By Dave Hyde
Toronto — Miami Dolphins coach Tony Sparano is unavailable for comment right now, considering he’s busy trying to speed-learn the Canadian national anthem. That beats packing a parka and gloves for a trip to Buffalo, though Sparano wouldn’t know what that’s like as a Dolphin.
Nor do most of his players understand how good fortune has graced them again this season.
“It doesn’t matter to me where we play,” cornerback Andre Goodman said.
“Buffalo’s fine, I like it,” Ricky Williams said.
Let’s stay real, and real warm, on this subject: Playing Denver without cornerback Champ Bailey or Seattle without half its lineup barely merits mention next to the luck of trading a December trip to Buffalo’s winter wonderland for a game in Toronto’s dome.
But don’t listen to me.
Gather ’round, kids, and listen to Uncle Don Shula.
“Let me tell you about Mary Anne’s first trip to Buffalo,” he says.
This was 1991. Mary Anne was Shula’s date then, not his wife. And it was September, not early December, which always was the ugliest of time for Shula in Buffalo. His teams were 0-4 at Orchard Park from December on.
“Don’t remind me,” he says.
Then again, the Dolphins are 2-7 in Buffalo from December on.
“One thing I never wanted talked about to my team was playing in the cold in Buffalo,” Shula said. “I just didn’t want it in their heads, so I wouldn’t address it. But it was in my head. I knew what it was like.”
Buffalo brought all its elements for that September of 1991. Relative cold. Rain. And the kind of full, rowdy house that made Mary Anne look forward to her first NFL road game.
“You don’t want to go to Buffalo,” Shula said.
“I do want to go to Buffalo,” she said.
“I gave in,” he said.
People knew it was love right then. This also was at the time the Bills were the cream of the AFC. They were in the midst of their four Super Bowl trips.
“I coached in six Super Bowls,” he said. “I could’ve coached in a few more in my final years if Buffalo hadn’t been standing in our way.”
That 1991 game was typical. Jim Kelly and Thurman Thomas had a game of games. The Bills had a team-record 583 yards of total offense. Dan Marino’s three touchdowns and Mark Higgs’ 146 yards rushing weren’t enough. Bills 35, Dolphins 31.
“It was one of those awful days,” Shula said.
It was about to get worse, too. Because as the Dolphins fumed on the team buses, they couldn’t move out of the parking lot. It was gridlock. Which would have been bad enough.
“Then the fans noticed who we were on the bus,” he said.
Shula takes pains to say he loves the passion of Buffalo fans. But this is one day they were pains in the back porch, as they happily showed. Bottles were thrown at the bus. And rocks. And then the piece d’resistance.
“They started dropping their drawers and mooning us,” he said.
No Canadian fan is expected to act so unruly today. Football ranks somewhere decidedly south of hockey, Iditarod and Mike Weir on their sports passions.
“I wouldn’t have minded playing in Toronto,” Shula said. “That sounds better for a team than playing in Buffalo.”
Mary Anne might have taken that trip, too.