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What was Shula like as a player? When he came to the Colts, after two seasons with the Browns, he was the only defensive halfback (they didn't call them cornerbacks then) in the league to call defensive signals. John Steadman, now a Baltimore columnist, who was the Colts' publicist in Shula's playing clays, remembers him as being "one of the finest tacklers in the game. If you wanted to run a clinic on how to tackle, you'd get Don Shula." His Colt teammates thought enough of him to award him a game ball—when he was sitting in the stands.
"It was the week after I'd been cut in '57 and right before the Redskins picked me up for my final season," Shula says. "The guy who replaced me—Henry Moore, I think—got beat for a touchdown, and afterward the players gave me a game ball."
What do I remember about Shula's playing days? He is the only player who got an NFL rule changed while he was still active. I reminded him about it last month: Colts against the Rams, the first game of the 1954 season, Ewbank's coaching debut in Baltimore. On the first play of the game Los Angeles lined up with 10 men and then, just before the snap, sneaked Volney (Skeet) Quinlan off the bench and onto the field to catch Norm Van Brocklin's bomb. The old Hideout Play. The defensive back beaten was Shula. The following day Bert Bell, the NFL commissioner, changed the rule, and the Hideout Play was henceforth illegal.
"Damn right I remember it," Shula says. "I remember thinking, Where in hell is the Dutchman throwing the ball?"
Two weeks after this reminiscence I saw Shula in Miami. The first words out of his mouth were "Bobby Boyd." Say what?
"It was Bobby Boyd who caught that pass," he said. "The track guy they used to bring in as a third wideout. Not Quinlan."
It must have bugged him the entire two weeks. Dolphin beat writers say that Shula reads everything written about the team and never forgets a thing. A few seasons ago, when Miami was on its way to a 12-4 season, Shula fielded a question during a media session and then looked at the reporter and said, "Eleven times you've picked us to lose. Do you really think we're that bad?" The guy tried to explain that he was doing a handicapping column and that he'd been picking the Dolphins to fail to cover the spread.
"Eleven times," Shula said, shaking his head. "Eleven."
Have I ever felt Shula's wrath? Oh, brother, let me count the ways. When Miami drafted Marino, I was one of the TV analysts for ESPN. I issued one of those mindless pronouncements some scout had told me, that Marino's mechanics were wrong, that he pushed the ball.
The next time I saw Shula, he stuck his finger in my chest and said, "Pusher, huh? Pusher? What do you think of my pusher now?" He stayed on me for two years, while Marino was putting up all those outasight numbers: "Here's the guy who said I've got a pusher for a quarterback."