CLEVELAND, Ohio – Don Shula came home Saturday, or very close to it, and he could not have appeared more pleased.
The smile barely left Shula’s face despite a brisk schedule during the Pro Football Hall of Fame Fan Fest. Whizzing around the massive I-X center on a scooter, he was quick to stop and interact with countless fans, fellow Hall of Famers, media and his latest reconnection with Cleveland, the John Carroll football team.
At Shula’s side throughout the day was his grandson and JCU’s new defensive coordinator, Chris Shula. Don Shula, who grew up in Grand River and Painesville, played at John Carroll in the late 1940s and early ’50s. Its stadium now bears his name. Shula beamed and patted Chris on the thigh as JCU head coach Tom Arth spoke of hiring Chris because he was a good person and a good coach, not because of his last name.
Chris, the son of former Bengals coach Dave Shula, bears a striking resemblance to his grandfather in his younger days.
“I’m better looking,” Don said, laughing. “I’m very happy and proud of him. I think he’s really enjoying it.”
Don Shula, 84, who had difficulty getting in and out of a chair, put any physical discomfort aside and clearly enjoyed himself Saturday. During a Q & A with fans, he seemed to have one eye on the other end of a temporary gridiron where JCU players were conducting an informal practice demonstration.
“We’d like to continue and live up to the same legacy he left,” John Carroll safety Marty Gibbons said. “He set the bar high for us. To have him here today, we feel the presence of what he did. It’s awesome getting to meet him. I know he still has that John Carroll pride.”
Though handlers tried to expedite his trips to different locations in the convention hall, the always accommodating Shula was glad to stop and pose with a small girl in a Dolphins cheerleading uniform, as well as Mary Powers Miller, an 87-year-old football fan from Amherst who said she watched Shula play for the Browns in 1951 and ’52.
“I remember I was so impressed by him as a player,” she said. “He was very special.”
Shula even posed with Pittsburgh fans dressed in black and yellow.
“Steelers fans? Steelers?” he teased.
“I’ve always been a big Browns fan,” Shula said. “Paul Brown meant an awful lot to me and my career.”
Shula was in good humor when he was asked about Cleveland’s last major professional sports championship won by the 1964 Browns, at the expense of the Baltimore Colts coached by Shula. Cleveland beat Baltimore, 27-0, in the NFL Championship game.
“I remember them calling timeouts so they could score another touchdown to make it 27 to nothing, instead of 20 to nothing,” Shula said. “Frank Ryan threw the touchdown pass. Then I coached the Pro Bowl against Frank Ryan and our whole theme that week was to get Frank Ryan.
“I think he lasted a quarter. Gino Marchetti helped take care of him.”
Marchetti, the Baltimore defensive end, leveled Ryan and knocked him out. Some say Ryan was never the same after that hit.
The competitive fire still burns in Shula. Told Ryan remains unhappy about that hit, Shula shot back with a laugh, “Well, I’m glad he is.” Shula brought up the 1968 NFL Championship game in which Baltimore beat Cleveland, 34-0.
“That made me feel pretty proud of bouncing back after getting beat as bad as we got beat,” he said.
Shula went on to coach the Miami Dolphins and won two Super Bowls, far removed from Cleveland, though his roots remained strong here. Dave Shula recalled the family rented a home in Mentor-on-the-Lake for summer vacations. Many of their relatives live in the area.
Shula grew up on Richmond Street in Grand River, in a home where signs once proclaimed it his birthplace. The signs, stolen several times, have not been replaced. Shula recalled piling his younger triplet siblings, Jane, Jeanette and Jim, onto his bike and taking them to school. He is one of seven children.
He starred at Harvey High in Painesville and planned to take a year off before college. That summer, he ran into a former coach at a gas station. Shula said the coach told him he shouldn’t put off college because he might never go, and the coach put Shula in contact with JCU coach Herb Eisele, who offered Shula a partial scholarship. As a senior, Shula and Carl Taseff led John Carroll to an upset of Syracuse in front of Paul Brown, who drafted both players.
Shula (5-11, 190) played defensive back two years with the Browns and five more in the league, and by age 33, was head coach of the Colts.
“That’s hard to believe now,” said Chris Shula, 28.
Don Shula said he felt like a coach as a player.
“If the guy next to me didn’t know what he was doing, I never hesitated to tell him. Sometimes, he didn’t appreciate it,” he said. “I didn’t want anybody to make a mistake. I was always learning the guys around me what their responsibilities were. That’s what coaching is all about – knowing what you’re doing and executing in a pressure situation.”
Shula is the winningest coach in NFL history (328-156-6) and perhaps is best remembered for coaching the Dolphins unbeaten 1972 team.
“It’s an accomplishment that I’m very proud of,” he said.
Shula said he also was glad to do that in an era when coaches weren’t expected to work 24 hours a day and sleep in their offices.
“Burning the midnight oil is overrated,” he said. “I went home, got some sleep and worked hard the next day.”
As he left the fan and media areas, Shula was stopped twice more by admirers – Hall of Famers Barry Sanders and Carl Eller. Sanders engaged Shula in a long chat.
Dave Shula stood back and loved every minute of it. He said the highlight for his father was interacting with the John Carroll football team, and his grandson.
“The reconnection has been great,” Dave Shula said. “It’s taking it full circle. John Carroll has always been a very special place to him.”
The day gave Don Shula a chance to reflect on how close he came to an adult life that didn’t feature football, had it not been for that chance meeting at a gas station that perhaps changed NFL history.
“It’s unbelievable, when you think about the chain of events and how things happen,” he said. “I have a lot of great memories here.”
BY TIM WARSINSKEY