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NFL: A true Believer

You could stack a hundred different kinds of sorrow and misery on top of one another and it wouldn't come anywhere close to matching the paralyzing heartbreak of losing a child.

You could stack a hundred different kinds of sorrow and misery on top of one another and it wouldn't come anywhere close to matching the paralyzing heartbreak of losing a child.

Sons and daughters are supposed to bury their parents, not the other way around. When it happens, as it did to Tony and Lauren Dungy a little more than 13 months ago, the pain is unspeakable, the damage permanent.

"I still don't know that I'm going to be OK," said the Colts coach, whose 18-year-old son James committed suicide on Dec. 22, 2005. "There's no shot you can take to make the pain go away. But you eventually realize that you're still able to function. It was never anything that all of a sudden things flashed. It was just time to move forward."

How cruelly ironic it is that, little more than a year after James' death, Dungy finds himself only 60 minutes away from the greatest triumph of his professional life.

The coach who, like his quarterback, often has been accused of not being able to win the big one, has his team in the Super Bowl.

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Leaning heavily on his faith, Dungy has managed to do one of the best coaching jobs of his career while publicly mourning a son who took his own life.

"I think God gives you tests to see if you're going to stay true to what you believe and stay faithful," Dungy said. "For me, that's what it was; having to continue to believe. Sometimes, when you have disappointments, it makes the final destination that much sweeter."

For the record, the "final destination" that Dungy is referring to is not the Dolphin Stadium victory stand Sunday night.

A testimony of his faith

The strength that Dungy has shown in dealing with his son's death has been an inspiration to others who have had to deal with similar personal tragedies.

"It doesn't surprise me the way Tony has handled it," said his longtime friend, Kansas City Chiefs coach Herm Edwards. "He knows he's in a situation where, because of who he is, everything he does, people look and watch him to see how he's going to react.

"With the national attention that (James' death) drew, Tony wanted to make sure that he stood strong with his faith. And that people who have the same faith as he does, that they could believe in that and take comfort in that.

"There's been some (difficult) moments, no doubt. But I think, for the most part, the way he's done it, he's made a lot of other people become strong."

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The color of Tony Dungy's skin will be the focus of much media attention this week, as he and the Bears' Lovie Smith become the first African-American head coaches to coach in the Super Bowl. But Edwards hopes this historic milestone won't overshadow the game or the excellent job Dungy and Smith have done to get their teams to this point.

"There's going to be a lot of attention on (the race of both coaches)," Edwards said. "But it's about the game. Both Lovie and Tony recognize that. The game's bigger than everything. We knew that as players. We know that as coaches. What these guys have accomplished as coaches speaks for itself. They just happen to be black."

The pressure eases

Last month, on the eve of the first-round playoff game between the Colts and the Chiefs, Dungy, Edwards, Smith and their wives had dinner together at an Indianapolis restaurant.

"We talked about (getting to the Super Bowl)," Edwards said. "We said we can't screw things up. Somebody's got to finish this thing off. Obviously, they didn't screw it up."

In 11 seasons as an NFL head coach, including five with the Colts, Dungy has taken his team to the playoffs an impressive nine times. But before this season, his postseason record was a disappointing 5-8. He'd made it to the conference championship game only twice in his previous eight postseason trips.

Critics have taken the fact that the laid-back Dungy doesn't often scream or shout or publicly chastise his players as a sign of coaching weakness. But nothing could be further from the truth.

"Tony's very disciplined, he believes in detail," said Edwards, who has known Dungy for 30 years and spent five seasons on his staff in Tampa Bay. "He does not panic. He's a very good teacher. He understands what he wants to get done. Players trust him. He earns the players trust.

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"He's one of those coaches, he doesn't belittle players. But he makes his point in a certain way that you know he's very, very firm in what he believes in. Players know you don't cross the line with him. He's got their respect. He's one of those coaches that, when you play for him as a player, you feel that if you didn't accomplish what you set out to do, you hurt his feelings. You hurt him. And you don't want to hurt him. He's one of those kind of guys."

Future plans

Dungy is 51. He and Lauren adopted an infant son last summer, something they had discussed before James committed suicide. The possibility that the Super Bowl could be his last game certainly exists, though Dungy said it's something he hasn't thought a lot about.

"I'll sit down with Jim (Irsay, the Colts owner) at the end of the year, and I'll sit down with my wife and we'll do just what we do at the end of every year," he said. "First thing, you have to make sure they want you back. I never take that for granted anymore."

Rest assured, they do want him back. For as long as Dungy wants to be there.

"I don't know that (he will retire after the Super Bowl)," Edwards said. "But I do know that he's not going to be one of those old-timers who can't give it up. I don't see him doing this past 60. No doubt about that. Now, when (he will retire), I don't know.

"He's always been a guy of conviction and vision. He's a great man of faith. And he ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^makes a lot of his decisions on that. Whatever decision he makes, it will be well thought out. It won't be an emotional deal because he doesn't make emotional decisions."

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