Interview with a Living Legend
April 18, 2012 – Don Shula won more games than any coach in NFL history. He also guided the 1972 Miami Dolphins to the NFL’s only undefeated season, compiling a 17-0 record.
Those are just a few of the two-time Super Bowl winning coach’s many accomplishments, and as a life-long fan of the Miami Dolphins, I have always held Shula in the highest regard.
As a kid, I relished the fact that the coach of my favorite team was regarded as one of the all-time greats, and I enjoyed watching his movements on the sidelines almost as much as I took pleasure in the action on the field. As I got older, I admired Shula for his core beliefs. He always did things the right way. He won within the rules, and he was as dedicated to his family as he was to winning football games — qualities that have become more rare in professional sports through the years.
On April 2, I conducted what I consider to be the interview of a lifetime. I, along with Yankees team photographer James Petrozzello, spent more than an hour with Shula at his house in Indian Creek, Florida.
I interviewed Shula in his home office, which was nearly as awe-inspiring as the man himself. Shula and I sat in two captain’s chairs in front of his oak desk. A collection of game balls are on display on mahogany shelves that stretch from the floor to the ceiling behind the desk. Shula’s two Super Bowl trophies (from 1972 and 1973) and the coach’s Hall of Fame bust are also located behind the desk.
In the early part of the interview, which will be published in the July Issue of Yankees Magazine, Shula and I discussed his 1972 Dolphins, who defeated the New York Football Giants at the old Yankee Stadium to improve their record to 13-0.
“Our players were awed by playing at Yankee Stadium,” Shula said. “I felt the same way.
“I knew it was going to be a tough day for us because the fans were so close to the field and because the field conditions were muddy,” Shula continued. “We relied heavily on the speed of Mercury Morris and Paul Warfield, so I preferred a fast track. We had to go in there and beat the Giants on a day that was anything but ideal for us. That made it all the more special. Going undefeated is something that had never been done before, and it hasn’t been done since 1972. One of the biggest thrills from that season was going into Yankee Stadium.”
I also asked Shula to discuss Joe DiMaggio and George Steinbrenner, both of whom the coach had friendships with.
“When I first got to Miami in 1970, I joined the country club that Joe was a member at,” Shula said. “My locker was right next to Joe’s, and that was pretty neat. “He was a true gentleman, and I admired him for the 56-game hitting streak and for all of his other accomplishments with the Yankees. The thing I really loved about Joe was the way he played centerfield. He wasn’t the fastest guy around, but he seemed to glide to where the ball was. He had a great arm, and he threw out a lot of guys who were trying to get extra bases.”
When I asked Shula if he would have liked to coach DiMaggio, his ear-to-ear smile spoke louder than his words.
“Yes,” Shula said emphatically. “He would have fit right into my way of doing things. He was a winner in every sense of the word.”
Shula then shared his favorite memory of Steinbrenner.
“I invited George to have dinner with me on the opening night of Shula’s Steak House in New York City,” the coach said. “He took me up on the offer, and we had a great time together. I will always remember that evening, because he couldn’t have been nicer. As an owner, George upheld the highest standards of baseball.”
The last question of the interview was one that I had always wanted to ask Shula. I asked the man who was a role model to me to speak to the importance playing within the rules, being a dedicated parent and doing things the right way — the core beliefs that I had long admired him for.
“I was taught that if you were willing to put a lot into something, you would get a lot in return,” Shula said. “When I got the opportunity to be a head coach at the age of 33, I had to gain the respect of the players I was coaching, so working hard and setting the right example was essential to making that happen.”
“Coaching is a very demanding profession,” Shula continued. “You work morning, noon and night, and you’re up half the night thinking about what happened the day before. But you have to remember how important family is. It’s important for your family to be on your side, and you have to be aware of all of the sacrifices they have to make when you’re an NFL coach. Being aware of that makes you’re family more united. I lot of good things have happened in my life, but my family is at the top of the list.”
A few seconds after the interview ended, Shula extended his hand and gave me a compliment I will never forget — and one that is rarely given to an interviewer by the subject of the interview.
“Great job,” the coach said.
As Shula walked to the other side of the desk to pose for a portrait that Petrozzello would be taking, the coach asked to see my World Series ring. I was honored that he was interested in seeing my ring up close, but I was even more anxious for the chance to hold his 1972 Super Bowl ring.
Shula wrestled the ’72 ring off his finger and handed it to me so that I could pose for the photo below, in which I am wearing his Super Bowl ring and my World Series ring.
Just as I won’t ever forget the lessons I learned from watching Shula do things the right way all those years, the memories of my time with the coach will also be permanently etched into my brain.
–Alfred Santasiere III