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Sitting on Top of the World
John Underwood
September 17, 1973
A perfect end to a perfect season: Miami won the Super Bowl and Don Shula was vindicated
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September 17, 1973

Sitting On Top Of The World

A perfect end to a perfect season: Miami won the Super Bowl and Don Shula was vindicated

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Ironically, just before the book came out Shula had told a friend that he had "regretted" not starting Kiick in the opening game at Kansas City last year because it had been a blow to Kiick's pride. Shula at that time credited Csonka with making the substitution work. "He could have made it tough by taking sides, but he didn't. Kiick's his best friend but they both made Mercury feel at home. I can't say enough for Kiick and Csonka."

The peppershot did not bother Shula, but the "spite" charge did. It left him, momentarily, in a kind of artistic shock, as if he were Erroll Garner and had suddenly been attacked by a piano stool. He said the two "don't know me as well as they think they do if they say I'd do anything out of spite."

The controversy died aborning. Csonka said he had made a mistake "not qualifying" his remark, that he was "talking about that day, not the whole season. Listen, I want to be a winner. I want to be on a winning team, year after year. The only way we can do that is with a coach like Shula. As much as I bitch and argue, they're surface things—curfew, hair and so forth. Not the fundamental things, the structural things.

"We argue, but I like knowing we have that kind of relationship. I wouldn't throw it out the window to sell a silly book, and I don't want Shula or anybody else to think I'd stab him in the back."

When the air was cleared, Csonka said he thought the brief furor had "brought us closer together."

It boils down to a matter of caring, says Csonka. "Shula cares. I remember after the Oakland game that first year, when we got to the playoffs and lost.... I can't recall what he said, but you could sense how much it meant to him, how much it hurt him to lose. He told us he appreciated our effort. Just like that. For the first time I remember really thinking that even if I didn't always agree with him we were on the same wavelength."

Carl Taseff can talk about caring. After 10 years as teammates and roommates at John Carroll University and with the Colts, Shula and Taseff were split up in 1957 when Shula was released and went to Washington. Later that year Taseff was in the hospital having his dinner through a plastic tube. He had severely fractured his nose in a playing accident and had almost died. He had had 14 transfusions; he had lost 50 pounds. He was barely coming around when he became aware of a man on his knees by the bed. The man was Don Shula.

"This is everything I ever dreamed of, everything I ever wanted," Don Shula said. "I have to shake myself to realize it happened. All the frustrations, the disappointments. I know I'm not subtle, I know I'm not a patient guy. But there were so many times...at Baltimore, no matter what I did I was overshadowed by Lombardi. I didn't resent that, but it was true, and it was frustrating. What happened after that?"

He made a short turn in the swivel chair behind the low-slung, vinyl-padded bar and swirled the ice in his Scotch and soda. Past the picture window behind him the rich summer-green Florida grass sloped to reach the trees bordering the 16th fairway. A long thin slash of brown split the slope top to bottom, a dead strip worn there by his daughter Annie's rainy-day dives down a yellow plastic slide. Dorothy had three of the other Shula's off on a guest ride on a Navy warship, and Michael, at eight the youngest, was busy keeping up his .805 batting average in the Pinto League.

It was just days before the beginning of practice, and Shula had the house to himself. Over the brick fireplace was the image of the man at the bar, done in oils by Tommy McDonald, the former football player; the Shula chin was not prominent here since he was pictured head-on. The trappings of his success were all around. Some were more heartfelt than others. A child's sign on the master bedroom door read: "Love is the Dolphins Undefeated."

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