Memories of a Childhood Miami Dolphins Fan
The world lost one of the greatest coaches in the history of Professional Sports this week and for some, it will never be the same.
For some reason, the loss of Don Shula brought back a flood of childhood memories. Memories of a happier time and likely what made me the sports fanatic that I am.
With the understanding I'm probably giving away my age here---I was a young, young kid when I was introduced to professional football as a very young kid going to elementary school in Hollywood, Florida in the very early 1970's. My sister and I also went to summer camp and somehow we ended up doing lots of what were "Popular Things" in South Florida during that era.
The one which made the biggest impression on me? Going to see the Miami Dolphins practice. Sure, the impression made on an 8-year old seeing super large men running around a football field was huge and it shaped my love of the Dolphins, the team I grew up with and the team I continue to love until this day.
There were always opportunities to meet players at different events around town but for some reason, the one visit to the team practice always stands out, nearly 50-years later.
I can still smell the grass, hear the whistles and yelling at players. I can still feel the sweat because well, South Florida....it was never not hot or humid. The guy who caught my attention first, was the square jawed guy in the Bike Shorts moving from position group to position group overseeing and running everything.
At some point during our visit, Coach came over to our group and talked to us for a few minutes and to this day, I can remember the wide-eyed look and smile on my face when I got to say hello to him. He could not have been more courteous and kind.
But the guy was clearly in charge. Very clearly.
I began following every single thing going on with the Dolphins and got to meet several players of that era. I can remember walking into a shopping center in Hollywood, meeting then star Guard Larry Little. I still remember turning to my mom and saying "That's the biggest man I've ever seen". I remember reading and enjoying the stories about Larry Csonka and Jim Kiick, Quarterback Bob Griese and Defensive stars like Bill Stanfill, Nick Bunoconti and Manny Fernandez. They were South Florida royalty.
The love grew when my fathers company got season tickets for the Dolphin games. Yes, that's right, my first NFL game was at the Orange Bowl in Miami. Even then, it was an old stadium that felt like you were sitting on an eternal row of metal bleachers. At one point, one of our seats was behind a pillar that you had to look around in order to see the game.
What was odd was my father was never really into the games, he went because I enjoyed it so much, but he rarely watched when the Dolphins were on TV. It was almost always my mother and I who watched and talked about what was going on with our favorite team.
Not only was my love for the game growing---we actually went to a game during their 1972 "Perfect Season". Imagine that being your first exposure to a sport you grew to love.....
Coach Shula was an absolute icon in South Florida then, and forever for a reason. He was the one constant, the one thing that always seemed to will the Dolphins to a win. As I grew to understand the game and what it took to be successful at it, I realized it was about preparation, about discipline and about doing the job you were there to do.
Football is like that. Sports are like that. The best teams are always the ones who have players who stick to and execute their responsibilities more efficiently and better than the opponents, something Coach Shula always seemed to understand.
He won with Griese throwing 7 passes in a Super Bowl win. He won with Earl Morrall filling in for an injured Griese at QB. He won with Csonka and Kick and Mercury Morris running the ball. He won with a rookie Dan Marino flinging the ball all over the field and without a good Running Back. He just plain won.
Through it all, he was this iconic, larger than life figures who never seemed to show any signs of buying into all the adulation, he never made it about him, he was never the focus of attention despite being the only constant with the Dolphins.
No, I wasn't a part of any of those teams but I read and followed them voraciously. I had books and photos and lots of autographs. Back then, you could write a letter to teams and they would send you stickers and signed photos, as a grade school kid, it was the coolest thing you could possibly imagine.
Even now, I follow the Dolphins every game. I'm not, at this point in my life, the guy who blocks out the entire day on Sunday to watch NFL Football games. Honestly, as an adult, I never was. Sure, growing up, I could sit there and watch games all day, but the older I got, the less important it was to do. There were other things in life that could be done.
But yes, through books, through the early days of TV coverage and through personal appearances, the 70's versions of the Dolphins were what shaped my deep love of everything sport. Yes, for years I had a Dan Marino jersey that I would wear until it finally wore down 10 or so years ago. Yes, I still have a Dolphins cap and t-shirt both of which I wear on occasion.
Deep down, I think everyone who loves sport develops that love due to a person or team that shapes their image of what sport could or might be like. I'm pretty sure that's what I'm trying to express here. For me it was Shula and the Dolphins. For me it was what shaped my impressions, my thoughts and my love of sports.
And for everyone who knows me now as a much older adult, it probably also explains why I love the details about the game. The details of preparation, the execution and thought process on why and how things are done. I have never been the nutcase fan slavishly devoted to watching games, or letting the wins or losses determine my mood the rest of the day.
Sure, it was always better when my team won and back in the day--the Dolphins won a lot. It's been awhile since the team has had the success they had under Coach Shula and while I'd love to see that success return, it won't change my appreciation of what they do.
It's not exactly the constant striving for perfection that Shula preached. But you know what, that's ok and it sure the heck doesn't change how big an influence he and his team indirectly had in shaping my life and my love of Sports....
Thank Coach....there is less than a zero percent chance you could have known the influence you had on me, but it's an influence that I'll never forget...