MIAMI -- Dorothy Shula, wife and mother in pro football's most famous coaching family, died yesterday afternoon at her home after a long struggle with cancer. She was 57.
"She went peacefully, thank God," Don Shula said. "It was about as peaceful as it could be. She went into a coma and just drifted away. Thank God everybody was here, all the five children. That's what she wanted."
Dorothy and Don Shula, the Miami Dolphins' head coach since 1970, were married in 1958. Their five children include two NFL assistant coaches in David, who recently moved from the Dallas Cowboys to the Cincinnati Bengals, and Mike, of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Mrs. Shula also is survived by daughters Donna Jannach, Sharon Shula and Annie Shula, and by five grandchildren.
"She's always been there for all of them," Don once said. "I'm so proud of what her love has meant to this family."
Worsening health prevented Mrs. Shula from attending Dolphins games this past season and weighed heavily upon her husband as he led Miami into the playoffs for the first time since 1985.
"Any time you anticipate death, when the final moment comes, it's always a very sad moment," said longtime Shula assistant coach John Sandusky. "She fought it for a long time. They were a rough couple of years, but she held up well. She was tough."
Breast and lung cancer rendered Mrs. Shula increasingly bedridden, but did little to erode a resilient spirit augmented by an easy smile.
"We haven't had to fight the battle she has had to fight," David told a hushed audience at a 1987 Broward Booster Club tribute to his mother. He turned to her, and pinched back tears. "When I feel down and sorry for myself, I think of your fight with cancer. I don't think I could have matched it."
David was a member of Miami's staff in 1988 when the Dolphins played against Tampa Bay and son Mike. For whom would she cheer?
"There isn't any answer to my feelings this week," Dorothy said then, smiling. "I'm just happy that all three of the men in my immediate family are able to do exactly what they want to do in life."
A $100-a-plate dinner benefiting the American Cancer Society last August was one of Dorothy Shula's last public appearances. She spoke that night about the need for cancer research.
"Talk about courage," her husband said later. "This is what it's all about."
Former Dolphins quarterback Bob Griese, who lost his own wife to cancer, called Dorothy "a jewel," and "the best-kept secret" in the Shula clan.
Dorothy Shula was a woman who laughed easily, a doting mother whom family members recall for her extraordinary love. Her illness was a mostly private crisis.
"It pinpoints the parts of your life that are most important," Don had said after missing three days of training camp in 1989 to attend his wife's surgery.
Her struggle was well known to those closest to the coach, including many of his assistant coaches, players and their wives.
"She had a warmth about her that reminded me a lot of my mother," said Karen Olivadotti, wife of Dolphins defensive coach, Tom. "She had a warmth that radiated and made you feel very comfortable around her. It showed in her eyes and in the way she greeted people."
Fullback Tony Paige's mother, who died of cancer in 1986, had written a book about her fight; Paige gave a copy to his coach, for Dorothy. Following a playoff loss at Miami this past December, Kansas City coach Marty Schottenheimer -- he and wife, Patty, had grown close to the Shulas over the years -- alluded to Dorothy Shula in a post-game news conference when he said, "There are more important things going on in this stadium" than football.
That night, after his first playoff triumph in five years, Shula raised a triumphant fist to family members in a sky box, although her illness kept Dorothy from being there. Shula called it one of the most emotional moments of his life.
Dorothy and Don were natives of Painesville, Ohio. Her mother died as she was born, and so Dorothy Bartish was raised by her father and grandmother. She earned a degree in music education from Ursuline College in Cleveland, but gave up a teaching career to marry Don when he was an assistant coach at the University of Virginia. The proposal and acceptance were by letter, while she was teaching Spanish, social studies and English in Hawaii. Her love of teaching lingered; she briefly interned as a counselor at Hialeah-Miami Lakes High and similarly served at Norland High.
"I love being with teachers and I love meeting kids," she had said. "I love the smell of schools."
But Dorothy Shula's husband and family were her priority. And vice versa. Rare was the career decision that Don made without speaking first with Dorothy.
Shula wrote in "The Winning Edge," his 1973 biography co-authored with Lou Sahadi: "Dorothy has always been the most important person in my life. Whenever the big decisions had to be made, we would sit down and discuss all aspects of the situation, and time after time she would always be there with the right answer. It was never, 'How can I leave my friends or the house?' but 'If you think it's the thing to do, let's do it.' "
Mrs. Shula's acquiescence to her husband's consuming profession was a skill she sometimes shared with the wives of players.
"When they get home, let them have the peace they want," she would tell wives. "They work hard, study hard. If they're going to be winners in football, their minds have to be on it. If it's something you would argue about, save it for after the season."
She acknowledged that being a coach's wife could be a "very lonesome job," but she was seldom isolated from the emotion of competition.
"Right now, she's in a better place," Sandusky said. "Any football coach's wife would be in a better place in heaven. They suffer through any losses we have, but they don't get the adulation coaches and players get when we win."
Mrs. Shula was active in various charities and organizations, including the American Heart Association of Greater Miami, the Epilepsy Foundation of South Florida, the American Cancer Society, the Sports Society (a group that promoted female athletics) and the Miami Archdiocese Council of Catholic Women.