The Miami Dolphins' record-setting leader was the product of a Jesuit education and later became a generous supporter of Catholic schools.
Don Shula, who died Monday at the age of 90, is being remembered as the “winningest coach in NFL history.” Shula spent much of his retirement working to make sure that youngsters at his Catholic parish in South Florida would be the winningest students.
The Miami Dolphins, the team he coached from 1970 to 1995, issued a statement saying that Shula died “peacefully at his home.”
Fr. Juan Sosa, pastor of St. Joseph Parish on Miami Beach, told Aleteia that Shula attended daily Mass for years, including the early Mass on Sundays.
“When I arrived about 10 years ago, I met him as one of our parishioners, unpretentious, very devoted and faithful to his commitment as a Christian and a Catholic,” Fr. Sosa said in a statement Monday. “Later on, he became more physically dependent and he came with his family to Christmas and Easter
He reiterated his characterization of him as “unpretentious.”
“He did what God wanted him to do and fulfilled his vocation,” Fr. Sosa said.
He said that when a documentary was being made about him and the Dolphins several years ago, “he mentioned to me that he once, as a young man, wanted to become a priest. His pastor was very influential in this discernment. Fr. John Dearden, of whom he always spoke with great respect and love,” went on to became a cardinal, as Archbishop of Detroit.
But he went on to play football instead, beginning when he attended John Carroll University near Cleveland on a football scholarship. Born in Ohio, Donald Francis Shula grew up in a Catholic family of seven children, which included a set of triplets. In his 1995 book Everyone’s a Coach, Shula wrote that he “learned his faith from his parents” and that they never missed Mass on Sunday. He attended St. Mary’s Catholic School in Painesville and graduated from John Carroll, where he became close to the Jesuits on the faculty there, according to a 2014 Catholic News Service article. Later, he endowed the Don Shula chair in philosophy at the university.
Shula played seven seasons as a defensive back in the NFL after being drafted by the Cleveland Browns in 1951. He also played for Baltimore Colts and Washington Redskins.
In 1963, Shula began coaching the Colts, becoming the youngest NFL coach at age 33. He led the Colts to Super Bowl III, though they lost to the New York Jets. Shula in 1970 signed on with Miami and ended up coaching 26 seasons before retiring after the 1995 season.
“Coach Shula, as everyone knew him, was simple, faithful to others, and a good servant,” Fr. Sosa told Aleteia. “He and Mary Anne, his wife, were instrumental
in the final construction of St. Joseph’s School and have been very supportive of the scholarship granted every year to an 8th grader who may wish to pursue his/her high school education in an archdiocesan high school.”
Fr. Sosa had told Catholic News Service in 2014 that the community knew the Shulas for their dedication to reconciliation and peace at various times in Miami’s history and for their commitment to Catholic schools.
News of Shula’s death on Monday was greeted with accolades in the sports world.
“Don Shula was the patriarch of the Miami Dolphins for 50 years,” the Dolphins’ statement said. “He brought the winning edge to our franchise and put the Dolphins and the city of Miami in the national sports scene.”
“Today is a sad day,” Dolphins president Tom Garfinkel said in a statement. “Coach Shula was the rare man who exemplified true greatness in every aspect of his life. He will be so missed by so many but his legacy of character and excellence will endure.”
Shula led the Dolphins to six Super Bowls, winning two of them — in 1972 and 1973. The first victory came at the end of an unprecedented season with no losses for the Dolphins. It remains the league’s only perfect season. He won an NFL-record 347 games, including playoff games, said ESPN. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1997.
Shula was “a tactician and taskmaster who built some of the most fearsome defenses and explosive offenses in league history,” according to the New York Times’ Ken Belson.
After his career, Shula started the Don Shula Foundation for Breast Cancer Research in memory of his first wife, Dorothy, who died from the disease.