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High Schools | ERIC SONDHEIMER

This Shula Didn't Fall Far From Family Tree

January 01, 2002|Eric Sondheimer

Shulas are as beloved in Florida as Kennedys are in Massachusetts and Bushes are in Texas.

Credit the family's patriarch, Don Shula, who coached the Miami Dolphins for 26 seasons, won two Super Bowls and whose 1972 team finished 17-0. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1997 as the winningest coach.

So imagine the scrutiny his grandson, Dan, endured this season playing quarterback for St. Thomas Aquinas High at Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Forget whether he was a good passer. His last name raised expectations to the stratosphere.

"It's something you have to learn to deal with," Dan said. "I think I have."

Dan, a left-hander, has a 4.65 grade-point average and passed for a school-record 316 yards in the state championship game, which his team lost, 28-20.

He'll share quarterback duties with the highly recruited Gavin Dickey of Tallahassee Lincoln in the CaliFlorida Bowl on Wednesday at 2:30 p.m. at El Camino College.

Dan's father, David, coach of the Cincinnati Bengals from 1992 to '96, has flown in for the game. His uncle, Mike, quarterback coach of the Miami Dolphins, will watch on television.

But no one's feeling more excited than grandfather Don.

"I'm very proud of him," Don said. "He's handled everything very mature-like. He's done so well. It was a great year watching high school football. I think I've enjoyed watching my grandkids more than anything. You could see [Dan] growing in confidence through the year."

Dave Wilson, coach of the Florida team, said he asked Dan about Shula family gatherings around the holidays.

"Do you all talk about anything but football?" he asked Dan.

"Yeah, we talk about what we're going to eat," Dan said.

From watching video of opposing teams at home with his father, to calling his uncle for quarterback questions, Dan has plenty of experts ready to offer help.

He has been exposed to behind-the-scenes experiences most teenagers can only dream about. He remembers attending Bengal practices and games, hanging out in the locker room, seeing how players interacted and learning the secret to football success.

"It's a lot of hard work," he said. "You can't just go out there and run up and down the field."

Shulas don't only learn from Shulas.

Former Dolphin quarterback Bob Griese provided Dan with invaluable insight two years ago as they watched a game between the Denver Broncos and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Griese asked how Dan's high school season was going.

"I have seven touchdown passes and three interceptions, but the three interceptions weren't my fault because the receivers dropped the ball," Dan said.

"How many of the touchdowns were the receivers' fault?" Griese said. "How many times did you have a five-yard pass and the receiver took it 70 yards for a touchdown?"

Dan felt embarrassed.

"To this day, I think about it," Dan said. "It really made me think more about my teammates. All I do is throw the ball. They make the plays."

Dan, who passed for 1,893 yards and 16 touchdowns last season for his 14-1 team, has college visits set up for Dartmouth and Harvard.

"I try to use my head and football instincts because I'm not going to beat anybody with my physical skills," he said.

He understands why so many people admire his grandfather as a coach, but that's not how he views him.

"I [think] of him as a grandfather," he said. "He showed me there's another side of football. He loved it, but he's having fun being retired.

"He's shown me a lot about respecting people and being honest, good moral qualities everyone needs."

Football has given the Shulas much joy, but also moments of despair.

Dan said his father's firing as Bengal coach was "probably one of the worst experiences of my life." Dan was 13 and trying to understand the highs and lows of the coaching profession.

"With all the losing seasons, I knew it wasn't all his fault," he said. "The initial shock was hard to deal with."

The family returned to Florida. David became president of Shula Steakhouses. The only coaching he does these days is for his youngest son's youth soccer team.

"My family is great," Dan said. "My dad's around a lot more and there's not as much pressure on him. He enjoys being around his three sons."

And what has Dan learned from being a Shula?

"There's good times and bad times," he said. "Don't get too high during the good times, don't get too low during the bad times.

"My grandfather had an undefeated season. You look at other stuff that's happened in my life and realize there's bad things as well. You have to fight through both."

*

Eric Sondheimer can be reached at eric.sondheimer@latimes.com.

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