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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, January 2, 2006

Dungy's faith shows on sideline

By Mike Lopresti


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INDIANAPOLIS He jogged off the field yesterday with the game ball in his left hand. A mourning father and winning coach, waving to the crowd that roared his name. Sympathy seldom comes this loudly.

It had been a tragic week for Tony Dungy. Tuesday, he buried his son. Apparent suicide. But this was game day in the NFL. So he went back to work, because that is what his faith and his heart and his wife told him to do.

How important can a meaningless game be? Indianapolis vs. Arizona yesterday meant nothing in the standings. But everything in the fractured world of Tony Dungy.

"More than anything, I think I had to make a statement," Dungy said afterward, of what had brought him back to the sidelines, after one of the worst weeks of his life. "If I'm a Christian, if I'm going to claim to be a Christian ... I've got to be able to move on. As tough as it is. "My wife and I discussed it and that's something we wanted to do and felt it was necessary. We're still healing, but it's important to move forward."

The Indianapolis Colts, with nothing left to win in the regular season, treated yesterday as if it were an August exhibition, in terms of who played. Several starters never appeared. Peyton Manning put in one series. The 17-13 victory saved with 13 seconds left when a replay review overturned an Arizona touchdown had no football significance.

Dramatic, yes. Important, no.

Except to the soul of the Colts.

They were determined to win for Dungy, no matter how many backups played. At the end, it was regular safety Mike Doss who demanded the ball from one of the officials "I'm taking that to my coach," he said and carried it to Dungy.

"It's a salute to him," Doss said later, "for being so strong."

"It'll remind me of how much I'll be proud of these guys," Dungy said. "All our guys are close. This just gave the world a chance to really see it."

Dungy was determined to be there with them. To send his own message about belief and faith, and how to get through the dark days.

There has been much for him to think about since James Dungy's funeral. All the phone calls and e-mails, for example, from other parents who have buried their own children.

"What you realize is that you're not alone," he said. "It's not something that hits just you and you only."

And there were the moments he had to himself, to decide the message he wanted to send. Love your kids. Cherish your family. Try to understand that all things happen for a reason, even the horrors. So he had time to return to practice Thursday. Time to coach yesterday. But no time to be bitter. No time, as a parent, to ask in anger why.

"You always have those questions," he said yesterday. "But I never felt like God dealt us any hand that was wrong, or anything like that.

"We have to hope the future is in God's hands. It's a hurtful time because I'm going to miss my son. But it's not like I don't have any hope.

"If I can only show my best foot forward when everything's going well when we win or when you get a new contract that doesn't say the whole thing about my faith."

That is what drew him to the sideline yesterday. When Dungy first walked onto the field, the fans stood and cheered. He waved in appreciation and flashed the thumbs-up to someone in the stands. Then he put on his head phones and stood by himself on the sidelines, alone in his thoughts.

The teams were introduced. Kickoff neared. Life went on.

Mike Lopresti is a columnist for Gannett News Service.