A man so good deals with so much bad



LUTZ, Fla. -- Leave it to Tony Dungy.

Amid all his tumult and tragedy, all the pain and the strain, all the tears and the fears, it was he who comforted us.

Dungy stood there at a church pulpit yesterday, his dead son James lying in a casket beneath him, and, miraculously, he made everybody feel better - even the reclusive owner who once fired him.

Can you believe it? The most horrific personal tragedy any parent could ever endure - the suicidal death of one of your children - and there's Tony Dungy at the funeral, thanking Tampa Bay Buccaneers owner Malcolm Glazer for the way he used to treat his son.

"Jamie was 9 years old when we came here to Tampa," Dungy, now the coach of the Indianapolis Colts, told a gathering of some 2,000 at Idylwild Baptist Church. "When we would take bus rides to the airport, Mr. Glazer would sit in the front seat. Every time my son would come on the bus, he'd talk to Jamie. And he'd never talk to him about football, but he'd always talk to him about being a good son. And then he would talk to me about taking care of my boys and being a good dad. Every single trip we took."

And then Tony Dungy looked the man who fired him in the eye and said, "I love you and appreciate you for that."

How can any coach be this good?

How can any man be this good?

And that's the real tragedy here. How can this much bad befall a man so good? Why should a man who tries so hard to be a loving, caring father have to endure a tortured son dying a dark and lonely death?

Too many times, we treat NFL coaches not as people but as topics. They are discussion points for sports radio callers to dissect. They are fodder for sports columnists to second-guess. They are the poll question on Internet Web sites. (Which coach will be fired first - Dom Capers, Mike Tice, Mike Mularkey?)

Not Tony Dungy. He has always been different. Didn't matter who you were - team bus driver, cafeteria lady, even lowly sports writer - Dungy treated you with respect. And, so, when the word spread last week about Dungy's 18-year-old son taking his own life, we didn't think about how it would affect Dungy the football coach; we agonized about how it would effect Dungy the dad.

The first thought that popped into my head wasn't, "Will Dungy's team be OK?" It was, "God, I hope Tony's OK."

Should have known, Dungy, the unfaltering man of faith, is handling death with the same grace and class that defines his life. Which is why there were head coaches and Hall of Famers and equipment men and ball boys filling the church pews yesterday. And messages of condolences sent from all walks of life - from the president of the United States to Reggie Roberts, the former Bucs PR guy who walked out of the funeral shaking his head incredulously and saying of Dungy's dignity, "I don't belong in the same church as that man."

On a church stage filled with flowers, wreaths and harps, Dungy delivered a message sprinkled with smiles, sobs and substance.

"Our young boys in this country, they need to hear from you," Dungy told the players. "Our boys are getting a lot of the wrong messages about what it means to be a man in this world. About how you should act, and how you should dress, and how you should talk, and how you should treat people. They don't always get the right message, but you guys have the right messages. You know it. You live it."

Now, more than ever, Dungy must be dealing with the inner conflict and questions of what-if. What if he had spent more time with Jamie? What if he had been there to see the warning signs?

Up at the pulpit, he is thinking back to Thanksgiving - the last time he saw his son alive. Jamie was rushing off to the Indianapolis airport to fly back to Tampa, and Tony forgot to hug him.

"Parents, hug your kids every chance you get," Dungy says. "Tell them you love them."

His voice cracks.

"You never know when it will be your last time."

And Tony Dungy, the closest thing the sports world has to a saint, embraces his wife, walks past a wooden casket and out of the church.

The choir sings "I love Jesus."

Mike Bianchi writes for the Orlando Sentinel.

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