Palm Beach Post writer Hal Habib remembers the day he found out the immortal Don Shula wasn’t.
Nobody was ever going to know.
For 10 years, I locked it inside, convinced that nobody needed to know. It was bad enough that I saw, and felt, what I did. To share it with anyone would be an affront to the man’s image, I decided.
Don Shula, you see, was Don Shula. The man with the granite jaw. The man who made the Miami Dolphins what they are.
He was the immortal Don Shula.
Until the day I knew he wasn’t.
And it saddened me to silence.
A group of us had gathered in a small room underneath the west stands at Hard Rock Stadium on that afternoon in 2010. The Dolphins were going to enshrine Jake Scott and Bill Stanfill, two former Georgia Bulldogs, into their honor roll that weekend. First, there was a news conference.
The small gathering to hail the occasion was no small feat. Scott had been one of the greatest defensive players Shula ever had — not just an All-Pro, but one who rose when stakes were greatest. That’s why he was MVP of the Super Bowl to complete The Perfect Season.
But Scott had too much renegade in him for Shula’s tastes, and Shula abruptly traded him to Washington just before the 1976 season. Unhappy? Scott went far beyond being angry at Shula. Decades went by when the 1972 team held reunions. Never did Scott appear.
Scott had moved to Hawaii, comforted in seclusion if not the knowledge he was about as far from Shula as he could get. Miles kept them apart until, finally, years brought them together.
Time, sometimes, really does heal.
“How you doing, pal,” Shula told Scott, rising up to embrace him. “Good to see you.”
“I missed ya,” Scott said.
Things were only warming up.
“I think I spent more time in Coach Shula's office than his secretary did,” Scott joked. “He liked me on Sunday but during the week I don't think he liked me that much.”
Shula talked about what a menace to quarterbacks Stanfill was — Jason Taylor before J.T. was J.T. Then, Shula paused.
“Jake is another story,” Shula said. “Should I tell it all?”
After the laughs began to die down, folks started filing out to take pictures on the field.
Everybody except Shula.
Shula lingered because he knew I wanted to ask a few unrelated questions.
Right after we finished, it happened.
I rose from my chair. And just as he had when Scott entered, Shula started to rise from his.
And then, trouble.
Struggling to steady himself, Shula put his arm around my shoulders for support. Reflexively, I put an arm around his waist to steady him.
I am supporting Don Shula, I thought.
This was long before the sight of Shula in his golf cart had become a fixture on the Dolphins’ sideline. Before he used a motorized wheelchair to get around.
It couldn’t have lasted more than a few seconds, but I was shocked. I was hurt.
I was one of the thousands who learned who the Miami Dolphins were on Christmas Day 1971. Chances are that morning, I wouldn’t have been able to pick Larry Csonka out of a lineup. Yet that afternoon, I was holding my breath every time the Kansas City Chiefs’ Ed Podolak got his hands on the ball, certain this Villainous Person was going to knock My Dolphins out of the playoffs.
Football was my Christmas gift in 1971. It provided fun for many years. And a profession, stunningly, for many more after that.
Players came and went. Even the great Jake Scott. But Shula — Shula was forever, or so that little kid believed.
Shula taught the Dolphins to grow up, and with it, he helped South Florida grow up.
Wrapping my arm around him to support him that day was a split-second decision that had to happen.
Wrapping my head around the significance of it has taken a decade.