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SUPER BOWL XLI Chicago Bears vs. Indianapolis Colts,
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Dungy draws from convictions

Colts coach doesn't waver from value system and earns the respect of players and admiration of fans.

January 29, 2007|Sam Farmer | Times Staff Writer

MIAMI — A pampered star? Tony Dungy dealt with one of those long before he became coach of the Indianapolis Colts.

Juvenile behavior? Dungy had seen it.

A decked-out crib? Nothing new to him.

Back when he was playing for the University of Minnesota, you see, Dungy wasn't just a record-setting quarterback but a straight-arrow, responsible citizen. That's why one of the team's assistant coaches, Mo Forte, routinely hired him to baby-sit his toddler daughter.

Well, maybe hired isn't the word.

"He was free," Forte recalled. "We couldn't pay our players."

Had Dungy been on the payroll as a quarterback, he would have racked up serious overtime. It wasn't unusual for Golden Gophers coaches to show up at the athletic department in the early morning to find Dungy already breaking down game film.

"He didn't have a key," said Forte, now coach at Division I-AA Arkansas Pine Bluff. "We never did figure out how he'd get in. All we knew is he was in there studying. You can see where it led him."

Dungy, whose team will play the Chicago Bears on Sunday in Super Bowl XLI, has become an inspiration and example for countless people. Not only has he coached the Colts to the brink of their first championship since January 1971, when they were the Baltimore Colts, but he has dealt with unspeakable personal tragedy in doing so.

There is a historic element to this championship matchup. The game pits Dungy against Lovie Smith, his close friend and protege, the first two African American coaches in the Super Bowl. They're also two of the game's most friendly, approachable coaches.

"I've always coached the way I've wanted to be coached, and I know Lovie has done the same thing," Dungy said. "For guys to have success when it maybe goes against the grain, against the culture ... and I know I probably didn't get a couple jobs early in my career because people couldn't see my personality or the way I was going to do it."

Dungy said he and Smith share the same religious convictions, both are devout Christians, and the same philosophy that winning a football game is important but far from the most important thing in life.

"I know how those guys are treated in Chicago, and how they play tough, disciplined football even though there's not a lot of profanity from the coaches," he said. "There's none of that win-at-all-costs atmosphere. And I think for two guys to show that you can win that way, I think that's just as important for the country to see."

Always lurking below the surface is that Dungy is quietly coping with heartbreak. Thirteen months ago, his 18-year-old son, James, hanged himself in his apartment in Lutz, Fla. He was found by his girlfriend. Earlier that year, he had been treated for a prescription drug overdose.

Tony Dungy, who has said that talking about the tragedy publicly only exacerbates the pain for his family, delicately sidesteps or redirects questions about the suicide. He has leaned heavily on his faith to help him navigate every day.

Colts owner Jim Irsay said Dungy has been an inspiration "not just for me and our franchise and our players, but the whole city and many people throughout the country. What it talks about is a faith and your spiritual condition.... When your spiritual condition is strong and it's grounded, when difficult, difficult, unimaginable things come in, it gives you the foundation to go forward.

"He also knows that as tough as it is, there's other stories that are even tougher. Whole families taken out from car accidents or great tragedies. So it's the adage I cried for no shoes until I saw the man with no feet. So it's perspective and being able to still have gratitude and say, 'You know what, I had this child for 19 years. There are some people that were never even able to have a child.' "

That strength this season helped Colts receiver Reggie Wayne cope with the death of his older brother, Rashad, who was killed in September when the delivery truck he was driving crashed into a highway guardrail in Kenner, La.

"Obviously, he experienced a lot that I experienced," Wayne said of his coach. "You are in a situation in your life when you are at the lowest point, and just to hear from somebody that has actually been through it, it helps you out a lot. Coach Dungy is a strong man, a strong soul, so he knows exactly what's going on Just giving me some advice was huge for me."

Dungy, 51, has been leading NFL players for the last 25 years, first as an assistant coach from 1981 through 1995 with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Kansas City Chiefs and Minnesota Vikings, then as a head coach for six seasons with Tampa Bay and the last five with Indianapolis.

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