Dorothy hung on long enough to see the Dolphins return to the playoffs in 1990 after a four-year absence, but following their 44-34 loss to the Buffalo Bills in the second round, her condition quickly deteriorated. She seemed to shut out all signs of the future she wouldn't be able to experience. She even stopped seeing her grandchildren.
In the year following her death, Don's loneliness was profound. "Her cancer was a continual hurt, and it wore me out," he says. "There was relief at the end, but a deep, deep emptiness."
He retreated into a dark shell. "He was difficult to reach," says his lifelong friend Bill Stanton. Says daughter Donna, "It was terrible grief, beyond words. He was lost without my mother."
Shula's son Mike, now 28, had moved into his parents' house shortly before Dorothy's death and had taken a job as a Dolphin assistant, helping with the offense and with scouting. After she passed away, Don and Mike went to Mass together each morning, and after dinner they hung out in the den of the Miami Lakes house. Their conversation usually drifted to Dorothy. "He'd always be the one to bring her up," says Mike, who now coaches tight ends for the Bears. "He wanted us to talk about how we were feeling."
Before turning in, Don would take a long walk alone on the golf course outside his back door, frequently with rosary beads in his hand. Then, unable to sleep, he would roam the halls of the 10,000-square-foot house. Lucy Howard, the housekeeper, who had been like a sister to Dorothy, swore that she could still hear Dorothy's voice, and Don could feel Dorothy's presence in the darkness, especially when he was crying.
To help lighten his grief, Shula immersed himself in work, spending more hours at the Dolphins' training complex than at any other time in his career. After games the pain only intensified.
"That's when it really hit me," says Shula. "I'd always known that Dorothy would be there when I walked out of the locker room. She'd always had an answer for whatever happened that day. She'd gotten me to think about things other than football, brought the conversation around to the kids or the grandchildren, and she'd always found a way to make me laugh."
Dorothy's warmth, wit and spontaneity had offset her husband's driven, programmed ways. Son Dave refers to her as "the great communicator," for somehow she kept the coach involved in his children's lives and made them believe that he cared about them, even though he was so distant during the football season. Dorothy was the person Don listened to, the only one he couldn't intimidate, and she worked hard to keep him grounded.
"I could have any man in the world," she said at a 1987 tribute to her. "Burt Reynolds. Frank Gifford. Larry Csonka. And I ended up with this." On a large screen at the front of the banquet hall flashed a picture of Don wearing a sheik's headdress and perched on top of a camel during a vacation in Egypt.
"She knew me better than anybody," says Shula. "I could tell her everything. She put me at ease."