MIAMI -- It happened over and over. Don and Dorothy Shula would be at a party, and by his way of thinking, it was time to leave. Had been 15 minutes ago, in fact. There was always film to look at, plays to diagram, and the Miami Dolphins coach for the past 21 years has never been much on parties or patience.
So Shula would pull his wife toward the door, parting the sea of people who wanted to talk to them. His arm would strain for the doorknob. But it never got there.
"Dorothy smiled at everyone and she talked to everyone," Shula remembered recently, sitting in his office. "I'm pulling her by the arm, and she says, 'We've got time, Don. We've got time.' Dorothy never was much on clocks."
There wasn't enough time, really. Not in the end. Dorothy Shula battled breast and lung cancer for six years before dying at home in February, her family gathered around her, just as she had wanted. She was 57.
Sunday, against Buffalo, Shula will coach the first one of his 442 pro games knowing he won't return home to Dorothy, to whom he was married for 32 years. He has busied himself even more than usual with work recently. It's easier to cope that way.
Shula, 61, thinks her death has mellowed him, taught him more about the importance of family. It's hard to express that for a coach whose usual expression is a grimace. He is a man who, as son Mike said, "is very quiet with his emotions."
But Shula is trying. "A lot of things are said now that used to be unsaid," said Donna Jannach, the second-oldest of the Shulas' five children. "He tells us he loves us a lot more. And we tell him. He's taking what was always Mom's responsibility, keeping up with each one of the children, and juggling that along with football."
Dorothy was good for Shula. His wife got him to think about
things other than the Dolphins and who they were playing that week. She caught him up on the kids' school plays and Little League games, sat with him when he ate his late dinners, played gin rummy with him, teased him. The jaw and the stare that scared so many players didn't intimidate her -- she knew what drawer he kept his underwear in, for gosh sakes.
And she knew how much football meant to her husband, from the beginning after they met in a bowling alley -- the big hangout in their hometown of Painesville, Ohio. When she went to teach in Hawaii for a year after they had dated awhile, Shula began pining for her.
"Absence does make the heart grow fonder," he said. "I first knew then that's true."
And so he wrote her a letter. The first page detailed the latest football news -- he was a college assistant at Virginia back then. On page two, in the second paragraph, he asked her to marry him.
Dorothy accepted by letter as well. They were married in 1958.
On their honeymoon, in Wildwood, N.J., they were on a walk when he asked his dark-haired, blue-eyed wife to backpedal for him. This became one of Dorothy's favorite stories.
As she once recalled it: "I thought he was kidding. But he wasn't." So she jogged backward a few steps, looking puzzledly at her husband.
"In football, you have to do a lot of backpedaling," Shula explained. "I just wanted to see what your moves were like so I'd have an idea of how our children will be as football players."
Dorothy Bartish taught Don to dance on their first date. She made him feel "more confident and better-looking," as he puts it. They were from the same place, even went to the same elementary school, but she was four years younger. Dorothy was an only child -- her mother had died in childbirth and she was raised by her grandmother. Shula was the third-oldest in a family of six.
Within seven years, they had five kids of their own. Shula coached in four different places during that time, stepping up the ladder before landing his first head coaching job, at Baltimore at age 33. He said at her funeral:
"The word came across that we were a sexy couple, and I couldn't hold a job."
As Shula continued the work habits that should eventually make him the winningest coach in pro football (he needs 28 victories to pass George Halas), it fell to Dorothy to raise the family. She volunteered in a number of community organizations and taught a little -- she had a degree in music education from Ursuline College in Cleveland. But most of her time was spent with the kids.
"I couldn't be there as much as I wanted, but Dorothy was always great with that," Shula said. He paused then. Occasionally, the death hammers him again, unexpectedly.
"That's the big concept I can't understand," Shula, a devout Catholic who goes to Mass every morning, said slowly. "I feel so sorry for her being cheated out of the grandmother role. She could never wait to get to those grandkids . . . and enjoy them."