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Coach Dad

Father's Day | Family comes first for Tony Dungy, and his Super Bowl champion Colts team has not suffered for it

Issue: "Fixing Islam," June 16, 2007

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.

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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."

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