Hall of Fame coach Don Shula died on Tuesday at the age of 90. One of his Hall of Fame pupils took the loss harder than he thought he would.
“I was out cutting brush in a field, and my wife Audrey called me and said Coach had passed,” former Dolphins running back Larry Csonka told reporters on Tuesday. “I never really knew until that moment how close that rascal had really got to me, until he was gone. Unfortunately through the course of my life, losing parents and different loved ones, you realize after they’re gone how much more they meant to you than what you realized when they were here. I hope I can be better at that in the future because I felt a terrible loss. I felt like someone very close to me and my family had passed.”
Csonka was struck by Shula’s mindset, even if Csonka wasn’t truly a fan of the approach until it produced a perfection season in 1972.
“Coach Shula was such a rock,” Shula said. “He was . . . so exact in his feelings, so totally 100 percent, ‘This is the way it is.’ You drew off that strength when you were around him without even realizing it. Sometimes I resented him for it. More often than not, I resented him for it. I muttered with the rest of the players. ‘This is too much, too long, too hot, too everything,’ but the result was perfection. One time. One time in the course of 100 years, one team made every play it had to make during the course of a season to attain perfection. One time. And we were lucky enough to be with that. Now that doesn’t reflect the entirety of his career obviously, but it is a little microcosm of what he was about — that kind of dedication — and once we learned that in ’72, then I never questioned him again.”
Csonka wondered aloud where Shula and other former football people go when they pass. Csonka has an idea, one that is bad news for the players and coaches who were already there.
“I don’t know where old NFL players go,” Csonka said. “I don’t know – Lombardi, coaches, great players, all the great ones – where are they? Where do they go after they die? Well, I’d like to believe they go to heaven. But I’ll tell you, if they ship the football players off and the coaches off to a certain place, wherever that place is, tonight there is going to be one hell of a lightning bolt hit it because Shula is going to arrive and things are going to change.”
Csonka and a teammate once sparked a different kind of lightning bolt with a prank they pulled on their coach.
“Manny Fernandez and I decided to go fishing the day after a game — an exhibition game,” Csonka said. “We went out and Manny Fernandez, while we were fishing — Manny was a defensive tackle for us — and he said, ‘Csonk, there’s a gator over on the shore with babies,’ and I said, ‘Yeah, I don’t want any part of it.’ And he said, ‘You know, I can catch one of those,’ and I said, ‘Manny, I don’t think you can catch a baby alligator. You’re going to lose fingers or a leg or the mama’s going to get you. That’s going to be a bad situation.’ He said, ‘No, I’m telling you. I could do it.’
“And with that, Manny jumped over out of the boat, went up on the bank, went into the bushes — it was like something in a movie. There was tumbling and screaming and growling and pretty soon Manny Fernandez came walking out of the bushes with a baby alligator about, I don’t know, two-and-a-half, three feet long. [Manny] walked over, threw it in the boat and I jumped out of the boat.
“To make a long story short, we took it back to camp. We were going to put it in the pond out front. On the way back to camp, we got the idea that we thought it’d be pretty funny to put it in Shula’s shower. He had a separate shower than the team, devoted to coaches, of course. We thought that would be kind of humorous so we took a vote and [putting it in the shower] won by one vote [and] that we would tape the gator’s mouth shut just in case it got ahold of him in the shower. We didn’t want to lose him entirely. So we taped its nose shut and put it in the shower, and he came out and saw it and came into the locker room and was raising cain and headed straight for me, but I saw him coming so I jumped out the side door and Jim Kiick took the brunt of the abuse for the alligator in the shower.
“But the good thing about Shula — the great thing about Shula — was his intensity with anything connected with football, but on a thing like the alligator, he had a great sense of humor, he appreciated that and he had a good laugh about it.”
Shula led the Dolphins to a pair of Super Bowl wins, and three straight Super Bowl appearances. The run began in only Shula’s third season with the team, and in only the second after the AFL merged with the NFL.