Don Shula Was Perfect

It’s difficult to adequately explain what Don Shula has meant to me for the past 50 years, or ever since I became aware of him. I’ll try, though.

Anyone who knows me even a little, knows that baseball is my game. No question, no contest. Football is a distant second. But when I was a little kid and becoming interested in sports, my family lived in Pembroke Pines, Florida, about 25 miles from the Orange Bowl, where the Miami Dolphins played their home games.

This was long before the Miami Marlins or Tampa Bay Rays. With the exception of Spring Training, there was no regular Major League Baseball in Florida, no local teams to rally behind. The Yankees trained in nearby Fort Lauderdale. The Dodgers were just up the coast in Vero Beach. Miami had an Orioles minor league team. But the Miami Dolphins were the only major league sports team — the National Football League — and also, they were damn good. They left an impression on my still developing sports mind. Plus, my father scored season tickets to the Dolphins home games in 1971, so yes, I became hooked.

To this day, baseball is my game of choice, but the game matters more to me than any one team; a handful of players more to me than any one geographic area. I root for the Braves and have cared about them more than any other baseball team. But early love goes deepest. For those autumns that we lived in South Florida, from September into January, it was all Dolphins, and I was a rabid little sucker. Mercury Morris was my favorite player, but I also loved Larry Csonka and Paul Warfield, tried to throw with Bob Griese’s three-quarters overhand motion, pretended I was Nick Buoniconti when I played defense.

Presiding over all of it, instilling a sense of unwavering confidence that all was right in the world, was Coach Shula (there are only a handful of head pro football coaches in the history of the game that deserve a proper titular noun in front of their names, and Coach Shula is one of them).

His obituaries and the football statistics web sites have all the career information you need. But in case you haven’t cared enough to look at those sources, here’s a primer: He was the youngest head coach in NFL history at 33, then coached 33 seasons, winning more games than anyone else (347), taking his team to the playoffs 19 times, to the Super Bowl six teams, winning two of them. And, oh yeah, he and the Dolphins had the only perfect season of any coach and any team in the 100-year history of American pro football.

The word ‘perfect’ is in bold face above so that it will stand out. Because it only happened once. That’s right. There’s only been one perfect team in pro football history (in case any Ditka-obsessed Chicago Bears fans need reminding), and it happened in 1972 (and a teeny bit of 1973), and Don Shula was the head coach.

The reason that season is so important to this Miami Dolphins fan is because … well, I’m a Miami Dolphins fan. I don’t have a lot to cheer about most seasons any more. My best years as a fan were almost 50 years ago. So, yes, I cling to that record as a kind of personal salve. My daughter knows this well. Whenever another football team (or pretty much any institution) begins rising to levels of obvious excellence, I’ve always said, “1972 Dolphins.” It can be anything. Samantha might have been talking about something in history class. “Whoa, Dad, that Mongolian Empire was really something.” And I’d say, “yeah, but they were no 1972 Miami Dolphins.”

As my friends and I played different variations of ‘Kill the Man with the Ball,’ or touch football in the street, and later, youth league football, we all became Dolphins fans. Well, most of us did. I remember bringing a Bears fan (seriously, I’m not picking on Bears fans; this actually happened) with me to one of the Dolphins home games in 1971. It was a Monday Night Football game, so we got to stay up later than usual. This kid loved Dick Butkus. Well, Butkus wound up leaving the game with an injury after Csonka ran over him, and the Dolphins rolled. My friend cried.

Shula came to Miami in 1970 and immediately turned the team around. They won three games in 1969. Shula arrived and they won 10 games and went to the playoffs for the first time in 1970, when I began watching them and their coach with the granite jaw. In ’71 we had the season tickets and I started keeping rushing statistics (because I was a running back as a kid, and I was a nerd who was into that kind of stuff). So I knew how many yards Csonka, Morris, and Jim Kiick had, which was probably too much information then, and now.

Then we moved to the Atlanta suburbs in the spring of 1972, and I was crushed. Who cared for the Falcons? Not me. Hundreds of miles away, Coach Shula and the Dolphins started putting together the greatest season any football team ever had. My football team! Fortunately, NBC carried most or many of their games (I think it was NBC), and I watched a lot of that season on the tube. When Griese broke his leg, I nearly wept. Then Shula inserts uber-competent Earl Morrall at quarterback, and Csonka and Morris have incredible seasons, and the No-Name Defense crushes everyone, and … 17-0, perfection. The finished what they started. I remember the team carrying Shula off the field following the 14-7 less-than-spectacular, skin-of-their-teeth Super Bowl VII win over the Redskins. They didn’t give Gatorade showers back then.

Shula took the team to 15-2 and another Super Bowl victory over the hapless Minnesota Vikings the next year, and some people believe that team was even better than the 1972 squad. But 17-0 is 17-0, and as the years accumulated, Miami teams went from the top of the mountain to merely great, then good, and occasionally mediocre (not often – Shula’s Dolphins won 10 or more games 16 times in his 26 years leading the team). Other powerful teams came along to threaten the Miami record, most notably the 1985 Bears and the 2007 New England Patriots.

As a fan, if I’m ranking Miami Dolphins victories, the wins in Super Bowls VII and VIII are one and two. But a close third is their win over the previously unbeaten Bears (again, on Monday night) in 1985. Ditka’s crew entered the game, in Miami, as the heavy favorite with a 12-0 record and a beastly defense. Final score: Dolphins 38, Bears 24. Chicago romped through the rest of the season, shut out its first two postseason opponents, then crushed New England, 46-10, in the Super Bowl, finishing one of the greatest seasons in football history. But not a 17-0 season.

In 2007, the Patriots actually won more games than the 1972 Miami team, posting an 18-0 record before entering Super Bowl XLII, which the New York Giants won, 17-14, thanks to a ridiculous helmet catch by wide receiver David Tyree, and Eli Manning’s lucky right arm, among other things. So the Pats had one of the greatest seasons ever, winning 18 straight and finishing 18-1. Great, but not perfect.

Whenever a team got close, Shula and his boys were never shy about celebrating that team’s inevitable decline. And sometimes they were reproached for openly savoring their record. But Shula himself refuted the criticism saying they weren’t “a bunch of angry old guys who can’t wait for the last undefeated team to get beat. We’re very proud of our record, and if somebody breaks it, I’m going to call that coach and congratulate them. Until they do, it’s our record, and we’re proud of it.”

Now Shula has died. He lived to be 90, a good, long time. Longer than some of the guys on that team who have died already, like Morrall and Buoniconti, and Bill Stanfill, who were all-stars in their time. And though none of them has won a Super Bowl since the 1970s, when Shula crossed over, he crossed over in victory, on the shoulders of great ghosts.

***

A kind of coda: One of my closest high school buddies was Bob Hnath. We bonded over Miami Dolphins football. We’d both lived in South Florida and moved to the Atlanta area, and wore our teal-colored Dolphins warmup jackets, watched games together, slept over each other’s houses. Bob’s brother Chris died when he was very young, eight or nine. Leukemia. I’ll never forget my good natured friend who laughed so easily at my stupid jokes, who was really strong in his Catholic faith (like Shula), crying during those dark months.

Anyway, at some point, Bob and his family went on vacation back to Florida, and Bob got to meet Don Shula. The photo below, of Shula’s autograph, is courtesy of my friend Bob and his terrific family.

I’m very sad to say, and it’s one of my life regrets, but I lost touch with Bob and his family, except for the occasional Facebook note over the past five or seven years. My family moved away, then I started my own family, and from what I’ve gathered, Bob started his own family, too. But this good boy that I remembered with a sweet nature and a lot of foot speed, was not blessed with long life. He died in 1994. Cancer.

I can never think of Don Shula or the Miami Dolphins without thinking of my old friend, whose last name is pronounced ‘Nath.’ And when I heard that Shula died, the mental image of bespectacled Bob flashed in my mental slide show. Bob Hnath, I remember you.

IMG_8638
I’m going to have to frame this poster …
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I think this motel was close to the Dolphins practice facility.

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