Posted: Friday December 23, 2005 11:43AM; Updated: Friday December 23, 2005 12:07PM
Tony Dungy with his son, James, after a December 1997 home game with the Bucs.
Because Tony Dungy is such an inspirational man, because nearly everyone who meets can't help but admire him, it's tempting to believe that he's capable of overcoming any horrific circumstance, even the most tragic occurrence imaginable.
As Dungy and his tight-knit family cope with the death of his 18-year-old son, James, who died of an apparent suicide early Thursday morning, the pain and grief, undoubtedly, will be overwhelming. That this awful experience will play out publicly makes Dungy's burden seem unfathomable.
Yet if anyone in pro football is capable of carrying on, in the near- and long-term, it's this deeply religious, inherently decent man.
"The thing that will get him through this is the same thing that has gotten him through all of the hard times -- losing his mother, and then his father," said Jets coach Herm Edwards, who grew close to Dungy while working on his staff in Tampa Bay. "His faith is what will get him through, somehow. But it's so, so tough."
I called Edwards on Thursday evening looking, I guess, for some sense of comfort. Ostensibly, as a journalist, I wanted to get his reaction, but every question I asked or considered asking seemed hopelessly forced, trite or inappropriate.
Earlier, I had spoken briefly with one of Dungy's former players in Tampa, Cleveland Browns quarterback Trent Dilfer, who I knew would be taking this news as hard as anyone in the NFL. Two years and eight months ago, at a memorial service for his 5-year-old son, Trevin, Dilfer delivered an amazingly poised, unplanned speech that brought 2,000 attendees to tears. Since then he and his wife, Cass, have displayed strength and grace on a daily basis, but that doesn't mean the pain is gone, or will ever disappear.
Unlike Dilfer, who endured months of soul-searching before deciding to return to football, Dungy's nightmare coincides with the stretch run of what has thus far been a magical season. If he returns to guide the Colts through the playoffs, and possibly the Super Bowl, Dungy will feel the coalesced support of a sports-watching nation.
Yet at some point the insanity of the playoff run will fade, and he and his wife, Lauren, will continue to be tested in ways most of us, thankfully, cannot imagine. That's when he'll draw on 51 years of sincere, principled living and figure out some way to endure.
Understand that Dungy, more than anyone I've met in his profession, has put family and faith above football on the most basic of levels. Not only did he help launch All-Pro Dad, later becoming the nonprofit organization's national spokesman, but he also made a point of interacting with his children, eschewing the sleep-at-the-office madness to which most of his peers have succumbed.