DELRAY BEACH — Fans of all ages came sidling up respectfully Thursday for photos with a coach for the ages, Don Shula.
Many were small children who had no clear idea of exactly who they were meeting but understood that there was some sort of celebrity involved and thus cellphone cameras must be raised in tribute.
Others were adults dropping into Shula Burger for a quick lunchtime bite who, by their expressions, were positively stunned to see the icon himself seated in the middle of his busy Delray Marketplace restaurant on Atlantic Boulevard’s western end.
Then the coach spied a man of his generation, one wearing an 82nd Airborne cap and seated in a wheelchair because of a leg amputation. Another VIP, in other words, and Shula showed it by carefully climbing down from his high-table chair and leaning in for a close and chummy shot with the vet.
Shula is 84, with a bad back, and has been known to cover greater distances across crowded spaces in a wheelchair or a scooter. That quick connection snapped both men back, however, to their early 20s, when absolutely everything, good and bad, was still possible.
Did you know, for instance, that Shula was called up for duty in his Ohio National Guard unit while still an NFL player? Cost him seven games with the Cleveland Browns as a starting defensive back in 1952, and could have cost much more.
“Our unit got activated and we were sent to Camp Polk in Louisiana,” Shula said. “We were going to get shipped over to Korea, but the war ended, so we got back and all our unit got discharged.
“It could have happened the other way.”
Most life stories go this way, with sharp turns and scary corners on the way to the real deal, but there is at least one leftover note from Shula’s military experience that will ring true with any Dolphins player who earned a spot on his roster. At one point Shula was sent to physical training school to prepare for a job melting the flab and the arrogance off kid soldiers.
“I was the drill instructor,” Shula said with a grin. “The troops would be out all day on maneuvers and they they’d come in and you’d put them through exercises. They didn’t want to do that.”
The Dolphins won 274 games from 1970 through ‘95 because Shula somehow got them to do what they needed to do, like it or not. That included cutting down penalties to a perennial league low. It meant, too, being conditioned to endure three and sometimes even four workouts during his first Dolphins training camp, back before anyone saw anything remotely like a perfect season coming.
The NFL players’ union puts limits on work hours these days. The media, too, have greater say in what a head coach must do, and under that heading must be included the demands and the scrutiny of a 24-hour network owned by the league itself. Other than a wellspring of integrity, it makes you wonder what a man who coached Johnny Unitas and who left the Dolphins 19 years ago can bring to the table when it comes to analyzing and sanitizing the franchise’s sullied locker-room culture.
Dolphins owner Stephen Ross has asked Shula to do just that, placing him on an advisory committee alongside Dan Marino, Jason Taylor, Tony Dungy and Curtis Martin. The group, Shula said, has yet to meet, but then we’re still waiting on the NFL’s final report on the investigation of Jonathan Martin’s complaints.
“I think it’s all about communication between the assistant coaches and the players,” Shula said, “with everybody feeling like they’re being heard and what they’re thinking and saying isn’t being ignored.”
Teammate disputes were handled by veteran players most often during Shula’s playing days, he said. As for common rookie hazing, he said “it was done in a way that you accepted. No big deal. It was expected. It happened. It was over with.”
Next thing you know Shula is breaking out in an old tune, laughing as he goes, gruffly singing “Onward, On John Carroll, for we’re here to see you win, Gold and Blue.”
It’s a demonstration of the college fight song he was made to perform in front of the team as a Browns rookie.
“They never asked me to sing it again,” he said.
There are more than juicy burgers for sale here on a rainy weekday. It’s memories on the menu, crisp and golden, and Shula will always have Dolphin fans going back for seconds.
BY DAVE GEORGE