Don Shula showed up at his son David's house in Cincinnati late Saturday afternoon. On the dining room table was a cake with the inscription: WELCOME TO THE SHULA SHOOT-OUT. Next to the buffet spread, two helmets were facing each other—one from the Miami Dolphins and one from the Cincinnati Bengals.
The party was already in full swing, 40 or 50 friends and relatives inside, grandchildren and a bunch of neighborhood kids tearing around the woods behind the house. "Little blurs," Don's daughter Donna said. "Dad wanted to see David's kids. All three had soccer games. Dad had to wrestle Matthew, the six-year-old, to get a kiss out of him."
And thus began a historic event, Don Shula's Dolphins versus David Shula's Bengals, the first time in the history of pro sports that a father and son would face each other as coaches. The buildup had been going on for almost a year. "The first time anyone mentioned it to me was two weeks before the 1993 season ended," said David on Saturday morning.
The week before Sunday's game there was a major media blitz. Father versus son was everyone's midweek angle. "Yeah, and most of the quotes were from interviews in June and July," David said.
Still, how could you get away from it? The Dolphins, 3-1 and driving for a championship for the winningest coach in NFL history, against the 0-4 Bengals, undermanned and just about desperate. An upset? Take that, Dad, and if it costs you a playoff shot, well, that's football. But what if Papa's Dolphins administered a crushing defeat? What if David's job were on a more slender thread than we imagined, and a big loss got him fired?
"I really can't see that," Don said. "[General manager] Mike Brown gave him a two-year extension on his contract last year. The fact that Mike did that shows he'll give David a chance to work his way out of this thing."
All the same, it was nagging, an annoyance, a "distraction," as the elder Shula might call it. Do you put that last seven points on the board when the game is in hand—or you think it's in hand? Or do you pull in your horns, run the clock....
"Oh, c'mon now, you know better than that," David said on Saturday. "If that happens, some guy will write. "Oh, Don let up.' Besides, he won't even be calling the plays. His offensive coach will. Maybe my dad will call short-yardage and goal line, but they'll just run their offense, and once the whistle blows, it'll just be football."
Cincinnati was coming off a miserable performance in a 20-13 loss to Houston. The Oilers blitzed. Bengal quarterback David Klingler was sacked seven times, and the offense folded. That made 14 sacks in two weeks. On the following Wednesday, Shula showed his players a different side, a tougher, nastier one. Shape up, dammit. Translation: Dad's coming. Look sharp.
Dad's team was booked into a Marriott 15 miles north of town, in an attempt to escape some of the pregame frenzy. The Marriott had never hosted an NFL team, let alone the Shula Dolphins. A month earlier, Steve Shellist, a hotel employee, called David Shula. "How do I treat your father?" he wanted to know.