Greg Cote

From war hero to Don Shula’s right-hand man: The life of Charley Winner

Miami Dolphins head coach Don Shula, left, and Washington Redskins? defense coach Charley Winner inspect the turf of the Los Angeles Coliseum before the start of Super Bowl game on Jan. 14, 1973 in Los Angeles. The message appears on scoreboard.
Miami Dolphins head coach Don Shula, left, and Washington Redskins? defense coach Charley Winner inspect the turf of the Los Angeles Coliseum before the start of Super Bowl game on Jan. 14, 1973 in Los Angeles. The message appears on scoreboard. AP

He had one of those names you don’t forget, but he played a role you might not remember, even if you were a big Miami Dolphins fan back in the midsection of the Don Shula era, around the time Dan Marino entered the picture and shot it with color.

Charley Winner.

He was Shula’s right-hand man for 11 seasons, 1981 through 1991, the personnel director and de facto general manager, the behind-the-scenes doer who negotiated all the player contracts. He was a tough little bantam rooster who stood 5-6 and carried about 150 pounds, but, like, Shula, suffered no fools.

I recall one distant exchange with Winner, at an NFL owners meeting somewhere. I was the young reporter pressing the team executive for details he wasn’t willing to share about some ongoing contract talks.

“Charley, I’m asking you a direct question,” I insisted.

“And I’m giving you a direct answer!” he boomed, pivoting theatrically and striding away, me in his wake with nothing to do but smile.

I caught up with Winner this week because, well, because why not?

The best assignment I ever got in school was to interview a grandparent and write their biography. The teacher believed there was gold in the old. “Go talk to the oldest person you can find,” he’d say, “before it’s too late.”

Winner will turn 92 on July 2, enjoying an abundant (and well-earned) retirement in South Fort Myers, a couple of hours northwest of Miami.

He fishes avidly, for snook, mangrove snapper and sea trout, although, “When you catch a redfish, you forget all the rest,” he says.

He plays tennis three or four times a week for at least an hour. “That’s about all I can stand,” he says, as if apologizing.

This June, Winner and his Nancy (the daughter of former New York Jets head coach Weeb Ewbank) will celebrate their 66th wedding anniversary. Their first date was at an ice cream parlor. “We’ve been eating ice cream ever since!”

Charley would visit Nancy’s house while courting her, until the moment he always knew it was time to leave.

“Weeb taking his socks off was his way of telling me to go home,” he recalls, chuckling.

Winner got his break in coaching from his father-in-law but made the most of it. The son of a laborer who drove a street-cleaning machine, Winner would spend 37 years in the NFL as coach or front-office man. He is the last surviving coach on either side from “The Greatest Game Ever Played,” the 1958 NFL championship won by Baltimore in sudden-death overtime. (He still wears the now-58-year-old ring). He was a head coach of the St. Louis Cardinals and Jets. He was a part of the last two Dolphins Super Bowls. He sat in the team’s draft war room that day in ’83 when Marino fell to Miami like gold falling from heaven.

“If Marino was there, we were gonna take him,” Winner recalls. “No doubts.”

Winner loved his time in Miami, calls Shula “a true football man” and still admires original owner Joe Robbie for building his stadium with no public funds — worth remembering as we laud Stephen Ross for doing the same to renovate the place.

“Joe once told me he was the most mortgaged guy in the NFL,” says Winner, smiling.

A football career and 66 years of marriage would make a full enough life for most, but Winner has another tale to tell.

He was an airman in World War II, a radio operator and gunner who flew 17 missions aboard B-17 “Flying Fortress” bombers over Germany toward the end of the war. He was 20. A kid. Most of the men on board were.

On his 17th and final mission, in the early spring of ’45, he was shot down.

Winner tells the story because it is on him like a tattoo, but soul deep, not just on the skin. He can talk about that ’58 championship game, too, but this was real.

“We were at about 19,000 feet when we got hit. We were bombing Hamburg. Pattern bombing. We were the first group over the target. Flak from the ground was way below, but antiaircraft fire was right up where we were and we took a direct hit. Our pilot, who had just turned 19, was killed. We tried to nurse the plane along but lost all our electrical power. So we jumped. Parachuted. On the way down I could see our airplane making a slow big circle, head to ground, and I could see it hit and explode.”

Monday is Memorial Day, when we honor our war dead.

Veterans Day, in November, is when we honor those who served.

But sometimes the difference between being honored on one day or on the other is providence or luck, a difference smaller than the distance that separated that pilot who died from Charley Winner, who jumped and prayed.

Winner can laugh at what happened moments after his chute opened. He drifted to a small town outside Hamburg, landed in someone’s backyard on a woodpile and looked up to see a gaggle of German teenaged girls excitedly running toward him.

“I might just be in heaven,” he recalls thinking. “But they ran right past me. Deflated my ego. They wanted my parachute silk!”

Winner and eight others from that downed B-17 were captured by German forces and, before being liberated by the Russians, would spend six weeks as prisoners of war, during which time the already slight Winner lost 15 pounds on a diet of one slice per day of a hard black bread called schwarzbrot and an occasional piece of horse meat.

Winner looks back on his life and what you get from him is gratitude.

Of his military service: “I always thought I didn’t do anything special. I just did my duty. I feel so lucky to have been born in the United States of America.”

Of his football career: “I worked for 37 years in the NFL, and I never felt like I worked a day in my life.”

When it was time for our goodbyes, the last thing Charley Winner said to me probably isn’t something I could forget if I tried.

“Thank you for remembering me,” he said..

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