So. Shula memorialists, now virtually unchecked, have multiplied like driver ants. They sing his praises as a professional. "A born leader," says George Halas. "A genius," says Colt Linebacker Ted Hendricks. "The outstanding coach of our time," says new Colt Coach Howard Schnellenberger. And they are able to recall facets of his life that may have escaped all but the most avid Shulaphiles.
Congressman Bill Stanton (R., Ohio), an old friend, recalls that Shula was "an outstanding car salesman" when the two were hawking Lincolns and Mercurys at Stanton's showroom in Painesville, Ohio in the off-seasons of Don's Colt playing days (1951-57). Weeb Ewbank remembers him then as "a coach on the field." Shula called signals as Weeb's right cornerback, a job usually entrusted to linebackers. Baltimore News-American Columnist John Steadman says Shula was "one of the surest tacklers you'd ever see, right out of the Spalding Guide."
More qualitatively, Dolphin Managing Partner Joe Robbie says that Shula has an aptitude and intelligence that would have made him a winner in any field. Robbie talks of Shula's "personal values" and "innate decency," Publicist Charlie Callahan (an old Notre Darner with a feel for such things) of his "righteousness." Edwin Pope, Steadman's counterpart on The Miami Herald, has determined from the slaw of a hundred encounters—he and Shula argue all the time; they enjoy it—that there is "no one in sport I admire more" and finds Shula to be "an almost unique human being." Pope thinks Shula would have made a "terrific minister." Not only that, says Steadman, "He's a damn good golfer."
Honesty, and a remarkably unleavened head, compel Shula to step in now and then to keep this flood from cresting. He said when he came to Miami three years ago that he was "no miracle worker," and the facts speak for themselves: he still cannot get his devil-may-care collie dog Colt to answer to the name Dolphin. He concedes, too, that coaching football was more a "logical extension of my playing days" than a tap on the shoulder from Providence, and that he isn't sure he could have answered other calls. His Hungarian-born father wanted him to be a fisherman on Lake Erie and Don responded by developing a chronic seasickness.
"Dad said, 'You'll get over it.' Every time we went out he said that, 'You'll get over it.' I never got over it." Furthermore, Don says, his days as a bull in the automobile market were numbered "as soon as I began running out of brothers and uncles and aunts to sell."
He does not protest that he was a coach on the field at Baltimore (honesty is one thing, modesty another), but he recalls that the Colts did not allow it to go to his head. After a season (1953) of having to badger his own teammates with the verities of defense—Shula was not afraid of his own voice even then—he reckoned he deserved a raise. He mailed back his 1954 contract unsigned.
"I'd heard that was the way the veterans did it," he says. After a while he got a letter from the front office. "We assume you have decided to retire," it said, and asked for his playbook. "I got on the phone right away. Paid for the call myself. 'Listen,' I said, 'you've made a terrible mistake. I'm not retiring.' "
Too, a reasonable pride in his image as a man's man makes any portrayal of rigid goodness faintly offensive to his nostrils, which flare around an exquisitely twisted septum. "I can appreciate having fun," he says defensively. He says that as a player he hung with a group that knew the inside of a lounge or two and the outer limits of bed checks and curfews. These alleged rogues included Gino Marchetti (the godfather of Shula's son Michael), Bill Pellington, Carl Taseff (now on Shula's staff), Artie Donovan and the late Joe Campanella.
"There were some memorable occasions," a fellow roisterer says, relating a time when Shula had to forcefully put to rest a troublemaker who had gone on the offensive in the parking lot outside a favorite watering hole.
Nevertheless, once a man's goodness is known it is hard for him to live it down. The story is told of the time Shula, while still a player, ran into George Halas at early Mass the day of a game in Baltimore. Shula's genre of Catholicism is what he calls nonfanatic ("I enjoy going to Mass, thinking about Christ, giving thanks. I consider it part of my day"), and he does not engage in the luxury of judging others, but that afternoon things did not go well for the Bears and the thanks Halas gave blued the crisp fall air.