When Tony Dungy stepped down as coach of the Indianapolis Colts recently, it was a sad day for many people for many different reasons. I can definitely be counted amongst the many here in Indianapolis and across the country who were sad to see the coaching legend hang it up.
It certainly was a joy to live in the city of Indianapolis and follow the Dungy led Colts. The ascension of the Colts during the Dungy/Manning/Polian era still amazes me. I remember the excitement that some fellow football fans and I had as Dungy was a candidate and subsequently announced as the Head coach of the Indianapolis Colts.
There were plenty of detractors who harped and squawked that Dungy was too soft or made other excuses, but I knew that something special was going to happen in the most unlikely of all places.
Indiana is not exactly a football state. Everyone knows that basketball rules in the Hoosier state. Regarding the Colts in particular, there was a lingering culture of losing surrounding and permeating the team.
Fans generally had a lackadaisical attitude towards the team that was only recently crushed with the Super Bowl victory in the 2006 season. Fans always harped back to the 1995 team that came one play from going to the Super Bowl.
This became a mantra that fans clung to like a favorite childhood blanket, the season that almost was. The first sign that this sentiment would change came when the franchise drafted Peyton Manning, but something was still missing.
The moment Tony Dungy was hired I knew that the improbable was going to happen. I knew that against all odds a real football team was going to be assembled in Indianapolis.
A team that would win consistently year after year, a football team that the city would be proud of, a team that could not only get to the playoffs, but go deep into the playoffs consistently, a football team that gives fans, god forbid, a dream of reaching the Super Bowl and bringing a championship to the city of Indianapolis.
Dungy had turned that franchise into a formidable NFL team. What would he do once he had a great quarterback like Peyton Manning in his hands?
Seven years later the dream has become reality, seven straight double digit winning seasons, seven straight playoff appearances and a Super Bowl victory. Consider it mission accomplished. Indianapolis has now become Colts crazed.
Much has been made of Tony Dungy’s career in the wake of his retirement. Tony Dungy’s achievements both professional and civic are too numerous, compelling and monumental to be covered here.
The numerous articles in the past week that have dotted the sports news landscape have covered his amazing achievements for the world to see.
My love of coach Dungy extended beyond his unbelievable resume and achievements to a personal level. I will never forget his kindness and the example he set for the world on overcoming a tragedy.
During his reign as Tampa Bay Buccaneer’s head coach, my grandmother lived in the Tampa FL area. Through phone conversations I got to hear about this new coach they had in Tampa. She told me stories of how professional he was, how kind he was, and how he “finally has these boys playing some real ball down here.”
The latter point was the one that so amazed me, the Tampa Bay Bucs were suddenly for real.
During Tony’s first month as head coach in Indianapolis, I sent him an email about my grandmother and how much she loved him. A week later I got a personally autographed picture in the mail from coach Dungy to her.
Needless to say I was excited and so was my grandmother. It meant a lot to her and she died a couple of years after receiving it.
In late December of 2005 Tony Dungy’s son James died from suicide at the tender age of 18. This tragic event hit me harder than the average fan. My own stepbrother and best friend had taken his life years earlier in a similar part of Florida.
The news of James Dungy’s passing was instantaneously like reliving the event for me. All the emotions and the pain and suffering came to the forefront again. During that time I felt like I was living with the Dungy family and experiencing their pain with them.
What was most important to me during this time was how coach Dungy reacted to this terrible tragedy. His strength and courage helped me to cope with my loss. He taught me how to move on with my life.
I wondered if this man who had experienced the greatest loss of his life could continue on, not just to exist and coach again, but to be successful again and win the ultimate prize, a Super Bowl. I wondered if I could do it also, to put away all the anger and guilt and go on winning in my life.
So I watched and I listened as Tony Dungy had to deal with his loss in the public eye. I watched when he spoke during the funeral and during the days afterwards. I watched as he returned to work.
The Colts finished the regular season 14-2 and were the heavy Super Bowl favorite. I wondered and hoped that they would win the Super Bowl that year, I wanted to see Tony Dungy get his Super Bowl ring after experiencing this tragedy.
It never happened. The Pittsburgh Steelers bounced the Colts from the playoffs immediately in a game that was fraught with tension and heartbreak.
Like all Colts fans I was disappointed and dejected. Most of all I wanted to see them win for coach Dungy and myself. I saw the win as vindication for coach Dungy, myself, and all Colts fans.
I listened to coach Dungy after the loss as he told us that the team would fight on next year and that the loss was nothing compared with losing his son. After several weeks of being disappointed, I, like other Colts fans, began to look forward to next season.
The 2006 season turned out to be the season of vindication. The Colts entered the playoffs as an underdog wild-card team. The feeling around Indianapolis was that of another decent season, another early exit from the playoffs, another Manning/Dungy choke job. The team couldn’t stop the run and certainly couldn’t put together a Super Bowl run.
Luckily the public perception was wrong and the Colts made their much publicized Super Bowl run ending in victory. This proved to be the ultimate victory for all parties involved, especially myself, and proved once and for what you can accomplish when you handle adversity with dignity and class.
I will always remember coach Dungy for his contribution to the city of Indianapolis, for bringing a winning team here, for teaching us the value of courage and leadership, for his civic and charitable contributions, and for teaching me that in my life I could overcome tragedy and sorrow.
After Tony Dungy stepped down, Jim Caldwell was introduced as head football coach for The Indianapolis Colts. During Caldwell’s introductory press conference I felt a little anxiety at first.
Would things be the same? Would the Colts take a step backwards during his tenure? Is he the right coach for the job? Would we ever see another Super Bowl celebration on Monument Circle?
These feelings soon gave way as I realized that Tony Dungy would not leave the Colts and their newly rabid fans if he weren’t certain that the franchise was in good hands. He would not leave us or the team if he didn’t think the franchise couldn’t reach greater heights than it already has and return to the Super Bowl.
You can call it a gift from him to the franchise and the city.
Thank you Mr. Dungy, we will miss you.