clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Tony Dungy followed his father’s advice all the way to the Hall of Fame

The first African American head coach to win a Super Bowl reflects on his coaching career as his Hall of Fame induction nears.

Donald Miralle/Getty Images

The gun-shot killings of two African American men by police officers and the sniper-fire killings of five white police officers that followed echoes across every American sphere. Tony Dungy feels the tragedy, the misunderstanding.

It pushes him to a thought that silhouettes his life: "What can I do to make it better?"

It is not only a question for him, he says, but for all.

"It is going to take a spiritual weapon to turn this around," Dungy said. "And that spiritual weapon can happen. I think of football. You have your disappointments, your lack of opportunities and tragedies that can happen to your team and its families while you are coaching. But then you get a breakthrough. It follows the model of sports: Work together for a common goal.

"Of course, sports is much easier and life is much harder. But we have to find that common goal and spiritual change. A lot more prayer. It's a big challenge, not just for the African American community but for all of us. The Bible says we have to hurt when others are hurting and rejoice when others are rejoicing. We need more of this in a spiritual need for this entire country."

Dungy --€” a Super Bowl winner as a player, a Super Bowl winner as a coach, a husband of 34 years, a father, a Christian, a TV personality, a tireless charity worker and author --€” will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on August 6 in Canton, Ohio.

He knows tragedy.

He knows misunderstanding.

* * *

In late December 2005, James Dungy, 18, committed suicide in Tampa.

Dungy was preparing his Colts for a playoff run in Indianapolis when he received word of his son's death. He would coach three more NFL seasons before retiring in January 2009. In between, he became the first African American head coach to win a Super Bowl, claiming Super Bowl 41 in 2007 in Miami.

He found a way, for himself, to make it better.

"I think as Christians we learn we have to accept everything God brings, not just the things we like," Dungy said. "We can't pick and choose just the good things. This was one of the most painful things you can imagine. But those are the times to give God the opportunity, not pull away. I learned that. As tough and as devastating as it was, I've been able to talk to a lot of people the last 11 years who have gone through losing a child and have been able to be a little bit of encouragement. That means a lot."

Misunderstanding?

Some people called it hate when Dungy in the summer of 2014 said that drafting openly gay linebacker Michael Sam would "create distractions" for a team.

Then and now, Dungy emphasizes he did not say that Sam did not deserve the chance to play in the NFL, which he got first with the St. Louis Rams and later with the Dallas Cowboys before being cut by both.

"People read it and said I wouldn't have a homosexual player on my team," Dungy said. "That is not what I said or meant. Everyone has a right to play."

He knows that his comments can never be fully explained or understood.

* * *

Tragedy and misunderstanding do not totally encapsulate him. At age 60, he has lived a life of verve.

He left the University of Minnesota as a quarterback in 1977 but was not drafted. He was forced to change positions, to safety, to get a crack at the NFL.

Hall of Fame Pittsburgh Steelers coach Chuck Noll gave him that shot. And it was Noll in 1981, when Dungy was 25, who gave him his first chance as an NFL coach (defensive backs). Dungy calls that his pro football base.

"I wanted to play quarterback in the NFL and I could have gone to Canada to play it," Dungy said. "But I wanted to play with the best, even if it meant changing positions. When I came to the NFL as a player in 1977, there were only 10 African American assistant coaches for a total of 28 teams. I coached for 15 years as an assistant before I got the chance to become head coach. A very frustrating thing. And there were African American coaches who had been in the league a lot longer and still not had a head coaching opportunity.

"I used to complain to my dad (Wilbur) about it. He was a World War II veteran. He came back to teach but had to walk past the white school on his way to teach at the only place he could, at the African American school. But his only thought was, `How can I make it better?' He said he had to teach as many as he could to fly. My mother (Cleomae) represented this, too, as an educator, an English teacher, a woman full of character and integrity who was big on that being more important than what you do."

This was the climate Dungy absorbed in Jackson, Mich., his hometown.

People there "poured into me," he said. They claim him as their own. He does the same and added: "I imagine a few of them will be in Canton."

Former NFL coach Denny Green "intentionally" prepared him to be an NFL head coach, Dungy said. Green hired Dungy as his defensive coordinator in 1992 with the Minnesota Vikings and allowed Dungy to see the inner workings of how decisions were made and always encouraged Dungy that one day he would be making such decisions.

In 1996, when Dungy became head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he said he realized "things we don't fathom or understand early on can become a blessing." Tampa is still his home. The Tampa community is the foundation of his charity work. And his challenge of reaching beyond, of answering how to make things better extends to communities nationally and to current NFL owners, coaches, players and administrators. They trust his voice.

His dominant defensive teams in Tampa and his vibrant offensive teams in Indianapolis led to one Super Bowl victory. Some people emphasize that he only won one.

Dungy counters: "You always wish you could have won more Super Bowls. We were close many times and could not quite do it. I know how difficult it is; there is nothing easy about it. I am blessed to win one. I don't regret any of it. We did all we could do. We worked as hard as we could. I will always be more happy about the one we won than disappointed about not having more."

* * *

Dungy has six children.

He describes Tiara, 32, as "an independent thinker;" Eric, 23, as "a mini-me, competitive, very sports minded;" Jordan, 15, as "special in a lot of ways who has overcome a lot of physical challenges, a great heart;" Jade, 14, as "artistic, talented, sensitive;" Justin, 10, as "everything is sports right now, a sweetheart;" and Jason, 6, as "a linebacker in every word, tough, hard-nosed."

This is how he describes his wife, Lauren: "The co-pilot, she has been with me every step of the way, very supportive, picked up and moved when I got the call for a change, did all of the hard work at home, emotional support, love, cheered me up after disappointing losses, a person to bounce things off --€” could not have done it without her."

It was Lauren who suggested he enter TV as an NFL analyst. She has been a catalyst for both his books and his charity work.

Donnie Shell will be his presenter in Canton. Shell was his Pittsburgh teammate and roommate for two seasons. Dungy said Shell has been instrumental in his life, that Shell helped him become a better man and is "one of the most on-fire Christians I have ever met."

Dungy sees a 2016 NFL season peppered with surprises, including this eye-opener:

"Everyone has their usual suspects as teams to watch. But if I have to choose a team that I think is on the cusp of something, a team that is going to surprise this year, I'd have to say it's the Jacksonville Jaguars. They have a good offensive line. The quarterback (Blake Bortles) is stepping forward. They really have a chance to make some noise. To sneak in there."

The Hall of Fame induction ceremonies annually ignites the NFL season. Dungy's class includes Brett Favre, Marvin Harrison, Orlando Pace, Ken Stabler, Kevin Greene, Edward DeBartolo, Jr., and Dick Stanfel. Dungy has been in Canton in each of the last three years for the inductions of Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks and Bill Polian.

He has rejoiced when others are rejoicing.

This is the other side.

He is vacationing in his Eugene, Ore., summer home with his family now, centering himself, preparing himself for one more ride of a lifetime. Something that counters tragedy or misunderstanding. A bronze bust, a sea of football fanatics and countless immortal moments.

"This is a culminating piece to the football side of things," Dungy said. "I came to Tampa 20 years ago. I spent 31 years in the NFL playing and coaching. The Lord has directed every step. I remember the last seconds of coaching in our Super Bowl victory, as the clock winded down, thinking about all of the people God put in my path. `How did I get here from Jackson, Mich.?' That's what I was thinking then. You can't do it by yourself.

"When I was later riding in the front seat through the streets of Arlington heading to the White House, I thought about my dad having to walk past the white schools. It brought tears to my eyes. I thought about what he always said: `What can I do to make the situation better?' It's been eight years out of football coaching now, but I've tried to take that with me wherever I have gone."

He will take it with him to Canton.