They actually cheered Don Shula on Sunday in Philadelphia at Veterans Stadium, where they boo Santa Claus. They chanted, "Shu-la! Shu-la!" as he made his way off the field in the middle of a great creeping snail of reporters, TV people and cameras. They cheered for the man, for his 41 years as a pro player and coach, and for the fact that the 19-14 win his Miami Dolphins had squeezed out against the hometown Eagles had given him the cherished 325th victory, most ever in the NFL for one man.
They were still making noise as the 63-year-old Shula addressed his team in the locker room. He thanked the "two ownership groups that let me coach," the Robbies in Miami and Carroll Rosenbloom in Baltimore, and, pointing to Dan Marino, he thanked "the one on crutches here who gave me over 100 wins."
Then the game balls were given out, to defensive end Jeff Cross, who had three sacks, to Pete Stoyanovich, whose 46-yard field goal gave the Dolphins a 16-14 lead in the third quarter and whose 45-yarder ended the scoring, and to Doug Pederson, who outlasted Philadelphia's Ken O'Brien to win the battle of third-string quarterbacks.
Then it was time to face the press. Sweaty, rumpled-looking and red-eyed (Had he shed any tears? No, the players said, but he'd been "quite emotional"), Shula said that the game was special "because of the way we won," and that the record would be special, "if it were done in a year the team accomplished something." He was asked why he had gotten a ride on the players' shoulders instead of the typical Gatorade shower. "I had my Gatorade shower at number 324," he said. "When you get my age, you can't take too many of those ice-cold showers."
Shula was relieved to get the number-325 monkey off his back after the previous week's 27-10 misfire against the New York Jets. On Sunday, with slightly more than two minutes to go, Philly had third-and-four on the Miami 22, but James Lofton dropped a pass on the five. On the next play O'Brien went to throw, but the ball squirted out of his hands for a fumble.
On the sideline Shula strode between the 40-yard lines as Miami took over on its 38 to run out the clock. Dale Hatcher dropped back to punt with 34 seconds left. Shula straddled the 50, leaning over in a halfback's stance, hands on thighs, watching the guy he had salvaged from the junk heap last spring get off a career punt, 56 yards, out of bounds at the Eagle one, and the game was over. Win number 325. Send in the clowns.
"Now we go on," said Shula at his press conference. "I'm gonna enjoy it tonight, but I'm sorry thinking of Dan on crutches, all the wins he's led us to, and of Mitchell with the shoulder."
There it was, the hard reality of NFL football, with its one-day high and six days of dog labor. On the second play of the second half, Scott Mitchell, who had taken over when Marino tore his right Achilles tendon last month and in four games had run the offense more smoothly than anyone had expected, scrambled for seven yards and went down hard on his left shoulder. Acromioclavicular separation was the diagnosis. Return date unknown.
Enter Doug Pederson, 25, two years a Dolphin practice squadder, former third-stringer for the New York/New Jersey Knights of the World League, activated by Miami when Marino was sidelined. "When we saw Scott lying there." said Pederson, "everyone started yelling, "Doug! Doug! Get your hat. Get a ball. Let's go! But Coach Shula was very calm. He just said, 'Get with [quarterback coach] Gary Stevens and get your instructions. You'll be fine.' "
The Dolphin press guide says that Shula has faced 122 NFL coaches, that he has won more games than 17 NFL franchises in their entire history, and lots of other things. What docs Shula say? "We've got to get it together. I've got to give [recently signed veteran quarterback] Steve DeBerg a lot of work, get him ready." A bittersweet, record-breaking day. Life goes on.