Coach Tony Dungy’s Quiet Strength

People, Sports
on August 19, 2007
2007 Super Bowl champion Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy.

Theres a phrase in football that sums up a lot about the games volatile unpredictability: That balls been known to take some crazy bounces.

In the life of Indianapolis Colts head coach Tony Dungy, the ball has indeed taken its share of bounces, both on and off the field, good and bad. But like the 2007 Super Bowl champs he coaches to stay the course, the resilient Dungy has kept his focus through both the highs and the lows, his determination rooted solidly in personal faith.

I really believe my leadership style is formed by my value system, which is definitely Christian, says Dungy, 51. Everything I do is based on that. The Christian walk is perseverance. It is believing in what you stand for and being willing to continue.

Between December 2005 and February 2007, Dungy experienced both extremes of the spectrum between tragedy and triumph. He lost a teenage son to suicide and then, 14 months later, was the most celebrated man in professional sports as the first African-American head coach to win a Super Bowl. Throughout it all, his steadiness in the midst of personal and professional turbulence impressed everyone.

To be able to follow a man like him and watch the way he lives his life, not only is it impressive, it is something you can pattern yourself after, says the Colts two-time Pro Bowl center Jeff Saturday. I have a great deal of respect for the opportunity to play for a man like that.

Family first
Dungys formative years in the mid-1950s, in Jackson, Mich., as the second oldest in a family of four, were supervised by his parents, both teachersCleoMae, who taught high school English, and Wilbur, a physiology professor and one of the first African-American teachers in Michigans community college system. Dungy and his siblings benefited from belonging to an intact family centered on a strong belief in God and a deep respect for others.

That has been a blessing, Dungy concedes. I did have that support system. I had a two-parent home, with parents that really cared about you and were there all the time.

Today, the incessant demands as the head of one of professional sports major programs often put a squeeze on time with his own five children: Tiara, 23, Eric, 15, Jordan, 7, Jade, 5, and Justin, 1. I have my kids at work a lot and do different projects with them, says Dungy, who, along with his wife of 25 years, Lauren, adopted their three youngest. But I just wish I had more time to be around them.

His role as a father helps him put his job in perspective.

Football is just a game, notes Dungy in his new book Quiet Strength. It lasts for three hours, and when the game is over, its over. Frankly, that factthat when its over, its overis part of footballs biggest appeal to me. The coaches and players really dont have time to celebrate or to stay down, because Sundays gone and Mondays here. Its the journey that matters. Learning is more important than the test.

A different kind of coach
Dungy played for the Pittsburgh Steelers and the San Francisco 49ers before beginning his coaching career in 1980 at the University of Minnesota, where he was quarterback back in the 1970s. A year later he was hired by Steelers coach Chuck Noll to becomeat age 25the youngest assistant coach in the National Football League.

Dungy made the leap to his first head coaching job in 1996 with Tampa Bay, taking the Buccaneers to the playoffs four times in six seasons. When the Bucs let him go, Indianapolis quickly scooped him up. With the Colts now for five years, he has virtually revolutionized the role of NFL head coach, using a kinder, gentler motivational style in keeping with his natural demeanora sharp contrast to the leagues traditional in-your-face, winning-is-everything approach.

The word I use to describe him, kind of a biblical term, is meek, says Saturday, 32. By definition, it is a quiet strength.

Saturday recalls Dungys address to the team before a particularly important conference championship game in 2006 against the Colts postseason archrival New England Patriots. Dungy used a story hed heard his mother tell many times in his youth: the biblical epic of David and Goliath.

We had someone out there who seemed a little bigger than life, says Dungy of the New England team, finally tamed by Indianapolis 3834. They really arent, but that is the perception. So David and Goliath was easy to come up with.

Losing a son
The Colts-Patriots clash offers an example of how Dungy incorporates his personal philosophy into his work. I try to get across to our players that a lot of people will admire you for how you play, he says. But in the long run, it is more important to have them admire you for how you live.

Near the end of the 2005 regular season, that belief was put to the ultimate test. On the night of Dec. 22, at 1:45 a.m., the Dungys received a phone callthe one all parents dread. Their 18-year-old son, James, for reasons that may never be known, had taken his own life. Through the numbing pall that blanketed Dungy and his family, they turned to their faith.

We attended the regular worship service at our church on Christmas morning, recalls Dungy in Quiet Strength. Our congregation was unbelievable. People never quite know what to say at times like this; there really is nothing you can say. But we could feel everyones love, and it was uplifting. Lauren and I werent sure how wed get through this, but we recognized that we were going to have to cling to Gods strength and love if we were going to have a chance.

Several days later in Tampa, Fla.the Dungys off-season homefor their sons burial, the couple displayed incredible endurance during the service, according to Abe Brown of Abe Brown Ministries, a prison ministry in which Dungy has participated since 1997, when he was coaching Tampa Bay.

I stood with him that night, remembers Brown, 80. They stood for four hours. His wife stood in heels and he embraced and hugged everybody that came in. A time had been set up when they were going to finish. Well, when 8 oclock came, there were people still in line and they tried to get him to close the doors, and he wouldnt do it. You just dont find people like that. He is not an ordinary man. That is Tony Dungy, an extraordinary man creating an admirable legacy, both on the field and off. I hope people will remember me not as a person who developed good football players, but as a person who made an impact in the community, made the places that I worked better places to live, and really helped develop young men that I worked with to be better parts of the community that we lived in, he says.

For Dungy, that will never cease, no matter how the football bounces. Pressing on to help others is all I can do, he says. Its all any of us can do.

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