The season before I started covering the Bills for the Times Herald (1972), Miami became the only team in National Football League history to go unbeaten.
Indeed, that campaign didn’t end until my TH career began, the Dolphins clinching their 17-0 record with a 14-7 victory over Washington in Super Bowl VII on Jan. 14, 1973 in the L.A. Coliseum.
That accomplishment impressed me, especially since Miami tiptoed through the playoffs beating Cleveland, 20-14, and winning the AFC Championship, 21-17, in Pittsburgh to make the Super Bowl.
It also encouraged me that the team I would be covering, Buffalo, gave the Dolphins their toughest game of that season, a tense 24-23 win at the Orange Bowl.
Of course, as the years have passed, that ‘72 season has become the source of annoyance to a legion of pro football fans, including me. Forty-eight years have taken a number of members from that roster, but the survivors annually gather for a toast as soon as the last NFL team loses its first game of a given season. It’s an act of self-aggrandizement that shows neither class nor dignity from what many see as a group of miserable old men celebrating what happened nearly a half-century ago.
BUT I NEVER included Don Shula as part of that tribute to self-praise, rather seeing him as a victim of the insistence from his most successful team.
The Dolphins’ legendary coach died Monday in Miami at age 90, 24 years after coaching his last game.
Unlike many Bills fans who, for years, felt Shula benefited from officiating calls because he was part of the NFL’s Competition Committee, I didn’t ever blame him. Did the Dolphins get breaks? It would seem so. But it was my view that officials were so intimidated by the square-jawed, no-nonsense Shula that they were super-cautious with their calls.
He also impressed me in my first contact with him.
It was October of 1973 and my first time in the Orange Bowl, a certified dump even then, and the Dolphins had beaten Buffalo, 27-6. After the game — there was no interview room back then — at Shula’s instance, he met with the print media first, then did his session with the broadcast people. That press awareness and appreciation of the written word got my attention.
To be sure, for years Shula owned the Bills. Buffalo lost the first 14 games I covered against Miami, part of a then-NFL record 20-straight defeats. Indeed, until midway through the 1986 season, the Bills were 3-24 against the Dolphins on my watch.
But when Marv Levy arrived, I joked that if he didn’t own Shula, he at least had an option to buy.
Marv, who was 17-5 against the NFL’s all-time leader in coaching victories, always argued that he had the better team ... at times during that span, Buffalo fielded five Hall of Famers. And Levy’s admiration for him was abundantly obvious when he wrote a back-page tribute piece for Sports Illustrated after Shula’s retirement following the 1995 season.
HOWEVER, I’m not the only one with memories of the Dolphins’ iconic coach.
A retired friend and a long-time member of our fantasy football league, which is about to celebrate its 40th anniversary, shared his own via email:
My story is from the early 70s when a good friend of mine, Mike Scarry Jr., in East Hartford, Conn., got two tickets every year to the games the Dolphins played at the Jets and Patriots. He got them from his dad (Mo) who was the defensive line coach for Miami at the time.
For four years he was nice enough to have me join him, and, in a day-trip, we would drive the 100 miles one way to the New York City and Foxboro stadiums.
One year his dad suggested we stay overnight at the Dolphins hotel outside of Boston, and he would get us in on the team dinner Saturday night. The hotel room was kind of expensive for my budget, but the meal made it worth it … it was a feast. All the Miami players were there in coat and tie. While we were at our table with Mike’s dad, Coach Shula came by to welcome us and shake our hands. He was very gracious, and invited us to join him the next morning for the Catholic Mass in the hotel chapel. Mike’s dad was also a devout Catholic and he said it would be nice if we did as Shula suggested, which I was quite happy to do.
There were several players in attendance along with some coaches, and the service was by a priest who traveled with the team. During the service, the first Bible reading was done by Bob Griese, who, out of uniform, looked more like a member of the choir than a pro football player. Then Coach Shula took the pulpit and did a very respectful job on the second reading. It was one of the nicest Masses I’ve ever attended. The priest never did entreat the Lord to help his team, but as usual back then, the Dolphins beat the Pats.
Shula was a class act, and his team activities and how he treated us, reflected that.
(Chuck Pollock, a Times Herald senior sports columnist, can be reached at email@example.com)