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Under Pressure

It's not easy being the son or daughter of a famous coach or athlete

January 15, 2006|From the Associated Press

Meagan Cowher finally found a place where she's known by her first name.

On a campus where famous kids are no big deal, she's able to blend in among classmates and basketball teammates. To her friends, she's Meg -- not the daughter of Pittsburgh Steeler Coach Bill Cowher.

"No one knew because the last name never popped up," said Cowher, a sophomore forward for Princeton. "I wasn't just known for strictly being the coach's daughter. You value being anonymous. It was nice blending in and not sticking out."

Being the child of a famous coach or athlete often isn't easy.

Coaches and players spend long periods of time away from their families, juggling parenthood and the pressure to win. Children feel pressure, too, being separated from a parent while trying to live up to a famous name.

Such pressures were highlighted last month following the apparent suicide of James Dungy, the 18-year-old son of Indianapolis Colt Coach Tony Dungy.

Some of those famous parents understand the burden on their children.

New Kansas City Chief Coach Herman Edwards played in the NFL for 10 seasons. His son, Marcus, just finished a career as a receiver at San Diego State and is looking for a job, preferably away from football.

"Sometimes that's hard for a kid," the elder Edwards said. "If you're in celebrity status and you become that child, people look at you differently. You can say they don't, but they do. They're only kids, but because they have your last name, there's more pressure on them."

"It's hard," Marcus Edwards said. "I want to be successful in life. I don't want to be a failure or feel like I'm going to let my family down."

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Herman Edwards watched silently as his close friend, Tony Dungy, fought back tears at his son's funeral.

Questions flooded Edwards' mind: Have I been a good father? Have I done enough for Marcus? Could this happen to me? Or any other coach?

Suicide is the third-leading cause of death among 15- to 24-year-olds, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Males are four times more likely to commit suicide than females.

Kids kill themselves for a variety of reasons, and suicide affects families across the country -- no matter their name. There are many risk factors, including a history of mental health problems, loss, isolation and feelings of hopelessness.

Rick Aberman, a sports psychotherapist with the Lennick Aberman group in Minneapolis, said there sometimes is a disconnect between famous parents and their children -- regardless of the time spent together. And a high-profile suicide tests those bonds.

"That shakes your world a lot," Aberman said. "Someone who has been so successful, so achievement oriented, something happens and they think, 'Where am I going in my life? Who am I? Is this really how I want to be? Do I know my kids?'

"It's like the workaholic who gets to 50 and has a heart attack and realizes: 'I don't know my kids. I don't know me. I've got all the things, I have all this success, but what is really important has been missing.' "

Last April, Tennessee Titan Coach Jeff Fisher became the first NFL coach to serve as an ambassador for the Jason Foundation, a Hendersonville, Tenn., organization whose mission is raising awareness and prevention of youth suicide.

"I wanted to get involved just to raise awareness," Fisher said. "Teen suicide is far-reaching. It involves all types of teenagers." He added that what happened to James Dungy "hit home for all of us because of who Tony is."

"It makes us all think, it makes us all appreciate what we have," Fisher said. "I think it makes us realize how important it is to take time to spend with our kids."

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Some children embrace their famous name. Laila Ali, the daughter of Muhammad Ali, acknowledges her last name has helped her boxing career.

"I have a very important, famous last name behind me. That has got me to the level that I'm at now," she said in an interview last year. "Of course, it's my skills and me backing it up, but without that name it doesn't matter how good of a fighter I was."

Warrior forward Mike Dunleavy believes growing up with a father as a coach helped.

"The time I got to spend with him when he was coaching, that was great," Dunleavy said. "That was a tremendous advantage for me. I was having a good time with it, but I didn't realize I was learning so much at the same time."

Others simply learn to deal with the burden.

When Tommy Bowden played for his dad, Bobby, at West Virginia, he remembers his father being hung in effigy.

His own kids now must deal with the tough times at Clemson, which is in such a small town that everyone "knows their blood type, their shoe size, their favorite color," said Tommy Bowden, whose son is breaking the family tradition and becoming a lawyer.

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