How Don Shula Changed My Life

You know him as the winningest football coach in NFL history. For me, there was more to the story.

I always tell young aspiring journalists that reporting is an adventure. Yes, it's hard work, with brutal deadlines and long hours, often working in terrible conditions, bitter cold, blinding snow or driving rain.

But you get to go places and meet people you never thought you would meet.

And sometimes, those people lead you to life-changing discoveries. In my case, over 50 pounds worth.

In 2007, NBC 5 assigned me to cover the Chicago Bears in the Super Bowl in Miami. A wonderful assignment. (We'll skip the part about the actual football game, a rain-drenched disaster where the Bears were utterly humiliated by the Indianapolis Colts).

Preparing for the week, I sent out a feeler to the press representative for Don Shula, the legendary coach of the Miami Dolphins, a personal hero of mine whose achievements were still etched somewhere on a National Football League mountain because they were so astounding: winner of more games than any other coach in NFL history, the NFL record for games coached, winner of 10 or more games in 21 seasons, reached the playoffs 19 times, coach of the year three times.

And of course, coach of the only team in NFL history to go undefeated in an entire season -- the 1972 Dolphins.

It being Super Bowl week, and he being Don Shula, the press rep told me the schedule was incredibly full and that it was doubtful he could arrange it. But somehow the media gods interceded with their counterparts in the NFL, and I got a phone call after I arrived in Miami that the coach did have some time after all.

At the appointed time, my colleague Bud Stuchly and I traveled to Shula's hotel (yes, he had a hotel) in Miami Lakes. When we arrived at his office, the first thing I noticed was a massive box, waist-high, of footballs. NFL "The Duke" footballs. The coach received so many autograph requests, they had an industrial-level supply.

And of course, Super Bowl trophies.

So Bud picked up a few of those to dress the background in a conference room (I'm not sure if they were replicas, but hey, they were Super Bowl trophies!). The press rep asked if it was OK if the coach met in the same room for a few minutes with some officials from the NFL. He had a role in the pregame ceremony and they wanted to walk him through it.

Fine with us! So we sat on the sidelines as Shula walked in. The first thing I noticed was he appeared older than I expected. He moved slowly, almost haltingly. He greeted us, then sat down with the NFL guys as they walked him through the ceremony.

"So your role is, you will bring in the George Halas trophy during the pregame," they said. "That's great," Shula replied. "I was thinking, is it OK if I wear my Hall of Fame jacket?"

"Absolutely!" they said.

Took the words right out of my mouth. If I was in the NFL Hall of Fame I would wear that gold jacket every day. I would wear it to the grocery store, to the beach, to the movies, you name it.

The NFL guys left and it was time for the interview. Bud set the shot and started rolling. And instantly, age disappeared.

Don Shula became -- Don Shula.

He had a memory like a bank vault. He could remember moments from individual games, how much time was on the clock, how many yards to go, what play he called. He was jovial and happy and enthusiastic and loved telling the stories.

I had to ask him about the '85 Bears, the only Chicago team to take home one of those Halas trophies.

"Yes, let's see," he said. "Help me out. They only lost one game that season -- who was it again?"

The Miami Dolphins, of course.

"Right!" he laughed.

Former Miami Dolphins head coach and Pro Football Hall of Famer Don Shula has died at the age of 90.

We talked and talked and it was wonderful, but eventually we had to go and the interview had to end. I asked Bud to shoot some setup shots. And while he did I asked the coach if there was anything we missed that he had hoped to discuss.

"Yeah," he said. "You didn't ask me how I lost 30 pounds!"

And he proceeded to tell me about the diet plan he had been on that had worked incredibly well. I needed to lose weight too and asked him if he really thought it could work for somebody like me.

"You can do this!" he said.

Don Shula was telling me I could do it. The same coaching legend who stood on the sidelines of the Orange Bowl and said those same words to Bob Griese and Larry Csonka and Mercury Morris and Howard Twilley and Dan Marino was saying them to me.

"You can do this!"

So I did. After we got home, I ordered the food, went on the plan and the pounds started melting away. Every time I was tempted to backtrack, there was Don Shula in my head saying, "You can do this!" And I stayed with it.

And by June, I had lost 52 pounds.

It changed the way I ate. It taught me which foods were absolute killers for me. And it has stayed with me to this day.

Shula eventually became the national spokesman for that same plan in commercials on TV. I couldn't endorse it and of course, nobody would want me to. I didn't wear Super Bowl rings. And I don't know if it would work for everyone. But he was right. It worked for me.

When I heard the news that the great coach had passed away at the age of 90, a wave of emotions washed over me. I remembered watching those great Dolphin teams as a kid, knowing even then how important he was to the larger game.

But most of all, I remembered the amazing man during the NFL's biggest week, who took the time to sit down with two guys from Chicago and regale them with wonderful stories from the NFL, and how his eyes sparkled as he told them.

And I remembered those words he left me with at the end.

"You can do this!"

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