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I had a rare treat recently. Got to have lunch with Don Shula. Actually, there were seven of us at the table, including Bob Griese and Hank Goldberg, but it was Shula who was holding court, Shula who lit up the room.
The greatest coach in NFL history is turning 88 in early January, but you wouldn’t have known it. His hair is thick and wavy. His smile is warm and caring. His laughter can be heard halfway across the room. We talked football. We talked about years gone by. He remembered everything exactly the way it was. The names. The games. The moments.
No doubt he’s moving around a little slower these days. But it hasn’t slowed him down. If anything, it is the lighter side of Don Shula that has stepped to the forefront during his post-football days.
“Coach, can I pose for a picture with you?” a woman asks.
Shula looks up. “It’ll cost you $35.”
The woman pauses. And then Shula started laughing and soon everyone, even the woman, is laughing.
Griese plays the role of his straight man. He’ll set Shula up for some one-liners. The coach and the quarterback. Still close friends. Still needling one another.
“Tell the story about…..” Griese will say. And then Shula will take it from there.
Life is good for Don Shula. Between him and his wife Mary Anne, they have eight children, 16, grand children and two great grandchildren. That’s more than an entire starting lineup. “Love to be with all of them,” the coach says.
After we ordered lunch and before the next photo request came, I moved my chair next to Shula’s and he happily answered these 10 questions. He seemed to really enjoy it. I know I certainly did.
1. So how’s life, coach?
DS: I’m really enjoying my retirement. I’ve got a lovely wife. Great home life. Great grand kids that I see as often as I can. I spend most of the year in South Florida now, though we do also spend some time in California. As I think about my life, it really can’t get any better than this.
2. What are your thoughts on the Dolphins?
DS: I always root for them to get to the Super Bowl and that’s the way I approach every season. I was so pleased with the way they handled New England in that Monday night game. Not many teams can do that and they did it convincingly. It was very impressive.
3. Have you gotten a chance to get to know Adam Gase?
DS: I really like Adam a lot. He handles himself well. He does a good job of preparing his team for whatever the opponent does. I make a point to say hello to him before each home. I just like everything about him. This franchise is in good hands with him.
4. Coach Shula, Adam Gase is still in his 30’s and the Rams have a head coach in Sean McVey who is just 31. You were 33 years old when you became a head coach. What challenges do you remember coaching at such a young age?
DS: Many of my players were older than I was and they were much better players than I was so that made the challenge even greater and the job more difficult. I had to win them over each and every day. The best way to sell them on your abilities as a coach is to win. Nothing beats winning. By the way, did you know my grandson Chris works for the Rams (assistant linebackers coach)? I’m very proud of him.
5. Speaking of your family, your son Mike is Offensive Coordinator of the Carolina Panthers. How closely do you follow him?
DS: Very closely. I talk to him all the time. I’m so proud of the things he is accomplishing. He has an excellent football mind. I guess you could say I’m a big fan of two teams: Carolina and the Dolphins. But it’s not 50-50, it’s 100 percent for both teams.
6. So much has changed since you coached. Have you kept up with all the tweeting and social media?
DS: I’ve always believed that athletes should be allowed to express themselves. You never want to take that away. But I also believe that it should be done in context of what’s best for the team and not necessarily what’s best for the player. Did you know I had a quarterback by the name of Bob Griese who was just so hard to control? (loud laughter at the table as Griese squirms just a little). Even in the days when we didn’t have tweeting, Bob used to tweet. He just figured it out. He was that much ahead of everyone else.
7. How about other things that have changed in the NFL since you coached?
DS: We move onward and upward. I think it gets better and better and more people are exposed to it and have the opportunity to follow things in so many different ways. There are always negatives out there, but the negatives are not anywhere close to the positives. It’s a great game. Always has been. Always will be.
8. What is it about coaching that you miss the most?
DS: I miss game day. I miss the excitement of getting a football team ready to go. I miss the anticipation of the opening kickoff, the adjustments you make at halftime, how everything can ride on one or two plays. Those are the things you can’t fabricate in life. You have to go through it to appreciate it. Of course, I also miss the relationships. You meet so many wonderful people and form so many great bonds. But nothing compares to game day. There are no do overs. You can’t change the grade once the game is over. I really enjoyed that excitement.
9. So what could Don Shula possibly want for Christmas?
DS: I want to continue to live the good life and appreciate all the wonderful things and people around me.
10. And finally, coach, what makes you happiest these days?
DS: To be able to sit back and enjoy some great memories. There were so many and so many unforgettable experiences. I’m a very fortunate man. I was able to enjoy a lot of success. Now I can sit back and reminisce with my wonderful wife Mary Anne and my children and grand children. It’s been a great ride.