With the National Football League season beginning next week, reporters will once again distinguish players who display character from those who merely are characters, and sometimes reprehensible ones. Indianapolis Colts Coach Tony Dungy has known each kind, and learned how critical the presence of a father is.
Mr. Dungy grew up in Jackson, Mich., within a stable, two-parent family. His father and grandfather (a Baptist preacher) took him fishing and taught him the Bible. They were role models but not football players, and it took years in coaching before he fully realized how unusual they were. "I took it for granted for a long time," he said. "We had that security and consistency."
Fired by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in January, Mr. Dungy quickly signed on to coach the Colts. At Tampa Bay he yanked the team out of a string of losing seasons and brought it an NFC Central title (first in 18 years) and soaring attendance. His players thanked Mr. Dungy for teaching them to be better people, not just better players: "He sticks to his beliefs and convictions," said John Lynch, the Tampa Bay all-pro safety. But pro coaches are expected to win the Super Bowl ASAP, and only one team can win each year.
Coach Dungy is sticking with an "All Pro Dads" program that he helped launch in Tampa Bay. The program has players such as Jacksonville quarterback Mark Brunell and Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Troy Vincent encouraging fathers to love their children's mother, have family meals, discipline with a gentle spirit, and help with the homework. Retired stars such as Anthony Munoz and Rep. Steve Largent (R-Okla.), who is now running for governor of Oklahoma, also participate.
The All Pro Dads message is not new, but when the advice comes from macho football players not normally associated with the seemingly soft side of family life, people listen. Coach Dungy's character adds to the program: He has worked off-the-field in prison ministries and inner-city rescue missions for the homeless, and in Indianapolis already has spoken at a major church as part of the Celebration of Hope racial reconciliation effort.
The new Indianapolis coach does not duck responsibility. "We are role models," he said. "I've looked at it as a blessing from the Lord. He has put me here for a reason." He avoids commercial endorsements that could increase his income substantially but diminish his credibility for the causes he wants to promote. "If I'm doing commercials, people know I'm getting paid to say that," he explained. "I endorse values and things I think are important."
Mr. Dungy also keeps his own family priorities straight. "I've seen him stop everything, even during the season, to help his kids," said Mark Merrill, president of Family First, the Florida organization that initiated All Pro Dads. "He's involved with his family every way he can. He's always been very consistent." Or, as Psalm 112 puts it, "Blessed is the man who fears the Lord, who greatly delights in His commandments! His offspring will be mighty in the land."