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Don 3:16

Updated on August 3, 2022

“So may your way be known upon earth; among all nations, your salvation.” ~ Psalm 67

“We never missed Mass. Even today, I try to attend Mass every day. Attending Mass and looking to God for guidance aren’t just habits for me. They matter deeply. It makes a real difference to me when I start off each day by giving thanks and asking for help from God. There’s something good about kneeling down, asking for help, and listening for answers.”

You may be surprised to know that these were the words of the winningest coach in NFL History, Don Shula, who passed away earlier this week at the age of 90. Three straight Super Bowl appearances from 1971-1973 (emerging victorious in two of them), 6 Super Bowl appearances overall, and a .755 winning percentage as Head Coach of the Baltimore Colts before moving on to establishing the Miami Dolphins dynasty that he’s most known for. A man who authored “The Perfect Season” of 1972, a feat that has yet to be matched as we reflect upon it 48 years later.

Upon inevitably assuming his rightful place in the NFL Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, Shula remarked “You know it's only 50 miles from Grand River, where I was born, to Canton. . . but it took me 67 years to travel that distance.” Shula spent 6 years as a player in the NFL, manning the proverbial island as a defensive back for the Cleveland Browns, Baltimore Colts and Washington Redskins from 1951-1957. After retiring as a player, he swiftly began to climb the coaching ranks, moving from defensive backs coach, to defensive coordinator, to head coach in only 5 years. “I don't know any other way to lead but by example,” he would tell those who constantly asked him for his “secret.” He was cool, charismatic, pragmatic and witty, once saying “Sure, luck means a lot in football. Not having a good quarterback is bad luck.”

In “Everybody’s a Coach,” one of three books he authored, Shula revealed that he once considered becoming a Catholic Priest but decided he could not commit to being both a priest and a coach. Reflecting upon this, I can’t help but think of the many New York Jets fans I knew growing up who wish he would’ve indeed pursued the Sacrament of Holy Orders; Lord knows he sent many of them to the Confessional in repentance for their anger after he saddled their beloved Jets with yet another loss. I can imagine “Father Don” as the celebrant of a Wedding Mass. Shula himself was married to his first wife for 32 years until she succumbed to breast cancer, after which the Hall of Fame Coach immediately established the Don Shula Foundation for Breast Cancer Research. The father of five children, two of which went in to follow in their father’s footsteps and achieve the lofty accomplishment of being head coaches in the NFL. I can imagine him administering the Holy Eucharist at Mass or compassionately anointing the sick on their deathbed. There are many who almost surely needed someone to administer CPR on them during one particularly thrilling playoff game that he coached in on January 2nd, 1982, Shula’s Dolphins winding up on the wrong end of a thrilling 41-38 overtime loss to the San Diego Chargers in a game that to this day remains one of the most thrilling I’ve ever witnessed. His reeling Dolphins trailed 24-0 in the 1st Quarter before he staged a stunning comeback, even managing to take a brief lead in the 4th Quarter before the Lightning Bolts tied it up late and kicked the winning Field Goal in the day and age of “sudden death overtime.”

It’s amazing to reflect upon the impact Coach Shula must have had on the players he coached, his assistant coaches, all those he encountered throughout his life really. As we approach Pentecost Sunday, this year celebrated on the last day of May, we are reminded that the Holy Spirit moves in profound ways, and its presence permeates people and places that extend far beyond the walls of our sacred churches. Don Shula clearly took the task of evangelizing to heart, using his unique position as an elite NFL Head Coach to bring the sort of joy into the lives of others that is far more lasting that a late season, last minute victory over the Bills or the Patriots. Filled with the Holy Spirit, the eternal consequences of Don Shula’s Christ-centric life will far supersede anything he ever accomplished between the chalk.

In our 1st Reading today (Acts 12:24-13:5) we re-visit the very moment that Paul and Barnabas are commissioned in anticipation of their first missionary journey. As the week unfolds, we will read similar tales of evangelization (Acts 13:13-25, 26-33, and 44-52) as the man formerly known as Saul of Tarsus, previously a terrorist who murdered Christ’s followers ~ Saint Stephen perhaps the most famous of his victims ~ goes forth in the name of Jesus and converts countless people to Christianity. Paul’s story is every bit as fascinating, if not more so, than Don Shula’s. To label him a redemption story for the ages would be a cliched and vast understatement.
There’s an old expression and it’s so true: “Those who have been rescued, rescue others.“ This is to say that those who have experienced the healing power and love of God seek to bring this message to others. They talk about the God who saved them....who fights for them. How can you not?

In his essay “A Church That Fishes,” Father James Mallon, Vicar for Evangelization in the Diocese of Halifax and Pastor of Saint Benedict‘s Church, details some of the tactics he employed as the Diocese became more focused on the formation of what he likes to call Missionary Disciples. “So much is falling apart because of the revolutionary changes in our culture, and yet there is something new being reborn,” Father Mallon explains, going on to say “I think the Lord is preparing us to be a Church that can reach the world that we are called to reach. People are hungry for meaning, for love, for God. Many people look at the Church and do not see that it has anything to offer. But I believe we have the answer to their yearnings: it is Jesus Christ, who brings us to the Father through the power of the Holy Spirit.” In the latter stages of his quote, he essentially reinforces the Gospel message that we’ve been reflecting on for the last week or so, John 12:44-50 serving as the most obvious recent example.

Our paths to holiness and the eternal dwelling place that God wants to bestow upon us are infinitely diverse and divergent. Some are forged through martyrdom, others through parenthood, yet others by way of the NFL sidelines, or maybe via a small Diocese, a sparkling diamond in the crown that is the Church formed by Jesus, the likes of which resides in Halifax, Canada.

I’d like to close with the words of Jesus’ friend Peter, a passage that will be proclaimed via the 2nd Reading this Sunday. It speaks of our call to discipleship, of our need to fulfill our destiny as God’s beloved people:

“You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may announce the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” ~ 1 Peter 2:9


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