INDIANAPOLIS- He learned how to be a father from his own dad.
Then Tony Dungy learned about the fatherless from NFL football players and young men behind bars in Florida prisons.
The Indianapolis Colts football coach was known for his spiritual winning ways long before he took the Colts to their Super Bowl victory earlier this year. While rebuilding the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he received a well-earned reputation as an evangelical Christian who demonstrated his faith on and off the football field.
His prison ministry and volunteer work with young people even seemed to be a liability with some commentators. Critics wondered if he had too many fruits of the spirit to win a Super Bowl, almost penalizing him for keeping his temper in check and taking personal interest in his players. Did he have that tough, mean streak presumed necessary to motivate NFL players all the way to the Super Bowl?
That criticism slid off the table after Dungy guided his team to a 29-17 win over the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI. The victory did more than silence critics-it expanded the bully pulpit that Dungy has used for many years to be an advocate for fatherhood and the family.
Dungy used the big national platform to draw attention to his faith, even as he was being heralded as the first African-American coach to win a Super Bowl. He didn't run from the racial side of the story, but he was quick to draw attention to the fact that he and Bears coach Lovie Smith were not only African-Americans but also Christians who sought to live out their faith in football.
At a recent Indianapolis event hosted by All Pro Dad, the fatherhood program of Florida-based Family First, Dungy showed that faith in action off the field, spending several hours encouraging fathers to spend quality time with their children. He responded to a blitz of autograph seekers in stride, approaching each fan like he would star quarterback Peyton Manning during a sideline conversation. He displayed generosity-speaking to one fan's wife on the phone to wish her a happy Mother's Day-and sound judgment-turning down a young fan who enthusiastically asked, "Can you sign the back of my neck?"
But Dungy's message-that fathers make a huge difference with their children-was completely serious. He learned from his own father what social studies of the past 25 years have revealed-that fathers can set their children straight for life with self-esteem, discipline, and self-control if they are willing to work at it. Or they can neglect their children and leave big holes in their souls and spirits that are sometimes accompanied by hours in counseling sessions or even a life of crime and prison.
Dungy's life is an illustration of Psalm 112:2, as his well-publicized Christian testimony reflects that of his own father and mother. "Blessed is the man who fears the Lord, who delights greatly in His commandments. His descendants will be mighty on earth."
When he talks about taking time with children, he points to his parents as ideal role models, rather than himself as a busy NFL coach. "I spend about one-tenth of the time my Dad spent with us," he says. "That's the one tough part of the job."
His parents taught school and gave their spare time to the family as the children grew up in Jackson, Mich. "My memory was in Dad always being there with me," Dungy said. "He was home on the weekends. He was home during the summers. He had a big impact on me." Wilbur Dungy came to his son's football games and other sporting events, and they also spent plenty of time outdoors fishing with his grandfather, a Baptist minister. The father and son would go to football games-the Detroit Lions or Big Ten games at Michigan or Michigan State. On those long walks to the stadiums his father asked lots of questions. "He always stressed, 'Why did things happen?' He used techniques to get you to think and not just float along."
For many years Dungy assumed most families were like his. "I just assumed that is what dads did," he said. "I grew up feeling like my dad was always around."
Dungy's father and mother illustrate what two Christian parents can accomplish by simple faithfulness to the Lord. His father taught psychology, and his mother Cleomae was an English teacher. Like many moms, she worked on her children's grammar and speech, and one result was that Dungy invariably gives sportswriters plenty of usable comments, albeit in short sentences. "My wife worked on Tony even when he was in high school to make sure he had good deliveries in his speeches," recalled Wilbur Dungy, who died in 2005. "She didn't like word whistlers, the 'aahs,' 'you see' and 'you know.' That's why he handles all those interviews so well."
When in Tampa, Dungy volunteered for Abe Brown's Prison Crusade Ministry. Growing up near a Michigan state prison gave him preconceived notions about the inmates he was visiting. "My view from growing up was that the prisoners were bad-tough, hardened criminals," he recalled. In Florida, though, he met young men who needed some guidance and love. "The high percentage of these guys had no dad or limited exposure to their dads. Very few of these guys in there had two-parent families," he said. As they talked about their lives, he wondered at times what kept him from that path. "Maybe the only difference between me and being an NFL coach is not that I was a good guy. Maybe I got a little more direction."
He also came to appreciate his father in a new way, as he realized that lots of other fathers had not sacrificed themselves for the sake of their children. NFL coaching added to his appreciation, as he realized that a big part of coaching was becoming a father figure for some players who had not known their fathers very well, if at all.
Dungy's success seems based on the fact that he has faith in something bigger than football. His Christian commitment has earned him lots of respect in a business that can be hard on anyone who seems a little too soft and kind. Yet that commitment helps him see the limits of the sport.
He was included in Time magazine's recent list of the 100 most influential people in the world, but he quickly pointed to others in his family as more deserving of the honor. He nominated his two sisters, a nurse and doctor, and a brother who is a dentist. "I don't see a football coach as being tremendously influential in the big scheme of things," he said. "There's a very big difference between influence and importance. What my siblings do is incredibly important."
Yet he'll use his influence for faith-based causes. He avoids commercial endorsements to keep a focus on his family message. He and his wife Lauren have quietly adopted children to blend with their birth children. He was scolded after the Super Bowl by advocates of same-sex marriage for accepting a fatherhood award from the Indiana Family Institute, which was supporting a marriage amendment. He came back with a ringing endorsement of the amendment and family values.
His faith-first approach also might have cost him his job in Tampa Bay, where he transformed a struggling Buccaneers squad. Although Dungy turned losing seasons into playoff appearances (he has the best coaching record in team history), he didn't reach the Super Bowl quickly enough and was fired after six seasons.
He thought about going into the prison ministry full-time. He also quickly got other coaching offers. A persuasive call came from Colts owner Jim Irsay, who was looking for a winning coach but a family-friendly one as well. He was impressed with the way Dungy kept football in perspective. "He has things in balance," Irsay told WORLD. "If he loses a football game, he doesn't look at himself as any less as a person."
Irsay sees a competitive drive in Dungy, but at a deeper level. "Anyone can rant and rave and throw the headset down and kick a blackboard at halftime," Irsay said. "But is he willing to have the difficult conversations with people in the organization, with players, with coaches? Will he close the door, one on one, and hold people accountable?"
Irsay sees the suffering in his own life, as well as Dungy's, as a spiritual test. Irsay lost a sister, Roberta, 15, in an auto accident. His handicapped brother Tom died in 1999. Jim Irsay had a bout with addiction to prescription drugs in recent years. "Almost all spiritual growth-the touchstone of it is suffering, through those tough seasons," he says. "That is what gives your faith a chance to grow. If it doesn't you can become bitter."
Dungy's toughest trial was the loss of his son James to suicide in December 2005. "What it forces you to do is live in the present," he reflected for USA Today a few months later. "Make the present as good as you can make it. Because you can't count on the future, and you can't go back and redo the past."
His suffering helped him to be an even more effective exhorter to parents to make the most of the time with their children, because the time might be short. He has been careful to carve out time for his children, but NFL coaches always have more work to do. "You want to do a great job at both. Logic tells you that you need more time at home, but reality is different," he says. "The times that you are home, you have to zero in and make sure you're doing what's important to them. It's not necessarily what they want to do. It may be studying with them. You've got to make them know that they're important."
When his young children reach the teen years, the 51-year-old Dungy wants to get more time with them. "When the second group of young kids gets to middle school and high school, I don't think I'll have the energy to look after them and coach."
Those close to the coach attest that his faith helps him not only with fatherhood but also with coaching. "The inspiring thing about Tony Dungy's story is that good guys do finish first," says Colts owner Irsay. "You do not have to compromise your core values to win and to be competitive." Irsay sees Dungy as humble and quiet, yet not weak. "A humble person can be strong and disciplined and tough and all those things you need to be," Irsay said.
Dungy knows what is truly important. He recalls an interview with an NFL owner who asked whether football was his most important priority in life. Dungy answered, "I want to win. I plan to win. I plan to bring you a Super Bowl. But no, it's not nearly the most important thing, and I'm not going to be here 24 hours a day."
He didn't get that job. But he's still a father.
Lovie Smith was afraid of water. He didn't know how to swim. But neither stopped him from jumping into a pool back in 1988 to save his then 2-year-old son Matthew, who lay lifelessly on the bottom. As Smith watched paramedics bring Matthew back from the brink of death, he began to realize that life is full of opportunities.
With that harrowing experience still in his memory, Smith has taken advantage of his position as head coach of the Chicago Bears to save children from less fortunate families from slipping through the cracks.
Smith began coaching football after a successful playing career, winning three Texas State championships as a linebacker at Big Sandy High School and being named a two-time All American at the University of Tulsa.
A steady ascension up the collegiate coaching ranks culminated in 1996 with a job offer from Tony Dungy, a fellow Christian who was the head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at the time. While Smith was building his own resumé, he was also learning to balance his work in football with his passion for serving others.
Smith knows not to take anything for granted, and he uses that as motivation to help those around him. Neither of his parents saw him lead the Chicago Bears to Super Bowl XLI-his father, Thurman, died from emphysema in 1996, and his mother, Mae, is blind because she suffers from type 2 diabetes.
Smith, 49, is now an official spokesman for the American Diabetes Association and donates 10 tickets to every Bears game for children who suffer from diabetes. He and his wife, MaryAnne, also have a foundation that helps provide college scholarships to needy students. The success Smith has had as a football coach has enabled him to expand the effects of his charitable work.
It is difficult for Smith to accept that his father, who attended his high-school football games every Friday night despite battling alcoholism, was unable to see all the fruits of his son's hard work. "It is bittersweet when there are people who you know would've been so excited," Smith told Ebony in 2004, at the conclusion of his first season as the Chicago Bears head coach. "I think about my dad, how he would have just loved it, how I would have liked to see his face, bragging to his buddies about what I was doing."
-Jason Bailey is a writer in Quincy, Ill.