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Don Shula, 90: Winner in football and faith

Dolphins legendary coach remembered as ‘unassuming,' daily Mass-going family man

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MIAMI | Dolphins fans knew Don Shula for his success on the field. But those blessed to see Shula off the field knew that he was every bit as successful in his Catholic faith. He just wouldn’t show it.

“What impressed me the most was that he did not lord it over people,” said Father Juan Sosa, pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Miami Beach, where Shula attended the last 10 years of his life. Father Sosa anointed the legendary coach the morning that he died, May 4, 2020.

“He was a great symbol for Miami, but he didn’t overdo it. He knew how much he was respected and loved. But he did not draw from that fame, but rather the love of children and grandchildren and his wife,” Father Sosa said.

Aside from his professional accomplishments as head coach of the Miami Dolphins, including holding the NFL record for most career wins as a head coach, Don Shula is known for his involvement within the South Florida Catholic community.

Photographer: FILE PHOTO

Aside from his professional accomplishments as head coach of the Miami Dolphins, including holding the NFL record for most career wins as a head coach, Don Shula is known for his involvement within the South Florida Catholic community.

He recalled how Shula told him that Father John Francis Dearden (later cardinal archbishop of Detroit) influenced him almost to the point of entering the seminary.

But the Church’s loss was football’s gain. Shula coached the National Football League’s Baltimore Colts (1963-69) and Miami Dolphins (1970-95), leading the teams to six Super Bowls. The Dolphins won twice, including a perfect 17-0 record in the 1972 season. His 347 victories are an NFL best.

After retiring as head coach, the Pro Football Hall of Famer served as a vice president in the Dolphins organization until 2016. He is survived by wife Mary Anne (married in 1993); sons David and Mike; and daughters Donna, Sharon and Anna. His first wife, Dorothy Shula, died of breast cancer in 1991.

 

DIVINE INTERVENTION

According to Archbishop Thomas Wenski, Shula’s tenure in Miami almost ended before the glory days. Only divine intervention saved them. In a statement, Miami’s archbishop recalled that Shula and Dolphins owner Joe Robbie had stopped talking to each other amid rumors that Shula would leave Miami. Miami’s then-Archbishop Coleman Carroll found out — both Shula and Robbie were Catholic — and called each one, saying he needed to talk to them.

Both arrived, but at different times. They were taken by monsignors each to a different room.

“Now, Archbishop Carroll called a press conference for that same day,” Archbishop Wenski said. “The press were all assembled, the archbishop walked into the room and asked, ‘Are all you press people all here?’ When they said ‘yes,’ he told the two monsignors, ‘Bring ‘em in.’ From one door came Shula, from another, came Robbie — both a bit befuddled to find themselves in the middle of a press conference. The archbishop barked at both, ‘Shake hands.’ They did. And then the archbishop declared the press conference over.”

Shula stayed in Miami. The Dolphins — and the Miami community — benefited.

 

DAILY MASS

Father Sosa and several others recalled how Shula would attend Mass every day. The priest said Shula also would lend his presence to several galas to raise funds for St. Joseph projects, including a scholarship for students going to an archdiocesan high school.

“He would sign anyone’s program or get a picture with them,” Father Sosa said. “He said, ‘What should I charge from now on so the church could get the money?’”

Jan Bell, director of St. Thomas University’s Sports Administration Program from 1985 to 2016, also recalled Shula’s faith and presence on campus. The Dolphins practiced daily on the St. Thomas campus (then known as Biscayne College) from 1970 to 1992. She mentioned that while Shula was a bigger-than-life figure, he would walk the campus in an unassuming way.

“If you didn’t know who he was, you’d never have known he was an undefeated coach,” Bell said. “He was like a regular person.”

Bell was a Maryland native who followed Shula when he was coaching the Baltimore Colts, so she continued her admiration in Miami. She said that after the Dolphins left, Shula still came back frequently to support the university.

“He would support us, because he pretty much grew up at St. Thomas as a coach,” Bell said. “He never forgot that.”

When the Dolphins were on campus for summer training camp, the team would stay in the school’s dorms and have meals in the university cafeteria. When the season started, the team still ate in the campus cafeteria; the students would benefit by having the Dolphins’ leftovers, Bell recalled.

St. Thomas students also would help the Dolphins with daily activities, and the team hired several sports administration students for internships. Bell said that enrollment in the program increased with the Dolphins there.

One benefit of the Dolphins practicing at St. Thomas was that Shula could attend daily Mass at the nearby Marian Center with the Sisters of St. Joseph Benedict Cottolengo.

Sean Clancy, a Dolphins linebacker from 1978 to 1979, said that Sister Lucia Ceccotti at the Marian Center heard that Shula had a fine fund for players who committed various infractions — late for meetings, missed weight targets, running a wrong route in practice, etc. She asked him what the fund was for; when Shula said it was for charity, she asked that the Marian Center School be the recipient.

 

DOLPHINS SEE SHULA’S FAITH

Clancy said that Shula’s faith pervaded the Dolphins. Whenever the team would travel, the Dolphins had a chaplain with them. Shula would set up a hotel ballroom for a team Mass on game day.

Clancy said that Shula provided a great example of faith and life for his players. He said Shula was a family man, and players wanted to emulate that example in the community. “He was almost like a father figure to me,” said Clancy, who came to the Dolphins after being drafted out of NCAA Division III Amherst College.

“I was petrified as a rookie,” he said. “He could lose his temper in a second if you didn’t do something properly. At the same time, he had great warmth. He became a real grandfatherly figure. He took great pride in (our) accomplishments.”

Clancy, like Shula a parishioner at St. Joseph, said he related to his former coach in a few ways. Clancy has a special-needs son, while Shula had a special-needs grandchild. Clancy serves on several archdiocesan boards, while Shula supported Miami Country Day School and the Miami Project run by former Hall of Fame linebacker Nick Buoniconti.

“He set the bar very high,” Clancy said. “They were standards we all tried to live by. You wanted to make coach proud.”

 

“LIKE A GODFATHER”

Father Manny Alvarez would see Shula often while serving as a team chaplain for the Dolphins from 2011 to 2016. He said that many people would seek out Shula, but that the legendary coach would ask the chaplain how he was doing and about his relationship with the team.

Father Alvarez became chaplain under head coach Tony Sparano. He said Shula had wanted a permanent priest, but Father Alvarez at the time could offer only a Sunday Mass before home games. When Joe Philbin moved from the Green Bay Packers to become head coach with the Dolphins, Philbin recalled how legendary Packers coach Vince Lombardi would have a priest with the team for every game. They arranged for Father Alvarez to be at all games and to be available for sacraments.

“The coaches loved having a priest celebrate Mass and then talk about things other than football,” Father Alvarez said. “They just enjoyed talking about everything other than football, because football consumed them.”

Regardless of the coach, Shula still inspired a sense of reverence among the team and the community. He said that Shula was kind of “like a godfather for the team.”

“He still commanded that respect from the players on the team, the coaches on the team, even the fans,” Father Alvarez said. “Though I knew it was imminent, it was still shocking to hear the news today.”

Funeral services will be private. Van Orsdel Funeral Chapels will be handling the arrangements. Donald Van Orsdel, president of the company, said Shula’s family is touched by the outpouring of love and support it has received since his death.

“The family wants to get the word out that there are two organizations that Don loved and would prefer donations to them rather than sending flowers,” Van Orsdel said. Those organizations are: Don Shula Breast Research Cancer Fund at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa and Schott Communities in Cooper City for adults with special needs.

The Shula family would like to hold a public memorial at a date when it is safe to do so, Van Orsdel said. Also, the Dolphins said they will hold a public tribute for Shula when health conditions allow.

Updated May 5, 2020, to include funeral arrangements. Additional update May 6, 2020, notes the family's desire for privacy and donations to two charities in Shula's name.

Comments from readers

Hugo A Castro - 05/08/2020 02:17 PM
With my wife and children we lived in the Miami Lakes area, during the time that Don and Dorothy Shula where there, raising their own children. We connected early as members of Our Lady of Lakes Church, where Dorothy Shula and I; served together in the Liturgy Committee. Also because I was involved in a little league baseball team in Hialeah (HAA) at the time, where my two boys Jr. and Eddie played; gave us the opportunity, one summer; to host briefly Michael for summer practice, at the request of his Dad. Don Shula called me behind the fence while I was in the field with the team and said: Coach! when I turn around found that it was Don Shula! Well, he said look Michael needs some practice and has the time, can you keep him? He can play the outfield and hit well told me! I remember one day during a visit to their home, I found at the entrance of the house, a basket with money! Curious as I entered ask Dorothy, if she had left the money there. She told me that because sometimes people come asking for money, she wanted to be ready! I also remember on this Thanksgiving Mass that I had the first reading lecture. Therefore we were there early with the family, and seated with access to the main center isle to the altar. After the reading I returned to my seat, and then realized that the entire Shula family is seated behind us! Well; Don upon my return to my seat, when he saw me, and before I would seat down said: good reading! I have formed a high opinion of Don Shula and his family, which I sherish to this day! Their kinddess show their Christian formation which made a difference! We give thanks today for his life!
Hope Sadowski - 05/05/2020 03:08 PM
I remember at St. Joseph seeing Don Shula at daily Mass. Always a very cordial person greeting those in attendance very unassuming. May he rest in peace. Condolences for his wife and family. Hope

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