Fins at 50: Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula reflects on ‘perfection’
Sharon Shula, 56, is the second of three of Don’s Shula’s daughters and one of his five children. She currently lives in New York City and is a retired lawyer. She spent her youth as part of South Florida’s greatest football family and, although she could not play the game, she looked for ways to be part of it.
Shula is working on memoirs of what it was like “Growing up Shula.” As Father’s Day approaches, she recounts the meaning of game days for her with her father.
Like every other Sunday afternoon, in every fall I can remember, this Sunday was centered around a football game.
I was always ready to go a half hour earlier than the appointed time. You never knew for sure what time dad would want to leave. I sat in one of the barrel chairs at our kitchen table, the kind that tip over if you lean too far back, the black leather cool through my thin pants. I wore a pantsuit that I had made and a jacket with extra pockets to hold film. My beat-up, beige camera bag lay on the octagonal glass table top in the kitchen.
I checked it again to make sure I had the roll of wintergreen Lifesavers and cinnamon Trident gum dad was sure to ask me for once we were in the car. My heart was calmed by the confirmation of their presence.
I heard the mumblings of dad’s voice talking to my mom and then his heavy, determined footsteps on the slick hall tile, so I stood up and grabbed my monopod. As he entered the kitchen with his game face on, I slipped the thick strap of my bag around my shoulders. I was ready and at attention.
I never spoke before games unless he spoke to me. He had only one thing on his mind, the successful strategy of a win. Anything else you might bother him with was pointless and would get you “The Look.”
My sister Annie once asked if she could go to her friend Kelly’s after the game and dad looked at her in disbelief, turning his neck toward her, wrinkling his brow, slanting his eyes, and just staring, as if there was such a thing as “after the game.”
Dad’s look said “What the hell is wrong with you? This is our life. The most important thing in the world is winning this game, nothing else!”
His wrath lasted seconds but it was brutal. It only took one time and you got the message. But the rewards, his smile, a wink, a hug, were oh so worth it. And those rewards are what I sought every single day.
I handed dad his keys and lead the way to the car. It was sunny and hot — this was Miami in the mid 1970s, after all. He was dressed in dark slacks and a collared shirt embossed with his beloved Miami Dolphins logo that he made world famous with the perfect season.
He walked with pride, firmly and aggressively, sure in what he was doing. He unlocked the doors and I loaded my gear in the back seat. He placed his briefcase behind his seat. He always drove a sedan provided by the team’s sponsor, usually Ford or Chrysler. He kept his car spotless.
I sat next to day buckled my seatbelt as the air conditioning cooled us off. The news on WIOD-610 Miami came over the radio and I immediately shut it off. That was the sports radio network for South Florida. but I knew dad didn’t want to listen to anything other than his own thoughts.
We drove 20 minutes on 826 South to 836 in silence. He held his hand out once and I knew to place a roll of Lifesavers in it. He opened them and proceeded to eat one by one as he drove. He never ate the pregame meal with the team. He said he was too nervous.
A few minutes before the toll booth I handed him the correct change I had collected from the floor. He rolled down his window and threw it into the toll basket on the Dolphin Expressway.
“Thanks, honey,” he said to me.
Dad rolled the window back up as he veered right off the expressway and pulled into one of the Orange Bowl’s empty parking lots.
This is how I remember it. With empty parking lots and no one wandering around outside except a few workers in orange and white striped shirts who would shortly be taking tickets from fans.
Dad parked on the grass (there never was a paved lot), in the spot closest to the gate. We got out and walked right in without anyone checking any tickets or bags. Dad just waved, smiled, sort of said hello which was kind of a mumble, and kept going towards the locker room.
We separated there and he would always say “I’ll see ya before kickoff.” My heart leaps to this day at that statement. Those are precious words to me. They were just for me.
I went down the center tunnel to midfield, where the other photographers were, and sat on the team bench. The only other people at the stadium that early were the NFL Films crew who were setting up microphones and cables. They were the hardest working and funniest bunch of guys ever. They welcomed me into their orbit and I learned so much from them, out of homage to my father.
The team and newspaper photographers who worked in dark rooms at the stadium made room for me no matter what. I was seen as a boss’s kid and was treated with grace and friendship. I will never forget the respect they showed and I know it started because of the love and respect they all had for my dad.
Don Shula set such a high standard not only of professionalism but of character. He was good and fair to everyone. His morals were tough to understand as a child but now are most important in my adult life. His education at Catholic schools and his continued practice as a Catholic guided him to set this example and ingrain these morays into my views.
I’m grateful to have these values now, as I see how many in today’s world are willing to set values aside for cheap thrills or just plain greed. I may not be a religious person but I’m a moral one. That’s put me in a lonely place at times professionally and personally but I know it is what I want and what is right.
As I loaded my cameras with film and mounted the proper lenses onto each camera, I looked at the thermometer on the field, which told me the temperature was 10 degrees hotter than it was everywhere else. No one wore sunscreen in those days. I was tan and the sun would just bake me further. It made me a nice chocolate chip cookie brown and added a few more freckles to my cheeks and arms. I had to wear pants because the field was artificial turf and it felt like fine little pins when you knelt on it.
As the scoreboard clock ticked toward game time, I began to feel bubbles of anxiety flow through me...
Would the Dolphins win today? Would there be no serious injuries? These were the outcomes I had prayed for that morning and every Sunday morning during football season. I never had to pray that Dad would make good decisions. I never questioned that. Who dared to question that?
Each team had their allotted pregame warm up sessions. It was now time for the entire squad to take the field. The loudspeaker had already named the visiting team. It was our time now.
“Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome your Miami Dolphins and their head coach Don Shula!” The crowd roared and applauded. Dad was in front of the team at the edge of the tunnel that led from the locker room. As soon as the announcer began speaking dad started running. I stood in the same spot every week, at the left corner outside of the Dolphins’ sideline. My blood was rushing. I was exhilarated. I was on my toes bouncing in anticipation.
This was the one time, the only time EVER that I knew he was focused on me. It might only be for one second, but that moment made me feel like I was the most important person in the world.
The team ran onto the field but dad ran through the photographers toward the sidelines where I stood. He darted around people like the player he once was. He was sweating (as all us Shulas do) when he reached me.
“There’s my girl” he said as he kissed me on the lips.
My heart leapt higher every time.
“Good luck!” I somehow managed to say, as he blurred by me to the center of the field, where he’d wave to his crowd.
I watched him, proud and full of anticipation of what the next three hours would bring. I was always impressed with the way he controlled what the 80,000 people in that stadium would be watching. Not many men can hold that kind of an audience. He wasn’t doing it for the audience though. He was doing it for the love of the game. Every play was a different puzzle to solve and he had spent the previous week practicing how to attack every move of his opponent.
It was now my turn to look into my lens and capture his strategies on film with all the love that was bursting through me.
Those kisses every week were the most significant moments I had with my father. They were uniquely ours. It meant he knew that I wanted to be a part of his life so badly that I took up photography to be close to him at games. I never dreamed that he would stop and kiss me before every game. It made a 15-year-old girl feel noticed on game day.