A Year Later, Christmas Means Something Different for the Dungys

By Michael Wilbon
Thursday, December 21, 2006

Not much good can come of this week for Tony Dungy and his family.

Not even pulling off the daunting task of winning two games within six days, with one over the Bengals accomplished Monday night and one possible on Christmas Eve at Houston, is likely to bring much joy. Not with Dec. 22 approaching. It was on Dec. 22 a year ago that Dungy, the Indianapolis Colts' coach, and his wife, Lauren, learned that their 18-year-old son, James, had died in what later was ruled a suicide.

It had been such a wonderful run until the Sunday before that day, when a perfect season ended at 13-0 with a loss to San Diego. The following Monday was a downer, but only a professional disappointment. Coaches lose games every season, sometimes lots of them. But that became the most insignificant thing in the world a few days later.

A year later, it's impossible to see how the week before Christmas can be a happy time. "It's going to be a difficult week," Dungy said late Monday night. "But you know, I've got a lot of support here, a lot of people around me. I think this week will be even more difficult for my wife. . . . I'm more concerned about her."

There's plenty of concern to go around, of course. The whole state of Indiana is aware that James Dungy died a year ago, and the most sincere wishes are bound to pour in from everywhere, from people the coach has never met to those closest to him every day, like his quarterback Peyton Manning. "Oh, I've thought about it, yes," Manning said as Monday night turned into Tuesday morning. Manning, whose paternal grandfather committed suicide in 1971, had been going through a copy of Sports Illustrated a day or two earlier and found a photo of Tony Dungy when he was in high school. "Tony had been in 'Faces In The Crowd' . . . and I'm looking at that picture of Tony thinking, 'Damned if he doesn't look just like his son.' "

The Colts' players and coaches and staffers probably don't know what to say. Nobody knows exactly what to say. I've known Dungy my entire professional career and didn't know what to say to him Monday night, imagining the difficulty of this week. "I think," Manning said, "I just want to be there for him. I think I have to let him lead the conversation, and take it wherever he wants to take it."

Manning smiled at the thought of talking to his coach as he does his stretching, which apparently happens often. Dungy almost always leads those conversations. Last week, Dungy talked about the death of Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt, the force behind the creation of the AFL and its merger with the NFL. Manning thought about the many Saturdays over recent seasons when Dungy inquires about players' pregnant wives and ill parents or children in school assemblies. "He's always there for us," Manning said.

"I think of the Saturdays when he's checking up on all of our families, asking us if we need something or if he can help with something.

"But who can relate to what Tony and his family are going through? We all feel for them and want to be there for them. But the only people, really, who can relate to this are people who have been through something similar. . . . I know this. He's got such a wonderful, tight-knit family, and his faith is so strong. . . . I know I just want to be there for him if I can."

They were shaken, of course, last year. The players and coaches had seen James often because he would visit his dad at work, like kids everywhere. He was easy to notice at 6 feet 6 or so. Mike Alstott, who played for Dungy when he coached the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, recalled just after his death, "If James wasn't here it was like, 'Where's James?' He was part of this football team."

And football has its demands. Unlike most of us, who might just follow those emotions on the anniversary of a loved one's death, especially a teenage son, at least for a few days, pro football calls on the Colts to be up by Sunday afternoon in Houston for the business of game day.

The anniversary comes at a particularly crucial time for the Colts. They'd had another good run deep into the fall, going 9-0 before losing three of four games. There was great civic concern over the defense being terrible, great concern over Manning and the offense being held to 21 points or fewer in those three defeats, questions about whether the team was in the kind of tailspin that suggested their window of opportunity -- one of the relatively new catch phrases in sports -- was closing.

Then Indianapolis won Monday night. Manning found Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne early and often, later comparing his incredibly reliable wide receivers to "that old blanket that you like." The defense allowed only one touchdown, and that after a special teams turnover. People went home happy about the Colts, happy like they have been most Sundays these last few seasons.

Winning may get them through this week leading up to Christmas, but it's going to be much more difficult than that for Tony and Lauren Dungy and their five children. It's going to take the same faith they relied upon last year and hugs from friends, players and acquaintances. Probably, it's at a time like this when a coach most appreciates his team and when his players know that, in this case, being there is the most important -- and only -- thing they can do.

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