On Monday, word came that legendary Miami Dolphins head coach Don Shula had passed away at the age of 90, and today we take a moment to remember him.
The Miami Dolphins lost one of the most influential members of the team’s history. A legend that spanned generations. A man who shaped and build a franchise on the field and united a city in the early years of a franchise. Today, we step back and personally remember Don Shula.
I have been more fortunate than most Miami Dolphins when it comes to Don Shula. I have met him several times over the years and each time he was incredibly gracious with his time. Always with a smile, even after a brutal loss. Never have I met him as a journalist. Not in a locker room as a reporter or on a sideline as a photographer. I have met him as a kid, as a young adult, and as an adult. A fan. An admirer.
Don Shula was more than the coach of the Miami Dolphins. He was a bridge between teenage Brian Miller and his father. Let me explain. First, I need to step back a little further to the first time I met him.
I lived in Houston for a few years and it wasn’t easy for a military kid moving into an area that was all Texan. I was different, a lot different, and I wasn’t an Oiler fan. I was a Miami Dolphins fan. I attended a game wearing a Miami Dolphins cowboy hat and after the game I hung around the team busses and met several players, Don Shula saw me getting autographs and while he was trying to get the team on the bus, he let them sign the hat. Then, without me asking, he walked up and introduced himself. Said thanks for the support and laughed at the hat. “Don’t see these in Miami”. He signed the hat and got on the bus.
It would be years later, in Cleveland, that I would meet him again and it would stick with me forever. An encounter unlike any other. Again, after a big loss to the Browns, I wandered around outside the locker room meeting guys like John Offerdahl who was a rookie, Dan Marino for the first time, and both of the Mark’s brothers. It was an incredible post-game experience but the best was what happened last.
A ring of reporters was surrounding Don Shula near the busses, this way before press rooms outside of the locker room. He was talking about the loss and he wasn’t happy. I was holding a picture of him in his Cleveland Browns uniform from his playing days. He noticed me and reached his hand out to sign it. When he looked at it he laughed and said, “Wow, where did you get this?” his stern face had relaxed, he wasn’t as angry with attention shifted for a second to a picture of him as a player. I said, “my grandfather gave it to me”. It was a lie, I panicked. I didn’t know what to say. He spoke to me, again after all these years. “I didn’t realize I was that old!”.
He then pulled me into the center next to him. Unexpectedly. He handed me back the picture (I still have it) but as a reporter asked him about the game, he turned to me, this 17-year-old kid from nowhere and said, “You want to answer it?”.
The question was about why the Dolphins lost. Shula pressed me to answer. I said, “Execution. The Dolphins didn’t execute the plays on either side of the ball and from what I could see if you are not executing your not going to win.” Or something like that. I wish I could remember what I said verbatim but instead, I still think my vocal cords spit out words that were more in line with “Mwap myap myap” and inaudible gurgle born of nervousness.
He put his hands on my shoulder and when the reporters asked him again, the same question, he said, “What the kid said”. He shook my hand and thanked me for supporting the team. Then he walked away to the bus. My mother stood a short few yards away shaking her head smiling.
I lost my mother in 2015 to cancer but even she knew how much I loved Don Shula. She wrote the team in 1987 and I received a surprise graduation present from the team, a signed Don Shula picture that said: “Congratulations, Brian”.
During my teens, like every other team boy who hits that point where they no longer think their father walks on water but instead is just a pain in the rear end, it was Don Shula who kept the lines of communication with my father open. We talked about football all the time and he had plenty of Miami Dolphins football to discuss. When there was an awkward silence there was a Don Shula memory to spark conversation.
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It seems trivial now, but my love for football and my father’s love for the game and the Dolphins made my teen rebellious years a lot better than they could have been. It always seemed to lead to other conversations or life lessons that I didn’t realize at the time were lessons.
Later in my adult life, I met him again. Briefly, as he stopped his golf cart in front of me at the stadium. He was heading into the stadium and I shook his hand and we chatted a quick minute as he waited to be ushered in. It wasn’t memorable, nothing special, nothing more than, “How are you, good to see you sir,” type of conversation. But it was Don Shula. And Don Shula carried an air about him. There was something special about being near him.
On Monday, we all said good-bye to him in our own ways but his memory will not fade, not any time soon. He will be missed by his family and his close friends, but he will also be missed by the child, the teen, the young adult, and old man inside of me. Rest in peace coach and for so many other reasons than just an amazing career, thank you.