"I have been blessed," Don Shula said today. He counted the ways: three daughters in college; David married not long ago, and more recently signing on as his assistant; Michael a very good highschool quarterback whose games this season kept his father from going goofy during the National Football League strike; his almost completely recycled Dolphins back in the Super Bowl.
The Shula comet blasted off ever so long ago. Is he only 53? When most of the Hogs still were feeding from grammar-school troughs and John Riggins was an undergrad at Kansas, Shula was tagged with the most ignominious label in sports: can't win the big one. His Colts were the first team to lose a Super Bowl to a league spelled M-i-c-k-e-y M-o-u-s-e.
"That's what threw a wedge between (Carroll) Rosenbloom and myself," he revealed during a morning press conference. "A bittel pill to swallow. He had to pass that on (the 16-7 loss to the Jets in Super Bowl III), and I was the logical guy. That was one of the key things that hurt our relationship and led to me looking elsewhere."
To 17-0 one year and 15-2 the next, with back-to-back Super Bowl trophies to wave at Rosenbloom had there been a spare moment. To five teen-agers around the house at one time. To the sadness of former players unable to cope with life on the other edge of the sideline. To a sip of white wine now and then instead of several belts of scotch.
Shula may be a few steps closer to mellow, if a successful football coach ever can be that. But the business is "today and tomorrow." He might decide to look at all those yesterdays after next year, when his contract expires, though he says there still is excitement prowling the field each week.
With this school of Dolphins, he is less likely to jump into a shower already occupied by an alligator.
"A 3 1/2- to four-footer," said the ancient guard, Bob Kuechenberg. "Nobody would admit to putting it there. But if you asked Manny Fernandez and Larry Csonka they could tell you exactly who put it there."
Shula enjoys a good story, though at the time he hardly relished the one Paul Brown tells on him.
During a league meeting in Hawaii, Shula was walking off the court after a morning tennis game when a young Islander crossed his path. As Brown relates it, the conversation went:
"You're with the NFL, right?"
"Yes," said Shula, puffing out his chest.
Relaxed this week, or giving that appearance, Shula joked that he might hire one of George Allen's "sun spotters" before Sunday's game with the Redskins. That was a reference to his last Super Bowl against Washington, when Allen boasted his planning was so meticulous that it included a report on the angle of the midafternoon sun in Los Angeles Coliseum.
Shula's lines were superior that week in 1973, on and off the field. To a question about the Redskins' spying, Shula said he'd seen no one suspicious, although a little old lady pushing a boby carriage by practice one day seemed to resemble Redskins aide Charley Winner.
Winner now works for the Dolphins.
"Guess I'll have him spy on them this week," Shula joked.
Shula would have enjoyed that 10-year reunion with the characters who beat the Redskins in Super Bowl VII, had there been time. But the regular-season routine could not be interrupted. That now includes working closely with assistant coach David Shula.
"There have been some moments that I've really enjoyed recently," father Shula said.
Michael is being heavily recruited and the living-room scenes must be wonderful for an outsider to behold: a slick pitchman glancing at that famous jaw set even firmer and all of a sudden fumbling his set speech.
"Dorothy (his wife) is the stumbling block," Shula said. "She gets those college coaches in there and has a list of things (discipline, attitude toward drugs, etc.) she wants covered. When she gets that list out, I leave the room."
What does Shula see as Shula's greatest coaching asset?
"A good awareness about me. Of what's going on. A football awareness, a feeling for players and coaches."
He was very aware of his fate had the Redskins won 10 years ago.
"I got this in the back of my mind, that if we end up 16-1 I get buried," he said, "as the coach who can't win the big ones. That's the last thing you want said about you. And there were some people prepared to say that. One guy, who's not around any more, had it all written."
This is Shula's fifth Super Bowl; a smarty noted his record and called him "just another.500 coach."
"The thing you hate to see," Shula said, joining the laughter, "is what happens to the losing team after the game. They're dropped, slide right back to the other 26. They become the 27th in a hurry."
After beating the Vikings in Super Bowl VIII, after beating the Redskins in Super Bowl VII, Shula thought there was a chance to really make history. Then the World Football League swooped in and grabbed Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Paul Warfield; the Dolphins did not win another playoff game until this season.
"But he never dwelled on any negatives," said Redskins General Manager Bobby Beathard, Shula's director of player personnel at the time. "He just went right back to work. Same thing when (Bob) Griese broke his leg (during the '72 regular season).
"I hadn't been around him very long then, and my first reaction would have been, 'Oh, no!' He just said, 'Hey, Earl (Morrall) goes in and we're gonna win.' Joe Gibbs (the Redskins' coach) is a lot like that. With their teams, even if they're behind, you have a feeling they're gonna win."