Tony Dungy: First Family, First Faith, Then Football

By A. Renee' West
Updated: December 22, 2005

ILLINOIS—I don’t remember when it started, or what prompted it. And despite the long prayers I heard in church on Sunday, I always felt God liked things simple and to the point. Like ‘Jesus wept.’ So I kept my prayer short. ‘From Thanksgiving to New Year’s, no deaths or funerals.’ I threw in funerals to cover people dying right before Thanksgiving. I figured those would suck too. Last year I found out they do. My mom died two days before Thanksgiving.

But my mom wasn’t where my mind went when I walked into the house and my dad said – ‘Tony Dungy’s son was found dead … in Tampa.’ If you had any compassion, in a space of time so brief it couldn’t be measured, your heart went out to the Dungys, you said, ‘Lord, help them,’ your stomach dropped into your bowels, your brain went @#$%^**(&^, your body felt cold, your heart began beating faster, you thought ‘this isn’t suppose to happen, it’s Christmas,’ you screamed ‘God, how could you … it’s Christmas,’ the holiday now felt bleaker, life felt sadder, your brain spun out of control just trying to wrap around the news, and you thought of …

Children are not supposed to die before their parents. I don’t have children, but I know that, and sadly have seen and felt the pain of that loss. The cousin whose son should not have been near a gun. The cousin who wishes his teen daughter had used her seatbelt. Backseat passengers just don’t think about buckling up. My sistah girl whose brother gangbanged. His father never recovered from his death. We buried him three years ago. My best friend who gave birth to a preemie. He lasted ten weeks. His name was Layton, and we got to hold him. And to the church member who told my friend at his graveside that she was young enough to have another one, sometimes silence is golden … silver, and platinum. Then there was my sister. Thankfully my nephew didn’t die, for which I am grateful every day, even when he disturbs my peace.

But he got sick, and the doctors weren’t sure why. When my mother called I recognized in her voice that tone she used when somebody was really seriously ill, she was worried, and she was praying. They usually died. My sister was at the hospital refusing to leave his bedside. And me? I don’t even remember what city I lived in, but I remember my single prayer to God – ‘If somebody has to die, take me. Not my nephew.’ Trust me, I was surprised when I heard the words. I even waited to see if I would take them back. But I felt calm, so I knew I meant every word I’d said. And in that moment I knew how much a parent loves their child. You’d die for them. If Tony Dungy had been given the choice, he would have given his life for his son James, or any of his four other children. It’s just the way it is, and he is.

Father. Son. Husband. Football Coach.

I don’t remember whether it was a print or TV interview but I remember Dungy saying his children had to earn the right to stand on the sidelines during football games and attend away games. Something most would consider a perk of being the coach’s son, for Dungy was a reward for something more important – education and discipline. Talk about father love. ESPN Cold Pizza Co-Anchor Jay Crawford, who has known Tony Dungy a long time, said for interviews, Dungy always made his priorities clear – he always would talk about family. Sure enough, on the front cover of this week’s ESPN the magazine is Tony Dungy, and in the article Dungy talks about his son, Eric. Considering Dungy works in a career where coaches ‘regret the time it took away from family,’ Dungy’s decisions regarding family will give him a full circle of lifetime, although brief, of shared family time memories with his son James.


But what I believe most of all will get Dungy and his family through this tragedy is faith.

I don’t ask anyone to believe as I do, and I respect the rights of others to believe as they choose, but I believe in God. And it is through faith that I exercise this belief.

And I believe Tony Dungy is a man of faith.

No, I don’t know him. Never even been within anything resembling physical proximity to the man. So it’s all coming from what I’ve seen on television. What I’ve heard other people in the media say. And how I’ve heard friends and acquaintances talk about the man. And what I’ve picked up hanging out at newspapers across the country. And based on last week’s player analysis, please remember, this is my point of view, and people are multifaceted.

When Tony Dungy was hired by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as their head football coach, when Tony Dungy was fired by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as their head football coach,

when Tony Dungy was hired by the Indianapolis Colts as their head football coach,

when the Bucs won the Super Bowl,

when the Colts lost to the Patriots,

when the Colts lost to the Patriots again,

when the Colts lost to the Patriots again and again,

when the Colts finally beat the Patriots,

when T.O. appeared in a risqué commercial with Nicolette Sheridan,

when the pressure mounted on the Colts as they stood on the precipice of making football history with an undefeated season,

and when you saw the Colt’s faces as the reality of not making football history hit them,

these are the words I use to describe Tony Dungy … strong, of character, leader, calm, beloved, respected, responsible, unassuming, and ‘of faith.’

It takes a man of faith, secure in the knowledge of who he is and whose he is, to walk the roads that Dungy has walked and never waver even when others prod you to be someone you’re not. That faith will be ever more called upon as the Dungy family faces something unthinkable, made even more so for occurring during the holiday season.

But from those who understand the loss … know that for now your life lives moment to moment, not day to day, as some moments will feel like you’ve just been startled, but from where, you don’t know. You will tell the football world you want it to go on, and out of respect it will, but football will seem so irrelevant in the scheme of things. As for the rest of the world, you’ll see people unconnected to you going about the holiday season and you’ll wonder ‘why, aren’t they mourning?’, while another part of you moves you through the motions because life does go on. The first time you laugh, you’ll feel guilty. The first time you get angry at your son for dying, you’ll feel guiltier. And accept that your mind is on loop control. Yes, it was just yesterday, the day before, two days ago, just last week that you were … . As for your heart, it’s not broken, it’s concave. A part has just broken off. And life won’t get better, which isn’t a bad thing, it just ‘is.’ Which is what it was before. ‘Is.’ But most of all remember you’re not alone, even at moments when that’s all you feel. It’s normal.

When you send a prayer to the Dungy family, include all the other faceless families who mourn during the holiday season.