In the spring of 1989, Miami Dolphin coach Don Shula and his wife, Dorothy, made a 6,000-mile pilgrimage to Medjugorje, in Croatia, hoping to find a cure for the cancer that was ravaging Dorothy's body. Medjugorje, a primitive village 100 miles northwest of Dubrovnik, is a symbol of hope to Christians. The Virgin Mary is said to make daily appearances there, and many sick persons are reported to have been healed during visits to the village.
For four days the Shulas, who had joined 10 fellow parishioners from Our Lady of the Lakes Catholic Church in Miami Lakes, attended hours of religious services in Medjugorje. Every morning, as they walked through a meadow en route to church, Don would look up at the sky for signs of the Virgin. "I was always hoping for something positive to happen." he says. "I loved Dorothy. I wanted to do everything in my power to save her life. I would have gone anywhere for her."
The Shulas had crisscrossed the U.S. for four years, speaking to leaders in cancer research, seeking out the best surgeons and experimenting with innovative treatments. In each hotel and hospital room she had stayed in, Dorothy had read out loud her prayers of the day. Don had gone to local churches to light candles.
One afternoon in Medjugorje, the Shulas decided to try to get even closer to God. Don helped Dorothy, who by then was very weak, climb two hours up a narrow, rocky path to a crucifix at the top of a mountain. There they watched a bonfire, and Don looked for images of the Virgin in the smoke as it billowed into the sky. Then he knelt beneath the crucifix, buried his head in his hands and prayed long and hard for a miracle. It came, but not in the form of a cure.
"Mom was so full of happiness and excitement when she got home," says Annie Shula, 29, Don and Dorothy's youngest daughter. "It was a religious rebirth. She brought back crosses, plastic bottles filled with holy water, and videotapes of people being interviewed in Medjugorje, which she watched over and over. The trip gave her the strength to go on. It changed her. It changed both of them. It gave them hope and a sense of ease."
Friends of the Shulas' say the trip to Medjugorje deepened Don and Dorothy's relationship. In the final two years of her life, they became closer than ever. He held her when she trembled. He awakened early in the morning and lay beside her in bed and told her there was nothing to be afraid of. In the evening he watched Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! with her. They competed to see who could come up with answers the quickest.
"She'd wink at me, showing that she knew the answer," recalls Lucy Howard, the Shulas' longtime housekeeper. "Usually she let him win. He didn't like losing at anything."
Don thought he was doing a good job of hiding his fears from Dorothy, but he wasn't. He walked with his head down and his shoulders slumped, and he lost weight. "When I left the house to go to work each day, I was just as afraid as Dorothy." says Don. "It was hard. I was so distracted. Football seemed unimportant. Death is something you read about happening over there, but now it's right here, on your doorstep."
When Dorothy died at their Miami Lakes home on Feb. 25, 1991, at the age of 57, it was the first time the Shulas' five children had seen their father cry. Don hugged each of the kids, and through his tears he told them they would have to be strong and stay together as a family. He promised he would be there for them, as their mother had been. But he wasn't sure where he would find his own strength, and he wondered to whom he would turn when the emptiness seemed about to swallow him up.
That day, after the family had recited prayers for Dorothy's soul, Don asked Father Edmond Whyte, the pastor at Our Lady of the Lakes, to join him for a walk. "Dorothy was such a good wife and mother," Father Whyte told him. "She helped you through difficult times, and now she's gone. You have to learn to live without her. You have to go on."