"When I try to work out my life in stages," Shula said, "it's miraculous. If I'd stayed one more year in any one of three jobs I'd probably have been out of football now. But we never were conservative. Dorothy was great. Anytime I wanted to make a move she'd say, 'Do what you think best.' Baltimore was the toughest move. Seven years, a lot of friends, a great house. The house of her dreams.
"I was lucky to get that far. I was always one step ahead of the posse. My first coaching job was at Virginia. The team won one game. It was awful. I left to join Blanton Collier at Kentucky and that year the whole Virginia staff got fired. After a year at Kentucky I went with George Wilson at Detroit. Kentucky fired Blanton and his staff the next year. I was with the Lions three years when I got the Baltimore job. George got fired the following year."
The family name was Süle. His father worked in a nursery in Grand River, a village of 500 on Lake Erie's southeast shore, and young Donald got his first job planting cuttings. They all died, he recalls. Mr. Süle changed the name to Shula. It was to cause some discomfort to his son years later because a cocktail lounge in North Miami opened with the name "Shula's" and the proprietor, one Frank Shula, advertised that it was a good place to "score" after the Dolphin games.
One day Mrs. Shula went to the hospital and the family grew from three children to six overnight. Mr. Shula took a job trap-net fishing for more money. Don worked on the drift boats and in the factory, and the smell of dead fish and entrails made him sick on land as well as on the sea.
From early on, in any kind of contest, Don was nobody's favorite adversary. He could not stand to lose. His grandmother beat him at cards and he threw them in the air and hid under the stairs, crying. He was a natural athlete and leader and an organizer of teams and games, and a sorehead. When his team lost in baseball he stormed under the stands and refused to come out.
Painesville (pop. 18,000) was the "big town" the Shulas moved to after his father gave up the nursery job. At Painesville Harvey High School Don was all-league in four sports and played them all with passion. He was not satisfied sliding into second, he had to bowl the fielder over. Mrs. Shula said he took after her. "That's right," said Mr. Shula, "he's got your temper."
Don told all his teammates how to play their positions. It was a habit he would never break. "The coaches didn't always like it," he remembers. Once, when he got out of hand, the football coach slapped him. The coach thought he would quit. Instead, Shula came around later and apologized.
Shula went to John Carroll on a make-good football scholarship, because no one else asked him. If no one had asked him, he probably would have had no choice but to get over his seasickness. This was shortly after World War II and most college football teams were loading up with veterans. At John Carroll, Shula spread his wings. In the sainted words of box-fight manager Al Weill, "He come along good."
Shula and Carl Taseff were the stars, offensively and defensively, of the John Carroll team. Both were drafted by the Cleveland Browns, Shula in the ninth round. He then sat by the phone waiting for Paul Brown to call. Brown didn't call. "So I called the Browns. 'Aren't you going to sign me?' I asked. I drove to Cleveland and they gave me a contract—the minimum, $5,000. I was afraid they'd pull it back before I could get my signature on it."
In early scrimmages Paul Brown often mistook Shula for Taseff. Once, after tackling the great Marion Motley in the open field ("It probably won me a job because I was having no luck covering Mac Speedie"), Shula looked up to hear Brown say, "Nice tackle, Taseff." Shula said, "Shula, not Taseff." Filling in for the injured Tommy James, Shula was a starter as a rookie, intercepting six passes during an 11-game Cleveland winning streak. In the 12th game, without a word, Brown reinserted James.