Wine, food, football tall tales — and more wine. That’s what happens when Don Shula and Mike Ditka get together.
These NFL icons and successful entrepreneurs gathered here Wednesday to promote Ditka’s wine line — a sit-down dinner at one of Shula’s ubiquitous steakhouses that benefitted the United Way of Collier County.
Together, they huddled at the main table. Once rivals on the gridiron, now they’re old friends.
Naturally, the talk was more about football than the hospitality business.
The short version: Shula likes the Dolphins’ free agent signings and hopes the stadium deal passes. And neither old-school legend cares much for the new rules banning tailbacks from leading with their heads outside the tackles.
“I know what they’re trying to do, but I think Don agrees: You can’t legislate hitting out of football,” Ditka said. “It doesn’t make any sense.”
Added Shula: “It’s unbelievable.”
Shula, seated at the head of the table, pointed to a nearby picture of Larry Csonka and mused that his warhorse of a running back wouldn’t have been too successful under these concussion-conscious regulations.
But it was a different time when these two patrolled the sidelines. Shula needs a motorized cart to get around these days, but his mind is still sharp.
Combined, Shula and Ditka coached 47 years, won 474 games (including the playoffs) and have hoisted the Super Bowl trophy three times as head coaches.
Both are Hall of Famers. Shula turned 83 in January; Ditka is 10 years younger.
Shula first got to know Ditka as an innovative tight end, one who could catch and block.
Decades later, his Dolphins handed Ditka’s Bears their only loss in 1985, preserving the ’72 Dolphins’ place as the only team to win a Super Bowl with a perfect season.
Both are also powerhouses outside of football — Shula with his string of successful restaurants (dozens nationwide); Ditka juggles both steakhouses and his wine.
In partnership with Napa Valley-based Terlato, Ditka has a self-named wine line and introduced it to the Gulf Coast on Wednesday. His vintages have appropriate names like “The Player,” “The Coach,” and “The Hall of Famer.”
(Shula prefers the white wines, he said.)
In between sips, Shula, characteristically had a lot to say about a lot.
On the Dolphins’ flurry of offseason moves: “They’re doing the right things. They’re trying to improve their team. Those moves, you don’t know until you line up and play for keeps. That’s what the Dolphins are trying to do, get better and be one of the elite teams.”
Shula said seeing swaths of empty seats at Sun Life Stadium seats on game day “bothers me.”
He doesn’t like going to Dolphins games and seeing half the fans rooting for the opposition (particularly the Patriots).
On what needs to happen to get the passion back for the Dolphins: “They’ve got to win. They’ve got to win and be exciting. I think this guy [Joe Philbin] is a good coach.”
Ditka, now a TV personality, thinks the pieces are coming into place. In particular, he had high praise for the Dolphins’ young quarterback, Ryan Tannehill.
“I love the quarterback,” Ditka said. “When you look at rookie quarterbacks, I think he’s right with anybody.”
Shula said he hasn’t been asked to be part of Miami’s bid to host Super Bowl L. But he supports the Dolphins’ push to gain taxpayer funding for stadium renovations.
When asked why Miami-Dade voters should OK a deal that would funnel upward of $200 million in tax dollars to a privately owned facility, Shula said this:
“It’s going to give them the opportunity to see the best football. They keep the Dolphins there and they get the stadium, and they hopefully will get Super Bowls. Everybody wants to come to Miami. I’m in favor of the Dolphins doing everything they can to help them get that Super Bowl.”