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Archive for Sunday, December 25, 2005

Commentary: Football no longer seems important

Don’t expect Colts’ coach Dungy to return anytime soon following tragic death of son

December 25, 2005

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— Tony Dungy is a friend of mine.

Dungy and I got to know each other in 1989 when he was an assistant coach with the Kansas City Chiefs and I was the NFL reporter for a Kansas City newspaper. We had a couple of common bonds - Michigan roots and a Big Ten education.

Dungy went on to coach in Minneapolis, Tampa and finally Indianapolis. I moved on to become the NFL writer for The Dallas Morning News.

We remained in contact through the years, both personally and professionally.

Last January, my 80-year-old mother was to undergo quadruple bypass surgery in Detroit. It was the week of the AFC semifinal game between Dungy's Colts and the New England Patriots.

I talked to him from Detroit before the surgery and told him I'd stop by the locker room and see him after the game that weekend in Foxboro.

I never made it. The Patriots won in a romp. I did my reporting in the New England locker room and by the time I made it to the Colts' locker room, Dungy was gone.

The next morning at the airport I picked up the voice mails off my cellphone. There was one - an 8:30 a.m. call from Dungy.

"Sorry I didn't get to see you and talk to you after the game," he said. "How's your mom doing?"

Less than 12 hours after his superb 12-4 season had come to a crashing end - and in the wake of all the prattle from newspaper, television and sports talk that he and Peyton Manning still couldn't win the big one - Dungy was calling to inquire about my mother's health.

There was no mention of any football game.

That was Tony Dungy. There are more important things in his life than football. It's OK to lose a game. But you never want to lose a family member. Dungy buried both of his parents in the previous three years. He called that morning as one concerned son to another.

Family has always come first for Dungy. On the road at the team hotel on Saturday nights, you could find Dungy watching college football games on television with his teenage sons James and Eric.

You could find the Dungy boys on the field on Sundays within eyeshot of the TV cameras in the Colts' bench area. You'd see them at practice or in the coaching offices, in season and out, whether he was working as the head coach at Tampa Bay or Indianapolis.

Dungy is the head coach of the Colts during his 50-, 60- and sometimes even 70-hour work weeks. But he's the husband of Lauren and father of Tiara, James, Eric, Jordan and Jade 24/7. He treated every day as bring-your-kids-to-work day.

Last Monday, a day after the Colts' storybook quest for a perfect season had come to an end at the hands of the Chargers, I sat in Dungy's office as he showed me plays from the game on a monitor. Seated at the desk was Eric, playing a video game on another monitor. If older son James had been in town, I'm sure he'd have been in the building that day, too.

But James was not in town. He had returned to Tampa, Fla., where he was attending school. Three days later, Dungy would receive an early-morning phone call from Tampa telling him that James, 18, was dead of an apparent suicide.

Dungy was not in Seattle on Saturday for the Super Bowl preview between the top two seeds in each conference, the Colts and the Seahawks.

His identity is no longer that of head coach of the Colts. It's that of grieving father. Dungy will bury his oldest son Tuesday.

The Colts close out the regular season next Sunday at home against Arizona. I doubt Dungy will be there. The Colts have a first-round playoff bye, then play an AFC semifinal game the weekend of Jan 14-15. I'm not sure Dungy will be back for that one, either.

I'm not sure when Dungy will be back. Football is his job. Family is his life. A good man, a good father and a good friend has suffered the most tragic loss of a lifetime.

Football no longer seems as important to any of us who consider Tony Dungy a friend.

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