Last week, Don Shula, the winningest coach in NFL history, passed away at the age of 90. Shula is best known for being the head coach of the Miami Dolphins, leading them to two Super Bowl titles, including a perfect undefeated season in 1972. He also won an NFL championship in 1968 as head coach of the Baltimore Colts, but then went on to lose Super Bowl III to the New York Jets, whose quarterback Joe Namath famously guaranteed a Jet victory over the heavily-favored Colts.
Shula was famous for his intense single-minded focus on football and his commitment to excellence. In a 2012 interview he remarked: “We took a lot of pride in working harder and always feeling better prepared than our opponent. That helped us win a lot of games.” He also demonstrated his leadership skills by adapting the team’s style of play to the strengths of his players. He was able to design an offense both around the punishing running ability of Larry Csonka in the 1970s and the uncanny passing ability of Dan Marino in the 1980s. His interests outside of football, however, were somewhat narrow. There’s a story about him meeting the actor Don Johnson in the mid-1980s, when Johnson was the star of the hugely popular show “Miami Vice.” Shula had no idea who Johnson was, and thought he was meeting a real detective. Recounting the story of the meeting, Shula said: “I told him, ‘You guys are doing a great job cleaning up Miami. Keep up the good work. If there’s anything we can do, let me know.’ I didn’t know who he was, I was just so consumed with football.”
Shula was also a serious Catholic. He grew up in Ohio with six siblings, the children of a mother who was a devout Catholic and a father who became Catholic as an adult. When Shula would speak about his experience of the Church as a young man, he would explain that his parents instilled the faith in him and that the family never missed Mass on Sunday. As a young man he gave serious consideration to joining the priesthood but decided instead to pursue sports. He continued to practice his faith, remarking in his 1995 autobiography: “Even today, I try to attend Mass every day. … Attending Mass and looking to God for guidance aren’t just habits for me. They matter deeply to me. … It makes a real difference to me when I start off each day by giving thanks and asking for help from God. … There’s something good about kneeling down, asking for help, and listening for answers.”
Shula’s approach to life is compelling. He was a man who recognized his natural abilities as gifts, he worked hard to develop them, demanded excellence from others, and enjoyed tremendous success. But he also lived his live under the gaze of God, which made him humble and decent. One of his former players, John Offerdahl, said of Shula: “He symbolized not only perfection, but what the pursuit of perfection looks like – looking steadfastly forward to a victorious goal with hard work, an integrated team and a singular purpose… it was what we all needed then and still to this day need: a belief that in life – as in football – we can do and be better as we strive to reach a victorious goal.” Don Shula knew what life was about. May he rest in peace and enjoy a share in Christ’s victory forever.