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Don Shula NFL Coaching Legend Background and NFL Playing Career

Don Shula is best remembered as the Super Bowl winning head coach of the Miami Dolphins. He also holds the record for most coaching wins in NFL history. He guided the Dolphins to a perfect 17-0 season in 1972.

DON SHULA HOMETOWN AND CHILDHOOD

Donald Francis Shula was born in Ohio in 1930.

Don Shula’s father, Dan, immigrated to America from Hungary as a six-year-old child. At the time, the family’s last name was Sule. The name changed to Shula while Dan Shula was in grade school.

Don Shula attended Harvey High School in Painsville, Ohio.

Shula cut his face while making a tackle one afternoon in football practice. His mother told him to give up the game. Shula later forged a signature on a permission slip to continue his football career.

He proved himself an all-around athlete at Harvey High. Shula played football, baseball, basketball and ran track. He earned 11 letters in high school athletics.

He led his high school football team to their first 7-win season. Although they didn’t win their conference, Shula made a game-saving tackle on an interception after he ran across field and through multiple blockers to knock a rival team out of contention. The opposing coach called it one of the greatest plays he had ever seen. Shula’s teammates knew right then and there that Shula would one day make a name for himself.

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DON SHULA COLLEGE

Don Shula played college football in nearby Cleveland at John Carroll University. His college teammates included future NFL player Carl Taseff. Shula also attended college with future Miami sportswriter Bill Braucher. Bill Braucher’s name is key to remember later in Shula’s story.

Shula played running back for the Blue Streaks and played well. He averaged 6.6 yards per carry and made all-conference. He even rushed for 175 yards in a single game.

The small school had access to the Cleveland Browns playbook and used it. That was one thing that helped Shula’s pro chances. The biggest push, however, likely came during the 1950 college football season.

John Carroll, a small non-major school that now competes in Division 3, scheduled a home game against mighty Syracuse. Nobody in their right minds gave John Carroll a chance to beat a team that had already trampled a solid Penn State team and owned a fine 5-2 record. Few people outside of Ohio had even heard of John Carroll. The team played most of its home games in a high school stadium.

Syracuse jumped out to a hardy lead and led 16-7 going into the fourth quarter. Taseff took command and scored two touchdowns in the final period to give the Blue Streaks as 21-16 upset victory over Syracuse. Taseff’s game-winning score came with under a minute left in the game.

Taseff had earlier thrown a pass for John Carroll’s other score. Shula reportedly ran for over 125 yards in the game. The upset made the front page of the New York Times Sports section and made headlines throughout the country.

That was the only game John Carroll didn’t play at Shaw High School that year. The game was at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium. One particular spectator took note of Taseff and Shula. That spectator’s name was Paul Brown, head coach of the Cleveland Browns.

DON SHULA NFL PLAYING CAREER

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The Cleveland Browns drafted Shula in the 9th round of the 1951 NFL Draft. The Browns also drafted Carl Taseff and future Pro Football Hall of Famer Art Donovan.

Donovan suffered a facial laceration in training camp when a teammate stepped on his face. The cut required over 50 stitches and Donovan missed considerable practice time. He didn’t make the team, but Don Shula did.

One day in camp Paul Brown noticed a rookie making a nice tackle against star Marion Motley. Brown called out to Taseff and told him that he made a great play. The rookie who actually made the tackle popped up and corrected Coach Brown – “The name’s Shula!” Don Shula shouted

Shula played defensive back for the Browns in 1951 and made four interceptions as a rookie. He had a fifth that he returned over 90 yards reversed by a penalty in a game against the Bears.

That game versus the Bears is famous for two reasons. First, Cleveland’s Dub Jones had a game for the ages and scored six touchdowns in Cleveland’s 42-21 win (only Ernie Nevers and Gale Sayers have equaled that mark in NFL history). Second, it’s the most penalized game in NFL history. The penalty that negated Shula’s interception was one of 21 called on the Browns that day.

Shula missed much of the 1952 season. The National Guard called him into active duty in January of 1952. He returned to the Browns in November.

He played two seasons for the Browns. The Browns made the NFL Championship Game (also called the World’s Championship) both years, although they lost both times.

1951 NFL CHAMPIONSHIP PHOTOS (Rams 24 — Browns 17)

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In March of 1953, the Browns traded Shula to the brand-new Baltimore Colts. The trade was a massive 15-player deal that sent future Hall of Famer Mike McCormack to the Browns. That trade was the largest player trade in NFL history until the Cowboys/Vikings Herschel Walker deal in 1989. As of 2020, it remains the largest trade that did not include draft choices in the number of players traded.

Shula played four years for the Colts, three under Hall of Fame coach Weeb Ewbank. He snagged 5 interceptions in two consecutive seasons. In the football history book The Game before the Money: Voices of the Men Who Built the NFL, Shula’s Colt teammate George Taliaferro said that players recognized that Shula would one day make an excellent coach.

Shula finished his playing career in Washington in 1957. A game against the Colts that year bordered on unfair. Hall of Fame quarterback Johnny Unitas and Hall of Fame receiver Raymond Berry both knew everything about Shula from facing him in practice every day during Shula’s Colt days. Berry racked up 224 yards receiving and two touchdowns in the Colts victory. Much of the yardage was on Shula’s watch.

Shula recognized his playing days were coming to a close.

A seven-year NFL career is nothing to sneeze at. Yet Shula’s days as a player are often forgotten. So are his days as an assistant coach at the college and pro level. We will cover that in our next post in this series. Turns out his assistant days own extremely important connections to his success in Miami.

Don Shula Career Playing Stats

Order The Game Before the Money book

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