Dungy Allows Faith To Cut Path Through Pain Of Loss

By David Whitley
Updated: March 28, 2006

ORLANDO, Fla. — Tony Dungy is back at work now. He looks like the same person he’s always been.

Then he’ll get a flash.

“Something happens,” Dungy said. “Some trigger will go off.”

He’ll have to stop. Losing a son to suicide brings pain and questions that will never go away.

“You’ll always have those moments,” Dungy said.

He got the news two days before Christmas. A few weeks later, his Indianapolis Colts endured a devastating end to what had been a dream season.

There is no comparing the two, of course. But no matter the tragedy or triumph, Dungy remains the same. There is a serenity that leaves people wondering.

How does he do it?

Hundreds came to comfort him at his son’s funeral in Tampa. Dungy got up and gave a eulogy that lifted the building.

Losing to Pittsburgh in the playoffs when Mike Vanderjagt botched a tying field goal? The only crack Dungy showed was a slight wince as he said, “He missed it.”

Indianapolis is still in mourning. Dungy is in Orlando at the NFL owners meetings, enthused as ever about next year.

Wednesday he was at the AFC coaches’ breakfast, answering questions about the addition of Adam Vinatieri and the loss of Edgerrin James. This weekend he’ll be at the Orlando Festival with Luis Palau, a faith-based sports and music carnival, trying to answer that other question.

How does he do it?

“You understand God is in control of even what we think are tragic circumstances,” Dungy said. “That gives you something the world doesn’t understand.”

He wishes it did, but just mentioning religion makes some uncomfortable. Dungy has never forced his views on anyone. But they have shaped him. He could no more deny that than cuss out Peyton Manning after another playoff pratfall.

“My religion,” Dungy said, “is who I am.”

Judge the results for yourself.

He may not have a Super Bowl ring as coach, but nobody in the league carries as much respect. If the world in general had more Dungys, getting an NFL team in L.A. might be its biggest problem.

He’s the first to say his faith doesn’t make him special. It certainly hasn’t immunized him from the cruelties of life.

He is a spokesman for All Pro Dad, an organization that helps men become better fathers. The NFL grind can wreck a family if the coach lets it. Dungy has always encouraged his staff to spend evenings at home, not in the film room.

His speeches centered on developing positive relationships with your children, yet something obviously missing with his oldest child.

James was 18 and going to community college in Tampa. His girlfriend went out for a walk one night. She came back to find he’d taken a leather belt and hanged himself from a bedroom ceiling fan.

Suicide rarely makes any sense, but this was baffling. James had been given all the advantages, all the support, all the love a kid could have.

For all his faith, Dungy couldn’t help asking the questions.

“Why did it have to happen?” he said. “Why isn’t he here with us?”

There are no satisfying answers. Accepting that is one of the hardest parts of all.

Dungy has managed, though there are still those moments. They usually come when he’s watching his son, Eric. He’ll watch him playing ball, or visit him at school.

“That’s when I wonder,” Dungy said. “If I didn’t believe this life isn’t the only thing, then it would be extremely tough.”

About the only good thing is the increased awareness James’ death has brought to youth suicide. It is the third-leading cause of death for Americans ages 15 to 24. Wherever Dungy speaks these days, it seems a half-dozen people come up and tearfully share their stories.

His compassion just makes the whole thing more confounding. For years, Dungy suffered with dignity as he was passed over for head coaching jobs. He never played racial politics, but worked quietly to improve the system.

He resurrected Tampa Bay, then was fired. Yet he proudly watched as Jon Gruden guided his players to a Super Bowl win a year later. Every season, the Colts’ hearts are shattered in the playoffs. Every year, Dungy collects the pieces and gives it a better try.

Along the way, he has given hundreds of speeches, inspired thousands of people and shown he’s as good a coach as many who’ve hoisted the Vince Lombardi trophy. If anyone deserves to do that, surrounded by an adoring family, it’s Dungy.

Life just doesn’t work that way.

“John the Baptist was beheaded,” he chuckled. “So not everything ends up like a fairy-tale.”

Sometimes, the most accurate kicker in NFL history misses.

Sometimes, you get calls in the middle of the night with the most horrifying news a parent could hear.

Either way, Dungy remains who he is. “No matter what happens,” he said, “you have to keep looking forward.”

Even if the world doesn’t understand how.