Colts pick-me-up was just lift younger Shula needed

John Steadman

December 30, 1991|By John Steadman

How this pro football odyssey began that led to David Shula becoming the youngest head coach in the National Football League goes back to the night the 1981 college draft was put to bed. The Baltimore Colts' office staff, led by general manager Dick Szymanski, decided it was time to put their work behind them, turn off the lights and go en masse to dinner.

The personnel director, scouts, assistant coaches and secretaries, along with Szymanski, went to Peerce's Plantation, a restaurant near Loch Raven Reservoir with a fantastic view and a reputation for having food to match. They ordered drinks and began the inevitable review of what had transpired in the draft process and how fortunate they were to have taken Randy McMillan, a home-grown fullback who had played at Pitt, away from the Miami Dolphins.

Now Szymanski turned to Fred Schubach, the club's personnel director, and said, "Everybody will be chasing after free agents. I think weought to go after David Shula. It would be good for the club, the league and the Shula family."

Schubach reacted with enthusiasm. "That's a great idea," he replied. And within a matter of hours, David Shula, a record-setting pass receiver at Dartmouth and son of Don, a former Colts' player and coach, was signed to a contract.

Shula would have been selected in the draft, except he didn't have the speed so necessary for a wide receiver. Coach Mike McCormack, a friend of Shula The Coach, wasn't sure it was the best thing for Baltimore -- bringing the son of a rival to a training camp, where he could absorb the playbook, learn the check-off system and become totally indoctrinated.

Then if he came up short in ability, and was cut, he would go home to tell his father over dinner how the Colts' defenses handled a flood formation and other aspects of play that certainly wouldn't hamper the Dolphins when they met during the regular season. Although McCormack was against putting DTC himself and the Colts in that kind of a predicament, he eventually agreed with Szymanski and Schubach.

Not only that but McCormack let himself be influenced by the youngster's determination and kept him the entire season. It was an exhibition game in New Orleans where Shula went deep over the middle and made a leaping catch of a pass that would make any franchise highlight film. That got more of McCormack's attention, along with the way David applied himself.

"I always felt he knew how to make a team, to do the things that would impress a coach," said Schubach. "He busted his butt diving for balls and went all-out every play. That would catch any coach's eye and David did that in the Colts' camp, which is why he made the club."

The youngster played in all 16 league games, returning punts and kickoffs, and, oddly enough, never caught a pass. After he survived the final cut, Don said, "This is one of the happiest days of my life because David made the NFL." And then the Shulas, later in the season, became the first father/coach and son/player to face each other in NFL history.

It has now transpired, 10 years later, that the Cincinnati Bengals have made David the youngest head coach in the history of the league. David's late mother, Dorothy, always said son David was smarter than husband Donald, which was her natural prerogative, plus it was a statement that would be difficult to refute.

When David was a Colt, a reporter asked him what he thought about his future. "I'm not really sure," he answered. "I have taken my law school aptitude test. I'm thinking of the University of Maryland or the University of Baltimore. I enjoy being around football and coaching is a possibility, but I wouldn't give percentages on my chances of doing that."

So the Son of Donald followed the bouncing football to a coaching career. Schubach, now a highly respected scout for the Kansas City Chiefs, has another recollection. "When I was in charge of equipment, he was one of my helpers. He was only about 10 or 11 and well mannered. But here I was over 40 and he called me Fred just like I was one of his friends in school. I really got a charge out of that."

There was an occasion, too, when he was on a little league team called the Campus Hill Colts. They played a preliminary at Memorial Stadium prior to his father's team, the Colts, facing the Atlanta Falcons. When it was over, Schubach's son, Richard, said, "David [age 11] won't be able to help in the locker room today. He's over behind the bench crying. He's all broken up because his team lost."

Football has always been that important to a kid who maybe doesn't cry any more over the final score, but grew up knowing the price that's needed to win. Now he's coaching his own team and shaping another chapter in a career that finds him going about his father's business.

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