Wednesday, September 11, 2019

SHULA :: Mark Ribowsky

A version of this review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness and is republished here with permission.

When Don Shula was in junior high school, his hardworking Hungarian-immigrant parents refused to let him play football after he tore his nose open in a game. Undeterred, Shula forged his parents' signatures on the permission slip, and kept playing. The determined 11-year-old didn't become the priest his family hoped he would, but not even he imagined playing and achieving Hall of Fame status as a coach in the National Football League.

Mark Ribowsky, biographer of sports and music personalities (Dreams to Remember), details the "lantern-jawed" stalwart's five decades of football in Shula: The Coach of the NFL's Greatest Generation. Shula's career had more than adequate peaks to overshadow the valleys, but Ribowsky does not gloss over the "failures" that provided grist for the success mill and forged Shula's process of gritty, old-school discipline and grinding. An undefeated season coaching the Baltimore Colts went famously sideways in Super Bowl III, when the heavily favored Colts fell prey to Broadway Joe Namath's outlandish guarantee that his Jets team would win.

After losing another championship coaching the Miami Dolphins in 1972, Shula finally got a Super Bowl ring, and an as-yet-unmatched perfect season, in 1973. Ribowsky provides superb particulars about that game (and many others), including Shula's wife cold-cocking a rude fan and his watch being stolen off his wrist as his players hoisted him in victory. Comprehensive and straight-shooting about Shula's persona and career, touching on cultural influences of race, drugs and politics, Shula is a treasure trove of insight on one of the game's greats.

STREET SENSE: I love a biography that doesn't universally glow about the subject. We all have our shittiness. Ribowsky does a great job of that here. Shula was a big part of the football I watched as a kid and back in my day we rarely saw or knew much about the "off-the-field" persona (at least vastly diminished from today). I came away from this book with mixed feelings about Don Shula. His was a different age in so many ways, making it hard to "judge" by today's standards. No one can doubt he was driven and to many a great coach. I balked at some of the religion and (of course) resultant hypocrisy. But complex human beings are fascinating and Ribowsky kept me fairly riveted.

COVER NERD SAYS:  Simple, but I like it. When you have a face as recognizable as Shula's you don't have to get very fancy to hit/find your audience. A good, old-timey photo and font in Dolphin colors. Done. If there's any doubt, the well-placed yet still unobtrusive subtitle does the trick (even though I take issue with the subtitle's text, which doesn't really compute when you sit and think about it - so don't).

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About Malcolm Avenue Review

I was lucky enough to be born and raised in a nifty, oak-shaded ranch house on Malcolm Avenue, a wide-laned residential street with little through traffic, located amid the foothills of Northern California. It was on that street and in that house I learned most of my adolescent life lessons, and many grown-up ones to boot. Malcolm Avenue was "home" for more than thirty years.

It was on Malcolm Avenue, through and with my family and the other families that made up our neighborhood of characters, that I first learned about and gained an appreciation for the things I continue to love the most to this day: music, animals, photography, sports, television/movies and, of course, books.

I owe a debt of gratitude to that life on Malcolm Avenue. It gave me a sense of community and friendship, support and adventure. For better and worse, life on that street likely had the biggest impact on the person I've become. So this blog, and the things I write here, are all, at their base level, a little bit of a love letter to Malcolm Avenue.


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