Dave Hyde: Decades later, Shula and Griese have a friendship that transcends coach and quarterbackSun Sentinel — By Dave Hyde Sun Sentinel
April 20-- The quarterback, prepared as always, approaches the regular table at Gulfstream Park carrying two Daily Racing Forms detailing the day's horses. One is for him, the other for his waiting lunch date.
"Coach," Bob Griese says, "how you doing?"
"Robert," Don Shula says, his wheelchair off to the side, his shock of white hair perfectly combed, "I'm like the bottom of a stove ..."
"Oh, no," Griese says.
"Smoking hot," Shula says.
Griese rolls his eyes and reminds the coach he was given a new joke book a while back to update his material. Shula looks at Griese, deadpan, and raises his three middle fingers.
"Read between the lines," he says.
And so it begins again.
Forty-five years after leading the Dolphins to their Perfect Season, the coach and the quarterback meet for one of their regular afternoon dates in a restaurant overlooking the track with a menu that never changes:
Lunch. Five-dollar bets. Updates on children and grandchildren. And enough teasing, grousing, insulting and laughing to fill the good cup of their friendship.
Five minutes in, Griese pokes fun of a Shula health-care commercial and Shula shakes his head.
"It's hard to carry on a good conversation around here," he says.
Ten minutes in, when Shula tells a joke about a grasshopper at a bar, it's Griese's turn to shake his head.
"Get out that new joke book, will ya?" he says.
Around the table, Shula's personal attendant and private nurse sit and chuckle like you would hearing a good Vaudeville act for the umpteenth time. At 87, the coach travels with them. He can't walk anymore and had a health scare about a year ago that put him in the hospital for a few weeks.
"I'm getting around fine now, moving good," he says.
The mention of a hospital reminds Griese, 72, of a Shula story. This was 1971. Griese had been in the hospital all week with borderline pneumonia. At 10 a.m. on game day, the team doctor said he was OK to leave.
"Coach says, 'Why don't you dress and just stand on the sideline?' " Griese recalls. "I don't have the ankles taped or anything. Then, after a bit, he's like, 'You think you can play?' When we fall behind, like 14-0, he says, 'Why don't you take the next snap?' "
The coach musters up a mock glare across the table. "We won the game, right?"
The interplay between them comes so easy, so natural, and why not? They've known each other long enough to win Super Bowls together, raise children simultaneously, retire from careers, get inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame and share the grief of burying their first wives and the joy of finding their seconds wives.
They bought summer homes on the same mountain in North Carolina. They had a regular golf game for years and often ate dinners with their wives at each other's homes.
Once, Griese remembers, they took a bike ride down a Carolina mountain. The sign said to go left. Shula went straight.
"What'd you hit, coach?" Griese asks.
"A tree," Shula says. "Ran right into it."
"We called that 'Shula's Curve,' " Griese says.
Shula raises three fingers again.
The horse races go on before them, with neither winning. But that's OK. This meeting is the attraction. This catching up. Shula, in some form, is the "kind of father figure" that Griese lost as a young boy, the quarterback allows.
Griese, in some form, still exemplifies "the kind of integrity and principle" Shula always admired, the coach says.
Everyone noticed that, too. Teammates Kim Bokamper and Joe Rose were once remembering how Shula cursed them out on a regular basis.
"He wasn't like that," Griese said to them.
"Not to you, he wasn't," Bokamper responded.
Sitting here, watching another race run, is not some time warp. The years don't fall away as they talk. Time doesn't stand still. They talk of family, of football, of summer plans.
So it's not like they're locked in the 1970s, though the conversation drops in there at times, like with the hospital story or when Shula reacts to some verbal sparring by simply saying, "Minus-26."
That refers to a play in their first Super Bowl together, a loss against Dallas, where Griese was under such defensive pressure he ran backwards to elude it. And backwards. And ...
"It's minus-29 yards, jackass," Griese says to Shula. "That's the only Super Bowl record I still have. And I'm glad you brought that up, the way you always bring it up."
Griese dramatically reaches into his pocket and pulls out a letter. It's dated Aug. 17, 2004.
"I went and found this," he says.
The letter is from former NFL referee Jim Tunney, who officiated that game and is a good friend of Shula's. In the letter, Tunney confirms Griese was chased by three Cowboys on the play.
"You always say it was one Cowboy," Griese says.
"It was one," Shula responds.
"I have confirmation, right here, from the official, it was three," Griese says.
"You know Tunney was voted the second best of 200-and-something officials, right?" Shula says.
Griese, knowing what's coming, rolls his eyes.
"All the others tied for first," Shula finishes.
There is no routine to their date. Everything changes. Time marches on. Often, Hank Goldberg, the longtime South Florida radio host and ESPN horse handicapper, is here with some horse tips. But he called in sick this day.
For years, Dave Sime, an Olympic gold medalist and Miami ophthalmologist, came along. But Sime died at 79 last year. This coming NFL draft only brings home that point.
"Where's his grandson going in the draft?" Shula asks of Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey, the son of Sime's daughter.
"First round from what they're saying," Griese says.
The fifth race ends. They'll stay for one more, they decide. They first met in 1970 at Shula's introductory news conference as Dolphins coach. He had to ask someone which one Griese was. His first words were, "I want you to stay in the pocket more."
"Build me a pocket and I'll stay in it," Griese said.
That's how it's been ever since, give and take, barb and counter-barb, until the games are gone, the crowds are gone and it's just them sitting at a trackside restaurant nearly five decades later.
That's the test of a great coach after all these years: The quarterback still loves him. Or maybe it's the test of the quarterback: The coach still loves him.
Not that they use that verb.
"Work on your jokes," Griese says, putting a hand on Shula's shoulder and patting it as he leaves.
Shula returns his love by raising three fingers.
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