For Alabama the week began with an ending and ended with a beginning. In between, the Crimson Tide played the college football season's official opener, though officials almost wouldn't let it finish. Few sports have had a rockier and more emotional lid-lifter, and the result was an untidy affair that passed for a football game. Ultimately, however, the Tide's roller-coaster ride proved to be a victory on a pair of fronts: Alabama triumphed over a deep loss and rallied to defeat a team that had outplayed it.
Setting his formidable jaw to the task of determining the Tide's fortunes was Mike Shula, a senior quarterback who learned his trade at the navels of guys who took the Miami Dolphins to consecutive Super Bowls. Last Wednesday, Shula ignored a busted blood vessel in his throwing hand, shrugged off a miserable three quarters of play and led eighth-ranked Alabama on two fourth-quarter scoring drives that gave the Tide a 16-10 win over No. 11 Ohio State in the Kickoff Classic at Giants Stadium. In the process Shula did his dad proud. "I told Mike I felt he would have to show more leadership than ever," says Don Shula. "Everything was cracking up around him, with the death and all the injuries."
The death had come at 3:55 p.m. on the Saturday before the game, when sophomore defensive tackle Willie Ryles was removed from a life-support machine. Ryles, who would have made his first start against the Buckeyes, had complained to his roommate of headaches for several days before he passed out during a half-speed, 9-on-7 drill on Aug. 18. "I turned to ask him about the call he made, and he was lying on the ground like he was paralyzed on his left side," says noseguard Curt Jarvis. "At first I thought it was a stinger—like a pinched nerve. But then the stretcher came."
A blood clot had formed on Ryles's brain. He lapsed into a coma and, despite surgery, never regained consciousness. His death came exactly 17 weeks after that of Tide halfback George Scruggs, who was killed in a car crash.
September 7, 1986
Before his players took the field against Ohio State, Alabama coach Ray Perkins said a prayer for Ryles. "I would never ask a team to win for someone else," he said. However, the Tide knew for whom they were playing. Next to the open casket at the Fourth Street Baptist Church in Columbus, Ga., on Thursday, All-America linebacker Cornelius Bennett presented Ryles's mother, Zella, with the game ball. It had been autographed by the team.
Not surprisingly, Alabama had played emotionally but not sharply. Through three quarters the Tide had mounted only two drives and had finished them with field goals of 38 and 44 yards by Van Tiffin. The Buckeyes threatened seven times during the game but scored just twice. Flanker Jamie Holland ran 26 yards on a reverse, and kicker Pat O'Morrow, who had missed two field goal attempts, booted a 37-yarder.
So with 14:49 to go, Alabama had the ball on its own 27 and a 10-6 deficit to overcome. "We were beating ourselves," Shula said later. "We were playing Ohio State, but we were beating ourselves." He had had no small part in the Tide's self-flagellation. The nation's fifth-most-efficient passer last season, Shula would finish with 11 completions in 19 attempts for just 83 yards. He also threw two interceptions, banging his left hand on a lineman's helmet on the follow-through of one in the second quarter. "I was lousy," Shula says.
By Shulian standards the drive that ensued was maybe fourth rate. It wasn't as dramatic as the 71-yard TD march he had engineered in the final 50 seconds of a 20-16 win over Georgia in last year's opener. ("That was the most exciting for me," he says.) It wasn't as rugged as the 12-play, 68-yard trudge to tie LSU 14-14 on Nov. 9. Shula had climaxed that drive by catching a 2-yard TD pass on a gadget play with 1:24 left. ("We had to scrap for everything we got.") And it wasn't as sweet as the 57-second wonder that gave the Tide a 25-23 triumph over archrival Auburn on Nov. 30, when Shula steered his team 45 yards to set up Tiffin's 52-yard field goal with no time left. ("I Knew I had done all that I could do.")
But considering how damaging a loss to the Buckeyes would be with Florida, Notre Dame, Tennessee, Penn State, LSU and Auburn still to come on the Tide's schedule, Shula's resourcefulness was never more needed. And, as usual, he came through. Shula keyed a 12-play march with a 14-yard run off a sucker bootleg. Then his three-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Al Bell on third-and-goal put Alabama ahead 13-10 with 9:33 to play. After the Buckeyes went nowhere on their next series, Shula ate up six minutes with a 50-yard drive. Again the pivotal play was a bootleg. This time Shula pulled up and threw to running back Kerry Goode for a 14-yard gain down to the Ohio State five. Tiffin then buried a 28-yarder.
Afterward, Buckeye linebacker Chris Spielman, who had 16 tackles and an interception and was named Player of the Game, said of Shula, "My father's a football coach and has given me a football sense and so has his. Mike Shula prides himself on reading defenses and doing the right things with the football, and that's what he did."
While Mike was engaged in another Stablerian round of Beat the Clock, Don was prowling his Miami home like a caged animal. He started watching the game in the family room and then moved to the bedroom. He wound up storming between the two tubes. "I'm used to the sidelines," says Don. "When Mike was in high school, I would go to the top row of the stands and just go back and forth."
Because of his NFL schedule Don has not seen Mike play for Alabama. "It may be better this way," says the elder Shula. "I don't think I could stay in one seat. I sit there on Saturdays and watch on TV and try to relax, but I get more and more wrapped up in it. I have meetings on Saturday nights, and I'll be drained and have to gear up for Sunday. When you're a coach your concentration is so great you don't have time to think of anything else. But when you watch your son play, you watch with your stomach in knots."
It's not any easier for a father when his son's team gives a powerhouse like Ohio State two extra shots at victory. That's just what linebacker Derrick Thomas did by interfering with the Buckeyes' outstanding wideout, Cris Carter, on two consecutive plays with no time remaining. Finally, Thomas's replacement, Chris Goode, and cornerback Britton Cooper sandwiched Carter in the end zone as another Buckeye pass arrived. It fell incomplete.
The next day the Crimson Tide filed out of four chartered buses into a redbrick church hard by the Chattahoochee River. "I can't imagine what it would have been like to lose and go to the funeral," said guard Bill Condon. Rev. J.H. Flakes eulogized Ryles as a gentle giant, a devout Christian and a winner. As Shula, who regularly attends noon Mass, tried to cope with his sorrow for a teammate he had not known well, he turned to a bowed and stricken Jarvis. Looking up at Shula, Jarvis said, "Well, buddy, you missed out."
Shula and Jarvis had met inauspiciously at freshman orientation when Jarvis, a 265-pounder from Gardendale, Ala., moseyed up to Mike and inquired, "What's it like being the son of Don Shula?" Gradually, through mutual friendships with a couple of coeds, they got to be buddies and then roommates. They never play a Saturday game without first catching a half hour of the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon.
A polished urbanite, Shula has made certain concessions to Jarvis and rural life. For instance, he traded in his sports car for a four-wheel-drive Bronco, and he even went hunting for deer. Not that such a doe-eyed kid could actually shoot one. In fact, the first night his folks came to visit in Tuscaloosa, Mike, who's the youngest of their five children, packed them in his car and drove out to a distant spot to show them the way deer looked and moved in the dark.
The Shula family is built on love and football; otherwise, all the kids wouldn't have stuck so tightly to the game and to one another. "Michael's always had a special relationship with everyone in the family," says his sister Annie. "When he comes home everyone fights to be next to him." By age 7, Mike was going with his three sisters to the Orange Bowl to play on the artificial turf. By 10, he had attended his first Dolphin training camp. He would shag and spot balls during practice, vacuum floors and do the team laundry. The club paid him $96 a summer for his work.
He was a ball boy for the Dolphins until he was 14. When an equipment manager left, Don asked Mike to chart plays for him. It was like getting driving lessons from Andretti. For three years Mike tracked the result of every offensive snap, noting the Dolphin formation, the defense they faced and the play that was run. Moreover, he overheard crucial confabs between his dad and quarterbacks Bob Griese and Earl Morrall. Mike even used to sneak a peek at the crib sheets Griese would leave under the play charts on his clipboard.
"What stands out about Mike is that he's so mature and cool," Griese says. "When he throws interceptions as he did the other night, it doesn't faze him. I think being around me when I threw interceptions helped. He also was very levelheaded and intelligent. He wanted to know the right way to do things."
In Mike's senior year at Miami's Columbus High, he first demonstrated just how cool he could be under pressure. Nothing he has done at Alabama has approximated his exploits in the semifinals of the Florida state championship in 1982. With less than four minutes to go he was down by eight points to Vero Beach and on his own 20. Shula maneuvered the Explorers into Vero Beach territory before scrambling to the 10, where he was knocked silly while heading for the sidelines. "We called timeout and he came over to talk, but he was out of it," says Columbus coach Dennis Lavelle. "He kept saying, 'We've got to run the ball, 30 dive.' I said, 'Mike, there are 15 seconds left.' "
On the next play, which was third down, Vero Beach interfered in the end zone. The penalty gave Columbus first-and-goal on the five, but Shula, still woozy, figured it was fourth down. So when he was about to be sacked by what he thought was the game-ending play, he shifted the ball to his right hand behind his back and intentionally fumbled. The ball squirted into the end zone, where the Explorers recovered. Shula passed for the tying two-point conversion and then heaved a touchdown strike to win the game in overtime.
After Perkins got the Alabama job he received a congratulatory call from Shula Sr., who had coached him in Baltimore. Don suggested that Perkins take a look at Mike. Perkins watched the kid play a quarter of basketball and then studied a few reels of Mike playing football. The coach liked what he saw. Mike broke his leg in spring practice of his freshman year and went 3-3 as a starter late in '84. Last fall, the 6'2", 200-pound Shula guided the Tide to a 9-2-1 finish. He now has firm command of an offense that requires quick reads but not a rifle. "His arm strength and his foot speed are definitely question marks," says Don. "But he makes the big plays, and how do you measure that?"
If the pros don't beckon, his dad's profession will. "I can't imagine life without football," says Mike.