When Don Shula died earlier this month at the glorious age of 90, the legendary head coach of the Miami Dolphins was the subject of moving tributes from virtually every figure of consequence in the world of professional American football. Players, coaches and fans reminded us that (to employ St Augustine’s famous phrase in a somewhat different context) “the verdict of the world is conclusive”: Shula was the greatest coach in history. But the words that would have pleased the great man more were those of Fr Juan Soto, pastor of St Joseph’s in Miami Beach, who praised his late parishioner as “unpretentious”, a man who “did what God wanted him to do”.
Donald Francis Shula was born on January 4, 1930, to Daniel and Mary Shula, both Hungarian immigrants. He was one of seven children in a household whose head considered it a blessing to earn 15 dollars a week as a fisherman. A somewhat sickly child, the young Shula forged his parents’ signature on a note giving him permission to play in his first football team. This was a rare bit of disobedience from a boy who was conspicuous for his piety.
Under the influence of Fr John Dearden, who would later become the cardinal-archbishop of Detroit, Shula very nearly entered seminary as a teenager, but made his way instead to John Carroll University in Ohio, where he played on a football scholarship he received after a chance meeting at a gas station with a member of the coaching staff.
In 1951, Shula joined the Cleveland Browns, where he played alongside Otto Graham and other heroes of the game in the days when professional football was roughly as respectable as organised crime (but not as well remunerated). His career as a player was interrupted, first by military service and then by a broken jaw suffered in a game against the Los Angeles Rams. Eventually, after stints with two other teams, he found his way into coaching, where he had success both at the college level and as a defensive assistant for the Detroit Lions in the heady days of the “Fearsome Foursome”, when the team that has since become the laughing stock of the National Football League was a great power. When he was appointed the head coach of what were then the Baltimore (now the Indianapolis) Colts, Shula was only 33, then the youngest man ever to be put in charge of an NFL team.
The success he found there with his former teammate Johnny Unitas was as immediate as it was undeniable. Shula’s Colts led the league in his second year, both in scoring offence and in points allowed, and he would end up compiling a 71–23–4 record. His next and final stop with the Dolphins in Miami was even more impressive. Between 1970 and 1995, Shula would lead his teams to six Super Bowls, winning two, and draft Dan Marino, the greatest thrower of a football the world has seen.
At the height of his success, even during football seasons, Shula attended Mass and recited the rosary every morning. He refused to travel without his friend and team chaplain, Fr John McConnell. In a play-off game against Kansas City, on Christmas Day in 1971, he one-upped his opponents, who also had a priest on the sidelines, by bringing along the Archbishop of Miami. Throughout his life he gave generously to Church causes, especially Catholic schools.
As a player and a coach, Shula spanned football’s vanished past of hard-charging moustached full-backs with Slavic surnames and its future of high-flying aerial offences. He was responsible for both the toughest, most physically imposing teams ever in the early 1970s and the greatest pure passing season of any quarterback in league history with Marino in 1984. At the time of his death he held the record for the most regular-season victories of any NFL head coach at 328, a record unlikely to be eclipsed. He remains the only coach to lead his team to a perfect season, another feat one does not expect to see matched.
For all his extraordinary triumphs on the field, the impression Shula gave all those who knew him was one of quiet decency and resolute faith. While it is too much to expect (as Milton did) that organised sport numbers among the pastimes of the angels, one can confidently say that if in their “heroic games / the unarmed youth of heaven” were seeking a new captain, they might just have found their man.