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Dungy didn't need lesson about life

ESPN The Magazine had gone to press days before James Dungy died, so it was too late to change the cover that captured the essence of his father. Tony Dungy appeared reserved when his face landed in my mailbox Saturday afternoon, looking precisely how people often viewed the classy, unassuming Indianapolis Colts head coach.

Sometimes, it's eerie when you look back at pictures after the story has changed. Now that his motor skills are failing him, you see Muhammad Ali in a different light than you did 30 years ago when he was young and brash and talking trash.

Here's hoping Dungy revealed is the one preserved. The photo showed a serious but serene coach seemingly at peace with life's big picture. The Colts had won 13 straight games before losing to San Diego, but he had the same perspective in victory and defeat. He understood it was never about completing a perfect season so much as striving for perfection.

The Colts lost a football game, nothing more. On Thursday, Dungy lost his son.

Dungy is hurting and, no doubt, he's conflicted and confused. Your heart aches for him. You don't need to be a football fan to understand, just a parent. The Colts count on him to have the answers, but this time there's none. Why would an 18-year-old kill himself? Didn't James Dungy know his life was just beginning?

Really, it doesn't matter. Dungy's child died. His family mourns. Services were being held today, a day after Christmas. The funeral will be held Tuesday.

The Super Bowl? Minuscule.

People often fail to identify with professional sports figures because money and fame have a way of changing them and, perhaps, changing us when we look at them. It's as if they're shielded from real-world problems. Dungy never came off that way. He always seemed more human, absent pretentiousness and ego. He was a parent and teacher first, an NFL coach second. I suspect he'll somehow find a way to share a life lesson through his son's death. How he recovers is a mystery. We can only hope he does.

Nothing was more important than his wife and children. Too many people say it, not enough live it. Dungy was deeply involved with Family First, based in Tampa, Fla. He made time for home, which is difficult for most workaholic coaches. He was a national spokesman for All Pro Dad, a program he helped start in Indianapolis that encouraged players and coaches to spend more time with their kids.

It was hardly surprising to hear the family donated James Dungy's organs, giving life after death and thinking of others when a loss really was a loss. Dungy was among the first to console Ray Sherman, now an assistant coach with the Titans, when Sherman's 14-year-old son died a few years ago from an accidental, self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Sherman will be there Tuesday. The Colts' organization will be there for their coach, too, as he has been there for them.

Certain coaches demand respect. The best ones earn it. Dungy for years has been revered by his players for his intelligence and integrity. Rather than insist they follow him, he pleaded for them to join him. It might explain how he leads all coaches with 77 victories since 1999.

It also helps you understand why the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, whom Dungy helped rebuild after he was hired in 1997, quickly credited their departed coach after winning Super Bowl XXXVII with Jon Gruden a year after Dungy was gone. There's a difference between playing for a coach and playing under him. Dungy's teams always seemed the former.

On the cover of the magazine, a headline accompanying Dungy's picture begged the question: "The Colts Are The Best Team in the NFL," it read. "Why Isn't Tony Dungy Getting The Credit?"

Simply, because to him there were things far more important. Every time you see him, it's written all over his face.

e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com

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