We hear of a medical scare involving Don Shula and we take it personally in South Florida because of all he has meant. To Miami Dolphins fans, he is the towering symbol of better days, of the best days. To this community, he is family. There are prayers and concern when you learn Shula has been hospitalized at age 86, but there is wistfulness, too, a reckoning, one more cause to face our own mortality.
What Shula accomplished is ageless. He will forever be 43 — half a lifetime ago — frozen in that iconic Jan. 14, 1973, photograph riding on the shoulders of his Dolphins, on top of his world, moments after a Super Bowl was won and a Perfect Season minted.
We long for that Shula again, for those years that raced past, as we hear he is being treated for sleep apnea and fluid retention. The news that he has been hospitalized other times recently for undisclosed matters raises higher our concerns, but we respect his privacy on the details.
We see Shula now, moving in a motorized scooter because of back issues, and are reminded the winningest football coach of all time cannot beat the one opponent no one does: Time. We wish we could blink and have back the Shula of those old Sunday sidelines, the jutting jaw, the arms folded across a Dolphins windbreaker, the supremely in-charge coach who lifted this franchise and this city to the very top.
Shula commanded that sideline here from 1970 through 1995, and anyone who grew up in South Florida in that era fits his own timeline into Shula’s. For me, a pimple-faced kid in high school grew to become a married father of two during his time.
I sat with Shula in the memorabilia-filled study of his Indian Creek Island home last summer to film a video related to the club’s 50th anniversary season, an old sports columnist and an older coach. I reminded Don he had now been out of the NFL 20 years.
“That’s unbelievable when you think about that — 20 years that I’ve been out of coaching!” he said, head moving slowly from side to side, but with a small smile. “Seems like only yesterday people were yelling at me and saying ‘Why’d he do this’ and ‘Why’d he do that’.”
The health issues of our sports figures usually are pretty simple.
With reconstructed knees or Tommy John surgery, we know the recovery time.
Even with the more complicated health concerns of Chris Bosh — with Bosh feeling he is past his blood-clot concerns and able to play while cautious Heat doctors say not yet — even in that difference of opinion all can agree the health and future of a 32-year-old husband and father should outweigh the basketball considerations.
Shula, of course, battles the one health concern from which no one recovers: Aging.
All of our greatest sports heroes get there eventually, if they are lucky, and quietly, decades after the cheering stops and the spotlight leaves. Decades during which our old heroes fade by degrees into paper-thin vessels that sail away carrying our memories.
Arnold Palmer is 86 now, Hank Aaron 82 and Muhammad Ali a frail 74.
We hope for Shula many more years, ideally that he will still be around to see his beloved team’s renaissance and big winning again. His team, the one he put in charge of nurturing the legacy he left, a mandate fumbled and unfulfilled.
We brace for the inevitable, too, though, don’t we, and when it happens we will call it the end of an era.
But we all know better.
We know that era ended a long time ago and that Dolphins fans have been nourished by the memory of it, by the fumes of it, partly because it is all they have.
An undeniable part of reconciling that Shula is in his life’s deep winter is to be struck how more and more distant a franchise’s better days have become from its present. It is also so, to a lesser extent, when one fathoms that Dan Marino, the curly haired kid out of Pitt who electrified this franchise in 1983, is now 54 and a spokesman for AARP.
Shula has been retired 21 seasons now and Marino 17, and still Dolfans wait (and wait) for any sign of another coach or player who will merit their company — someone, anyone, to make a compelling difference and to finally make a once-proud franchise matter again.
It is the knowing in our heart there will never be another Don Shula that makes us want to hold onto the original as dearly and as long as we can.
Read Greg’s Random Evidence blog daily at MiamiHerald.com and follow on Twitter @gregcote.