Colts' coach Dungy preaches what he practices

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INDIANAPOLIS -- The inextinguishable, everlasting memory is not of a coach but of a man. A man at the pulpit. Tony Dungy seems so at home on such a platform. Because he is. When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers no longer required his services, he considered a career path in prison ministry. When a football card was fashioned in his coaching image, the inscription on the back spoke about how far greater to him than the pursuit of a Super Bowl was the quest for eternal life.

There he was Dec. 27, between the altar of the Idlewild Baptist Church in suburban Tampa, Fla., and the pews packed with his former Steelers teammates, players from his former Buccaneers and current Indianapolis Colts, along with team co-workers, friends, family, more. It was the most solemn, most heartrending occasion a parent could face, the funeral of his own child, the Dungys' oldest son, James, 18. And the father drew on his moment at the pulpit to preach.

He urged his 1,500 fellow mourners never to take family for granted. Hug your kids each chance you get. Spread your love, for you never know when it might be the last chance to express it.

He implored the players present -- among them Atlanta's Warrick Dunn, Denver's John Lynch, Tampa Bay's Derrick Brooks and Ronde Barber and Mike Alstott, Oakland's Warren Sapp, and the Colts who were part of a 200-member group that flew south from Indianapolis two days after Christmas -- to grab every opportunity to be exemplary men. Use your pulpit on NFL Sundays and your public ministry the rest of your days to spread a sense of manhood, fatherhood, brotherhood. If anything, be bolder in who you are.

The man once known as Mean Joe Greene nearly gasped.

"When Tony came up, when it was his time to talk at the service, he said, 'It's a pleasure for me to be here,' " recalled Greene, a former teammate and fellow assistant, a longtime friend, and this week something of a foe, with the Steelers -- for whom Greene is a special assistant -- playing against Dungy's Colts in the AFC divisional playoffs Sunday. "He said, 'Well, let me explain that under these circumstances.' Then he quoted from a scripture from the Bible, Saul, how he was running for his life and he took the opportunity to give glory to his Lord. And that was powerful. Powerful.

"But that also gave him a forum to tell everybody who was listening and everybody who plays in the National Football League that these guys are role models. The point he was making is that it's difficult for young men today to understand what manhood is. That they were getting mixed messages. The role models they should look up to is men. And I thought that was a great moment to tell that. A great message to everybody who is listening."

"The things he reminded us at the funeral -- character, being a role model ..." linebacker David Thornton said. "We were there to support him, but, in the end, he supported us."

"Inspirational?" Colts defensive tackle Montae Reagor continued. "It would probably be an understatement."

It's a family thing

Coach Dungy, as no less a light in the football firmament than Peyton Manning calls him, stood at a lectern yesterday in the Union Federal Football Center, the Colts' west-side training complex. He smiled. He joked.

How his Colts, his dutiful congregants, can square the man at the pulpit Dec. 27 with the coach standing before them daily is indeed puzzling to an outsider, to a disbeliever. Yet he is Coach, he is friend Tony, he is a man -- if not The Man -- to whom they abide, even more so, if that's possible, since the Florida funeral of James Dungy. His death, in the hours after their first defeat following a 13-0 start, was ruled a suicide. Loss? They've experienced that tenfold in a 14-2 season.

Perhaps above all, what Dungy instills in his football team is a feeling of family, a unity of spirit, be it religious or otherwise. James used to stand on the football-complex sidelines at practices and on the RCA Dome sidelines on game days. They felt such a kinship. Doris Harris -- the Sewickley woman who is mother to Tony Dungy's wife Lauren and grandmother to Tiara, Jade, Eric and Jordan Dungy -- described the players as "grieving and crying and feeling the loss themselves." Seventeen days later, as they embark on only the second second-round playoff in the franchise's 22 seasons in Indianapolis, Thornton said they are still mourning, still grieving.

"James is as much a part of our family as his family," Thornton said, purposefully speaking in the present tense. "He's in the back of our minds. We know this is a special season. We have J.D. on the back of our helmets to remember. And it's important to go out and play the caliber of football [Dungy] wants us to."

Dungy, 50, is a father in both respects of the word. A paternal leader whom Thornton talks about following anywhere. A religious figure commanding their attention, respect, hearts, minds. In no way does Dungy ask them to win for James, for the family, for him.

"To win one for the city of Indianapolis and our organization and [owner] Jim Irsay, that's what it's all about," he said. "Our team is very close, and these guys are close to me, and we shared some special moments. But that's not what the playoffs are all about. With my son's situation and our family, it puts it all into perspective. I always thought that the playoffs are great and the Super Bowl's great, but it's not the most important thing in the world."

"There's nothing that prepared our team for what happened to our coach and his family," Manning said. "That was a true life-changing event, a true tragedy."

Yet Dungy prodded them, preached to them, coached them at his worst of personal times. They contend that it raised their already high admiration and respect for the man who pointed them to a 48-16 record and three consecutive AFC South titles in his four Indianapolis seasons, the man who coaxed a 58-32 mark in his last five seasons with the heretofore woebegone Buccaneers, although he was fired in 2001 for perpetually failing to reach the Super Bowl that successor Jon Gruden attained the next season without coming close since. Just the same, there are no records kept for funerals, for life-altering days such as those after Christmas.

To other Colts, such as middle linebacker Gary Brackett, the quintessential moment came Dec. 28, the day after the funeral and four days before the Arizona regular-season finale, when Dungy returned to his team. The man walked through the complex door "with the same pep in his step as before, maybe even more," Brackett said. It's still there this week. "He really doesn't have to say anything. We can see it in his expression, how energized he is coming back to work."

"He did as a husband and a father would do: He was supportive to his wife and family. He felt the loss himself. He gave his proper time," said Harris, his mother-in-law. "He wouldn't let football get in the way of his obligations as a father, a husband and a man. But he knew he had to get himself back together for his team; he couldn't let his team down. They worked so hard getting to where they are now, he wouldn't desert them at this point."

Finding his faith and way

Before finding his faith anew in -- of all places -- Bonaventure Hall at St. Vincent College during Steelers training camp 1978, before venturing in whatever direction football would take him, Anthony Kevin Dungy was the son of academicians and the big brother in an athletic family from Jackson, Mich. Their father, Wilbur, was the first African-American professor at Jackson Community College and later taught physiology at Delta (Mich.) College. Their mother, Cleomae, taught high-school English for more than 30 years.

Eldest Sherrilyn became a nurse. Younger twins Lyndon and Lauren became a dentist and obstetrician. And skinny Tony ...

"I think Tony always liked basketball more," said Lauren Dungy-Poythress, who lives in Indianapolis close enough to her brother that their children often get together. "When Tony went to Minnesota, he was on the basketball team for a year; but it's my understanding that they sort of asked him not to play so he wouldn't hurt himself for football."

The star Golden Gophers quarterback wound up a free-agent safety with the Steelers, learning defense, learning how to tackle, learning everything. Yet, as Professor and Mrs. Dungy had ingrained in him, he was forever the student. Minnesota coaches gave him an office key of his own so he could study without them.

In 1977, he distinguished himself by becoming the emergency Steelers quarterback against Houston, establishing a dubious mark by both throwing and catching an interception in the same game. "We didn't win the game, but he probably kept us from getting slaughtered," Greene said. Before the next season, Dungy toiled so hard to prepare, he reported to Latrobe with mononucleosis. He sat there day after day with roommate Donnie Shell, who told him: "The Lord always has a plan for your life; maybe now it's to rest."

Dungy, whom Shell invited into a Bible Study group with Hall of Famer John Stallworth, linemen Jon Kolb and Larry Brown plus cornerback J.T. Thomas, relaxed and renewed his faith with zeal. Perhaps, it was no coincidence that he returned to health and topped the team in interceptions, his six outranking Hall of Famers Mel Blount and Jack Ham, even tying for second in the AFC that season. He won a Super Bowl ring with those Steelers. He earned enough cash that he gave to the twins his 1968 Buick LeSabre -- that Three Rivers Stadium security refused to allow entrance because they figured no pro would drive such a jalopy -- and bought himself a Thunderbird. Later, he gave that car to Lyndon and bought one for Lauren.

What drove Dungy? He played a season after being traded to San Francisco and was released the next year by the New York Giants, then returned at Chuck Noll's request to Pittsburgh in 1981 as the youngest NFL assistant back then, the club's new secondary coach at 25. He tutored such vets as Blount, Thomas and Shell. In 1984, he rose to defensive coordinator, again the NFL's youngest at 28.

"When we were roommates, he used to keep me awake studying film; I used to scream, 'Shut that projector off,' " remembered Shell, now the Carolina Panthers' player development director. "I'd say, 'What do you want to do, what do you want to be?' " 'A coach.' So I'd say, 'OK, you can keep that projector on.'

"As a coach, he never had a plan of defeat. He always put us in position to make plays. I loved it."

It was about that time Dungy met and fell in love with Lauren Harris, a teacher at her Quaker Valley High alma mater. The Rev. John Guest introduced him to Lauren after the young Steelers assistant gave a breakfast speech at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Sewickley.

"Actually, I was in the room most of the time because Lauren wasn't sure of him," said her mother. "You know, the reputation of football players. ... But she found out he was what he said he was: He was a Christian and a man who happened to be a football coach." Guest married them barely a year later. Doris Harris continued: "Tony has never changed, except to grow. He has grown stronger as a coach, stronger as a Christian, stronger as a father, man ... and son-in-law."

Faith, family, football, in that order. Those form the foundation of a coach who spent three seasons in Kansas City and four in Minnesota as Dennis Green's defensive coordinator before being entrusted a team of his own. Those three facets form the basis of the homilies he presents to his players, including the current and former Buccaneers who confided to Harris at the funeral that their teams' sense of family was never the same after they were separated from Dungy in 2001. He wound up not a prison minister, but the Colts' coach in Indianapolis, where his sister, the doctor, had moved six months earlier to start a new practice. Said she, "I think it was Divine Intervention, actually; it was a blessing that we ended up in the same location."

Those three components are what continue to bring him through the ultimate loss.

"He's going to put God first in whatever he does, his family, then football. He has it in order," Shell said.

"I agree people should be impressed by him," Dungy-Proythess said of the respect she sees her brother garner around Indianapolis, around the NFL. "But they have no idea why they should be impressed. It's when you personally know him that you should be impressed."

Greene added: "You see Tony, and you realize the quality of the guy when there are distractions and distress. Panic never sets in. You would never hear it in his voice or see it in his demeanor. I think he got a lot of that from Chuck, but he probably brought a lot of that on his own, too."

"We have a journey to go down together and things to accomplish," concluded Reagor, one of Dungy's Colts congregants. "This is just starting."


Chuck Finder can be reached at cfinder@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1724.


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