discipline, integrity and charity. As someone who lived in Miami for more than 20 years and who has been a Miami Dolphins fan since I can remember following football, I admit a bias. No truly objective football fan, however, could deny Shula’s legendary status in the history of the game.
Here in Bulloch County and Statesboro, we are fortunate to have our own football legend – Erk Russell. Unfortunately, I only was able to meet him a handful of times before he passed in 2006. But, as a Clemson graduate, he did feel obligated to tell me his famous Clem-SON story. Here’s the punchline: S for Chivalry, O for Honor and N for Knowledge. It’s a good one.
In the past few years I have been lucky enough to form a friendship with Pat “Doc” Spurgeon, who worked with Russell from the beginning. He has shared many wonderful stories about Coach Russell that have brought him more to life for me. By the way, with as many college and high school players he has coached, along with the students he taught, the positive and lasting influence Spurgeon has left through the decades makes him a legend in his own right.
While certainly rooted in football, my love and admiration for Shula actually began with my mother. She was the biggest fan of the Dolphins and Shula in our family. We moved to Miami from New York in 1972 and we attended every home game of that famed undefeated season and every one until I went to college in 1977. And whether we were at the game or watching on TV, she “suited up.” Every pro Dolphins button was pinned to her shirt. A hat, scarf, foam finger, handkerchief. My mother was a Dolphins super fan.
For all the great players on the team, though, Don Shula was who she touted most of all. From a football standpoint he took a fledgling franchise and turned it into the dominant NFL team for the first half of the 1970s. But to my mother it was the respect and commitment Shula demanded from his players for the game of football and the team that she talked to me about.
His example is one to follow, she told me. The “Don Shula Show” every Monday night during football season was must-see TV in our house.
So, as a lifelong Dolphins fan from those great years through a lot of bad ones, here’s the story of my one encounter with Coach Shula.
In 1986, I was working in the sports department at the Miami Herald. On a September Sunday, I was working my shift in the Herald office. In a crazy back and forth game with the hated New York Jets, the Dolphins lost in overtime, 51-45, despite six touchdown passes from Dan Marino.
Instant replay had just been introduced that season and Coach Shula was a big proponent of it.
On the OT kickoff, the Jets player actually fumbled the ball as he went to the ground and the Dolphins recovered and should have had the ball around the Jets 20. But the play was not reviewed and the Jets went down and scored. Watching the game in the newsroom, I was screaming at the TV. To this day, the Jets are the only team I truly despise.
But the two Herald reporters in New York covering the game didn’t ask Shula about the fumble and why instant replay wasn’t used. So, the lead editor on duty said: “Healy, go to the airport and ask Shula that question when they get off the plane.” After a gulp of excitement and nervousness, of course, I said I’d be on my way.
Along with me to the airport went Herald photographer Al Diaz. On the drive, Al asked if I had ever interviewed Coach Shula before. I had not. Al said he would be gruff and ask me who I was, but he would answer my questions.
As I was waiting in the concourse, the Dolphins filed past after the devastating loss. The dejection was palpable and I thought to myself, “Coach Shula is not going to be happy to see me.”
Finally, Coach Shula came out and was greeted by some family.
I went up to him and said, “Coach Shula, I’m Jim Healy, with…”
Before I could say anything else, he glared and said, “Who the hell are you?”
Taking a gulp, I said, “Jim Healy with the Miami Herald.”
But, as the photographer told me, Shula said OK and proceeded to answer my questions politely and fully. Asking me twice was it obviously a fumble – it was – and wincing each time.
The picture you see with this column of Coach Shula and me in the airport concourse as I was interviewing him was shot by the Herald photographer who was kind enough to send it to me. The photo is in a frame at my house.
Certainly, we who love sports often place more importance on the games and the people involved in those games than we probably should. I plead guilty to that. But sports figures like Don Shula and Erk Russell do transcend the games that made them famous. They become a part of the fabric of their communities. They are part of the folklore that makes up our uniquely American heritage of football.
So, when Coach Shula asked me “Who the hell are you?” I really wanted to say, “A fan who wants to say thanks and don’t you hate the stinkin’ Jets!”