Dolphins fans knew Don Shula for his success on the field. But those blessed to see Shula off the field knew that he was every bit as successful in his Catholic faith. He just wouldn’t show it.
“What impressed me the most was that he did not lord it over people,” said Father Juan Sosa, pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Miami Beach, where Shula attended the last 10 years of his life. Father Sosa anointed the legendary coach the morning that he died, May 4, 2020.
“He was a great symbol for Miami, but he didn’t overdo it. He knew how much he was respected and loved. But he did not draw from that fame, but rather the love of children and grandchildren and his wife,” Father Sosa said.
He recalled how Shula told him that Father John Francis Dearden (later cardinal archbishop of Detroit) influenced him almost to the point of entering the seminary. But the Church’s loss was football’s gain. Shula coached the National Football League’s Baltimore Colts (1963-69) and Miami Dolphins (1970-95), leading the teams to six Super Bowls. The Dolphins won twice, including a perfect 17-0 record in the 1972 season. His 347 victories are an NFL best.
After retiring as head coach, the Pro Football Hall of Famer served as a vice president in the Dolphins organization until 2016. He is survived by wife Mary Anne (married in 1993); sons David and Mike; and daughters Donna, Sharon and Anna. His first wife, Dorothy Shula, died of breast cancer in 1991.
Father Sosa and several others recalled how Shula would attend Mass every day. The priest said Shula also would lend his presence to several galas to raise funds for St. Joseph projects, including a scholarship for students going to an archdiocesan high school.
“He would sign anyone’s program or get a picture with them,” Father Sosa said. “He said, ‘What should I charge from now on so the church could get the money?’”
Jan Bell, director of St. Thomas University’s Sports Administration Program from 1985 to 2016, also recalled Shula’s faith and presence on campus. The Dolphins practiced daily on the St. Thomas campus (then known as Biscayne College) from 1970 to 1992. She mentioned that while Shula was a bigger-than-life figure, he would walk the campus in an unassuming way.
“If you didn’t know who he was, you’d never have known he was an undefeated coach,” Bell said. “He was like a regular person.”
Bell was a Maryland native who followed Shula when he was coaching the Baltimore Colts, so she continued her admiration in Miami. She said that after the Dolphins left, Shula still came back frequently to support the university.
“He would support us, because he pretty much grew up at St. Thomas as a coach,” Bell said. “He never forgot that.”
One benefit of the Dolphins practicing at St. Thomas was that Shula could attend daily Mass at the nearby Marian Center with the Sisters of St. Joseph Benedict Cottolengo.
Sean Clancy, a Dolphins linebacker from 1978 to 1979, said that Sister Lucia Ceccotti at the Marian Center heard that Shula had a fine fund for players who committed various infractions — late for meetings, missed weight targets, running a wrong route in practice, etc. She asked him what the fund was for; when Shula said it was for charity, she asked that the Marian Center School be the recipient.
Clancy said that Shula’s faith pervaded the Dolphins. Whenever the team would travel, the Dolphins had a chaplain with them. Shula would set up a hotel ballroom for a team Mass on game day.
He noted Shula was a family man, and players wanted to emulate that example in the community. “He was almost like a father figure to me,” said Clancy, who came to the Dolphins after being drafted out of NCAA Division III Amherst College.
“I was petrified as a rookie,” he said. “He could lose his temper in a second if you didn’t do something properly. At the same time, he had great warmth. He became a real grandfatherly figure. He took great pride in (our) accomplishments.”
Clancy, like Shula a parishioner at St. Joseph, said he related to his former coach in a few ways. Clancy has a special-needs son, while Shula had a special-needs grandchild. Clancy serves on several archdiocesan boards, while Shula supported Miami Country Day School and the Miami Project run by former Hall of Fame linebacker Nick Buoniconti.
“He set the bar very high,” Clancy said. “They were standards we all tried to live by. You wanted to make coach proud.”
Funeral services were private. The Shula family said they would like to hold a public memorial at a date when it is safe to do so. Also, the Dolphins said they will hold a public tribute for Shula when health conditions allow.