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.
July 25, 1993
"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."
Until her last breath Dorothy encouraged her husband to stay focused on winning football games, and he has done just that. Last season the Dolphins went all the way to the AFC Championship Game. While Don's private life has been transformed by his wife's death, on the football field he seems hardly different at all. He is as tough and intimidating as ever. Indeed, he still likes to say that he's as subtle as a punch in the mouth. "I've changed some over the years," says Shula. "I'm a little more willing to listen. I'm not as apt to plunge straight ahead and say, 'This is the only way.' But there are things that will never change: You'll always need discipline, and there can only be one boss, and that's me.
"Honesty is at the heart of my success. I don't play games with players. Everything is based on years of solid facts. Sometimes it's not very flashy, and it's not exciting, but I look at the bottom line—winning—and that's all that I'm interested in."
On the threshold of his 31st season as an NFL coach and his 24th with the Dolphins, Shula, 63, is seven victories from passing George Halas as the winningest coach in pro football history. Halas got his 324 victories in 40 years as coach of the Chicago Bears. Shula's career record is 318-151-6, which averages out to a remarkable 10 wins a season. His accomplishments fill 13 pages of the Dolphin press guide. But the feats that stand out the most are these: He is the only head coach to have appeared in six Super Bowls, and his 1972 Dolphins had the only unbeaten season in NFL history.
"The closer he gets to the career record, the harder the achievement is to comprehend," says Cincinnati Bengal coach Dave Shula, 34, who was only three when his father got his first head-coaching job, in 1963, with the Baltimore Colts. "When I became a head coach last year, I was 306 wins away from him, and now I'm 313."
Even with his closest friends, Shula doesn't say much about his pursuit of Halas's mark. Instead, he claims he's really aiming at the Super Bowl, so that he can become the only coach to have made it to Super Bowls in four decades. He did, however, casually mention the record to his daughter Sharon, 31, when she was in charge of designing a piece of jewelry for a family memento of his 300th victory, which occurred on Sept. 22, 1991. According to Sharon, "He said, 'I don't want to do anything too fancy, because I want to wait until I break the record. That's the time when you can do something really special.' "
"I don't talk about it unless someone brings it up," says Shula, shaking his head, covering his ears and waving off any mention of the record, as if talk might jinx it. "There's no pressure. The numbers are going to be there. I'll be proud when it happens, and I'll reflect on it much later.
"I never set out to get this record. How could you ever set out to do what I've done in my career? It comes down to doing your best every day, every week, every year. I never worried about the win totals. They just crept up on me. Afterward you find out you won your 100th game, then somebody hands you a plaque for winning the 200th. I don't think of these things as milestones. They're by-products of hard work."
To work as hard as he does, Shula has to check out of the real world for large chunks of time. No one would ever accuse him of being on the cutting edge of late-20th-century life. He still can't operate the VCRs in his home, and zapping food in the microwave is a chore that utterly befuddles him. "I'm shocked that he can dial a phone," says Sharon. Teases his oldest daughter, Donna Jannach, 32, "I'm surprised he has figured out how to leave messages on my answering machine."
Not surprisingly, Shula missed the Pepsi generation and has no clue about the MTV generation. "All I've ever heard him hum is hymns," says Sharon. His taste in television is confined to news shows and live sports events. When Miami Vice was one of the hottest programs on TV—and all the rage in South Florida—actor Don Johnson sometimes showed up on the Dolphin sideline for games. Once, he was introduced to Shula in the locker room.
"Don Johnson, Miami Vice," he said to the coach.
"You guys do a great job," Shula replied, thinking Johnson was part of the city's police department.
In March 1992 actor Kevin Costner was seated in front of Shula at a pro tennis tournament in Miami, and he turned around to shake Shula's hand. "Dad had no idea who Kevin was," Donna says. "He just figured it was some guy who wanted to meet him."
The only thing more striking than Shula's tunnel vision is his obsession with winning. Everywhere you turn there's a story about Shula's competitiveness, and often it has nothing to do with football. For a casual round of golf, he has been known to stack teams in his favor, and he has scheduled tennis matches for the hottest time of the day.
Rumor has it that Shula even used to train for the treadmill part of his annual physical. His purpose was to show more endurance than Bobby Beathard, then the Dolphins' director of player personnel (and now general manager of the San Diego Chargers), who was a marathoner. To this day Shula pooh-poohs such talk. "How could I ever beat Bobby on a treadmill test?" he says. "His feet never touch the ground when he runs."
But there are witnesses to Shula's madness. "At 11 o'clock one night we were sitting in a meeting, and Don took out the report from the doctors and started asking each of us what our potassium level was, our uric-acid level," recalls George Young, who was then the Dolphins' director of pro scouting and is now general manager of the New York Giants. "And I said, 'Don, people think we're in here making great decisions, and you're talking about our urinalysis?' He said, 'I'm going to subpoena your medical report!' "
Shula still jogs, sometimes 30 minutes a day, so that he can keep his weight down and his performance on the treadmill test up. He grudgingly admits that this year his doctor stopped him one minute sooner than he did in 1992. "But," Shula quickly adds, "I could have gutted it out."
"I've never seen a guy with more energy," says Monte Clark, who has worked for Shula off and on since 1970 as an assistant coach and personnel director. "I think the church he goes to is called Our Lady of Perpetual Motion."
However, the most formidable weapons in Shula's football arsenal arc preparation and attention to detail. For years he has adhered to a strict daily routine during the season, beginning with an early-morning Mass. Every Monday he tells the team its schedule for the week. Then, the first thing each morning, he reiterates the specifics for that day. Shula is so set in his ways that during more than two decades with the Dolphins, he and his family have moved only once—to the six-bedroom ranch house next door. "Don's idea of change is moving 15 paces to the north," says Young.
Shula demands more than most people are willing to give, and he is incensed if a player shows a lack of commitment or makes a stupid mistake. That brings forth The Look. "People say I lead with my chin, and they're probably right," Shula says. "My nature is to confront. But I don't do it to intimidate anybody. I do it to get my point through."
You heard him correctly: get his point through, not across. No wonder some of the nicest expressions that have been used to describe Shula are "Sherman tank" and "bulldozer." One of Shula's former employees who got fed up with The Look now cherishes a photograph of himself standing in Don Shula's Hotel and Golf Club in Miami Lakes and making an obscene gesture at a gigantic picture of his old boss in a rage on the sideline. Ask Shula's current players and assistants for behind-the-scenes stories about him, and you get nothing for the record but carefully measured gobbledygook.
Dolphin meetings can turn into players' worst classroom nightmares. Taking copious notes is encouraged, and concentration is a must because Shula can be counted on to pop a quiz. In front of the whole team he'll jump on a player who screwed up on the field, and he will run game tape again and again to emphasize somebody's ineptitude. "I'll embarrass a player publicly, if that's what it takes," says Shula. "You've got to shape up, or I'm looking for somebody else."
Practices are as tough and as precisely timed as drills in Marine boot camp. Although Shula usually stands near the offense, keeping an eye on the quarterbacks, he knows exactly what's going on all over the practice field. He can instantly spot players who are slacking off.
"If I see somebody doing something casually that I don't think should be handled casually, I don't hesitate to correct," he says. "On the spot. I can't let that creep into my football."
Shula quibbles over minutiae most other coaches wouldn't bother with. At the beginning of each season, the Dolphins practice pregame warmups, introductions and the national anthem. Shula even had a seating chart drawn up for the Dolphins and their entire entourage for the charter flight to Berlin last summer for an exhibition game against the Denver Broncos. Such fastidiousness brings chuckles from quarterback Dan Marino, who has worked more closely with Shula than any other player over the past 10 years.
"We'll start off the week by outlining the 25 most important plays in the game plan with a yellow highlighter," Marino says. "We'll meet and meet and meet, and he'll go over and over the game plan, and by the end of the week, I've marked up about 150 plays in our playbook. Everything is yellow.
"He never stops expecting the best of people. We'll be ahead in games by three touchdowns, with only two minutes left, and he'll still be going 150 miles an hour. You want to say, It's O.K., Coach, we won the game. Relax a little."
Amazingly, in three decades Shula has missed only a day and a half of work. One of Dorothy's operations accounted for the full day; arthroscopic surgery on Don's left knee accounted for the half day. How has he stayed at the top of his profession all these years and still loved every minute of it?
"I give ulcers, I don't get them," Shula says. "I don't dwell on negative things. I don't get consumed by circumstances that are beyond my control. So, Bob Griese has a broken ankle? O.K., let's get Earl Morrall ready and put him in there. If I worry, that beats everybody else down. I'm always into what's happening next.
"This is my secret: I let all of my emotions out. I've screamed so hard on the sideline, at players, coaches and officials, that I don't even recognize myself when I see pictures of my face in that state. I've punched walls. I've stomped off from press conferences. My adrenaline flows, and everything just comes right out of me.
"I've always believed that you have to feel the disappointments, heartaches and losses to be able to move on. You put so much time into it, you can't ever feel it too deeply. You've got to feel it down to your bones. You just can't allow yourself to get consumed."
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."
And without fail, Dorothy got Don through the losses, spending a couple of hours after each one prying the disappointment out of him. Emotionally crushed, with bloodshot eyes and a strained, hoarse voice, Don would go home after defeats and seclude himself, sometimes with Dorothy, sometimes alone, to recover. The children knew to stay away from him.
"I can remember him sitting alone on the patio one time, staring out over the pool," Annie says. "I watched him from the bathroom window, and I felt so sorry for him, I started to cry. I wished I could have jumped on his lap and put my arms around him."
"He'd scare the crap out of you," says Sharon. "He's built like a wall, and there's such a powerful force inside him. We did not talk about losses. Period. I kept myself hidden in my bedroom. As I've gotten older, I've just stayed away. I can't even bring myself to go to his box at Joe Robbie Stadium after a loss."
In the end it was to the children that he turned to get over the greatest loss of his life. Without Dorothy, the backbone of the family, he became a more involved father. He became more aware of his children's needs, and he took the time to listen to them. To be a powerful leader for so many years, he had trained himself not to show vulnerability. But he realized it was time to open up to his kids. He allowed himself to share his human frailties.
Now his relationships with the children are flourishing. In February, on the second anniversary of Dorothy's death, the Shulas gathered in Miami for a weekend golf, tennis and fishing tournament and a black-tie dinner that raised $600,000 for breast-cancer research. "This is a relationship we've needed for a long time," says Annie. "There were times I wished that the closeness and togetherness could be there a little more. We've needed to be able to go cry on his shoulder if we had to, or to just talk to him and express our opinions and concerns without being judged. Our loss drew us all together."
Says Donna, "Since Mom died, he has made an effort to be closer to us. She flat-out begged him to be there for us. I talk to him about things that I used to go to Mom with. He was never the kind of father who could tell you he loved you, who would hold you or kiss you. It was real awkward for him. But these days he's very connected. He tells us he loves us a lot more."
There are several other signs of a new and improved Don Shula. He has upgraded his wardrobe with expensive threads, right down to his socks, and his California-based designer, Rickey Lamitie, writes numbers inside the clothes so Shula will be able to coordinate his ensembles. Shula's suits cost between $1,500 and $2,500, and he has bought them in an array of colors, including royal blue and light green. Those plain golf shirts that were his standard uniform have been replaced by silk shirts in geometric prints, even florals, and he's wearing snazzy white slacks and Italian tasseled loafers.
In the spring of 1992, Shula began dating Mary Anne Stephens, who has a home on posh Indian Creek Island in Miami. Stephens, 48, is the former wife of Jackson Stephens, a wealthy Arkansas financier and chairman of Augusta National Golf Club, home of the Masters. Politically well connected, Mary Anne served on the national fund-raising committee for Nancy Reagan's "Just say no" campaign and co-chaired George Bush's 1988 presidential campaign in Arkansas. In 1990 then Governor Bill Clinton named her Arkansas Citizen of the Year for, among other things, helping the University of the Ozarks raise $20 million, some of which went to a center for students with learning disabilities.
Shula was introduced to Stephens at a 1992 New Year's Day party hosted by golfer Raymond Floyd and his wife, Maria, who also live on Indian Creek. After that Shula spoke to Stephens a few times on the telephone, but it took him two months to ask her for a date. "He kept asking me questions about her for weeks and weeks," says Shula's friend Dick Elias. "He said, 'Tell me about her. What do you think about her?' I said she was very attractive and very easy to talk to. The first time he went to her house, for lunch, I had to take him, literally lead him, by the arm. He was petrified."
Today Shula and Stephens smooch in public, hold hands at the dinner table and nibble off each other's plates. Shula raised some eyebrows in Seattle last season when he boarded a team bus at the airport and asked a member of the Dolphin traveling party about the kind of flowers that would be in his hotel suite. It finally dawned on somebody that Stephens was in town. "He writes me the sweetest little notes," says Stephens.
She has encouraged him to be a little more daring and to try things that he hasn't done before, like dancing to rock 'n' roll, zipping around in her boat and snorkeling. A few months ago Shula, who isn't a good swimmer, put on fins and a face mask and dived into Biscayne Bay with a life preserver around his waist.
"It's great to see a guy his age in love and able to express it," says Elias. "Mary Anne has a way of tearing down the guard he has always had with his players and everyone else. For the first time in the 20 years that I've known him, this defense mechanism is broken."
"We both had a lot of grief to work through—him, a death; me, a divorce," says Stephens. "We could share those things, and we became very good friends. Probably the most beautiful thing about Don is that he loved his wife and he loves his children."
Much of Shula's social life in Miami revolves around Stephens and two of his grandchildren, Donna's kids Alex, 7, and Lindsey, 6, who live in Fort Lauderdale. On the Fourth of July weekend, this brood was joined by Dave and his kids—Danny, 9; Chris, 7; and Matt, 4—at Don's new vacation home in Linville, N.C. "They're just like you, Don," Stephens kidded him. "Little Sherman tanks."
The grandchildren call him Grandfather Mountain, after the famous peak in the Blue Ridge Mountains that can be seen from the deck of the house. Don gets a big kick out of keeping the youngsters spellbound while reading aloud from Dr. Seuss, especially his favorite, Green Eggs & Ham. "With his lisp," Donna says, "it's really hysterical."
Early in the morning in Linville, he'll give the grandchildren tennis lessons on a club court or summon them out to the basketball hoop in his driveway, where he tosses behind-the-back passes, helps them dunk the ball and drills them in the fundamentals. When the kids have had enough of his coaching, they give up and go inside.
"One time Matt stormed in the front door after three minutes, saying it was 'stupid, stupid, stupid,' " Sharon says. "And my father kept saying, 'Where does he get that word from?' Come on, Dad."
When he's Grandfather Mountain, Shula seems a million miles from the old steel-jawed football coach. He's relaxed and loose, patient and understanding, and, believe it or not, he can't stop giggling. He dotes on Lindsey, his only granddaughter. He whips her high into the air in a game that he calls fireball, while in fact it's she who has him wrapped around her little finger.
Last season, after a Dolphin defeat, the family was quietly sitting around the dinner table in Miami Lakes when the highlights of the game appeared on TV. "Boy, Grandpa," Lindsey blurted out, "the Dolphins sure stunk." Grandfather Mountain laughed out loud.
As idyllic as Shula's life seemed when his family and Stephens gathered in Linville in the weeks before the opening of training camp, there was no indication that he is ready to retire from coaching and step into a Norman Rockwell painting. By no means is he becoming an old softy. Although Stephens has helped him open his heart, don't think he's going to deviate too far from his norm.
A few months ago he was critiquing the artwork in Stephens's home. "That is the ugliest picture I've ever seen," Shula said.
"Really, Don?" replied Stephens. "Well, if you don't like it, I'll sell it."
"Who would want to buy that?" said Shula.
"Well, Don," said Stephens gently, "it is a Picasso."