Today is the birthday of Miami Dolphins legendary head coach Don Shula. And we here at PhinPhanatic.com want to wish him a very happy 87th!
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So many players who played for Coach Shula have memories to share about him. Some more fun than others. As fans some of us too have great stories to tell. And in honor of his birthday I’m going to tell one such story.
It was 1987 and the Dolphins were playing the Cleveland Browns in Cleveland. My mother escorted me to the game. I was 17. Earlier that year I had found a picture of Shula from his playing days as a member of the Browns. I took it to the game in the hopes of having him sign it.
Back then things were a lot different from they are today. Especially on game days. For example, there is no way in hell you are getting near the locker room on game day. It isn’t happening. Not unless you spend a boatload of money on tickets. Back then, it was much easier and frankly it was surprising.
The Dolphins lost the game and afterwards my mother and I walked around the stadium to where the team busses were located. We walked into the tunnel where I hung out in front of the locker room to meet Dan Marino. I did and that is another story for another time.
I also met Fuad Reveiz, Kim Bokamper, John Offerdahl, and both Mark Duper and Clayton. All stories for another time. Especially the last two. I collected autographs and had a few chats with the players and turned to leave. Dejected that I didn’t get to see Don Shula.
Something else that used to happen back then that doesn’t anymore is that coaches didn’t do post-game press conferences in some fancy little room with a team banner behind them. They did them in the parking lot surrounded by reporters on their way to the bus. Or at least Shula did on this particular day.
I managed to push my way through the circle of reporters to see the greatest coach that had ever lived. He wasn’t as tall as I thought he would be but there was no mistaking the aura of this great coach. He was intimidating as he talked about a game they had just lost and he wasn’t in the best of moods.
I simply held out my picture and hoped he would see it. He did. He glanced in my direction (thanks to a reporter next to me) and took the picture and pen. As he answered the question he glanced down to see what he was signing.
“Wow!, he said, where the hell did you get this?”
I panicked. I found the picture at a card shop just outside of Sheffield Lake, Oh. “My grandfather gave it to me” I said. He looked up at me and grinned.
“Damn, I didn’t realize I was that old”. He laughed for the first time and waved me over to get the picture and at that moment gave a 17-year-old kid something that he would never forget and ironically would some day do.
He put his arm around me and asked me what I thought about the game. I said that he needed more defensive pressure and that a more balanced offensive attack would help Marino and take coverage off Duper.
So much for my panic.
He laughed again and another reporter spewed a question but this time Coach Shula squeezed my shoulder and said, “You answer it.” I wish I could remember the question. I wish I could remember the answer. I only remembered the world I was standing in was the world Don Shula lived in every day.
He gave me a sort of hug and shook my hand grinning from ear to ear. And is if on cue returned to a scowl as another reporter hit with another question about the loss. I slinked away on cloud nine.
Since that event, I have managed to secure two more images of Shula. One as a player for the Redskins and another as a player for the Colts. All three signed and sitting on top of my desk. Nothing I have of the Miami Dolphins has more personal meaning than that one.
Now closing in on 50 and serving the last 10 years as a writer for FanSided covering the Dolphins I still remember that day almost as if it were yesterday and every time I see Shula on the sideline or on television that is my first thought every single time.
I have been fortunate to meet Coach Shula several times in my life but nothing was like that one. Happy Birthday Coach. And thanks again for making a singular moment for a 17-year-old kid, a lifetime of a memory.
Next time, I’ll tell you about how I gave up my wedding hall for Gary Stevens.