The Inspirational Story of Coach Tony Dungy: Quiet Strength

Tony Dungy's book Quiet Strength

Football is a fun job

I remembered hearing about Tony Dungy being the first African-American coach to win the Super Bowl back in 2007.   Hearing he was also a committed Christian, I had wanted to learn more about him at the time, but never got around to it.  It was only recently I heard about his book Quiet Strength and I determined to find the time to read it.  Having read it, I can’t help but share the nuggets of gold I uncovered in this book. 

The foreword to the book is written by Denzel Washington who praises Tony as a man of faith.  Tony then begins the introduction to his book with a quote from Booker T. Washington:  “If you want to lift yourself up, lift up someone else.”  This is undoubtedly timeless advice.  Tony begins all the chapters in his book with either a quote from the Bible, a quote from some famous person, or a quote from someone who simply has been an important person in his life.

In his introduction Tony acknowledges that coaching football is a fun job and that it was the first job he ever had in which he really looked forward to going to work every day.  But, he says, football is just a game; it doesn’t have intrinsic meaning in and of itself.  He has always viewed football as a platform through which he could share his faith, as well as encourage and lift other people up. 

Signed photo of Tony Dungy and Peyton Manning This print is available at www.sportsmemorabilia.com
Signed photo of Tony Dungy and Peyton Manning This print is available at www.sportsmemorabilia.com
Tony and Lauren Dungy  They were introduced to each other by the Pastor of a church where Tony spoke at a father and son banquet
Tony and Lauren Dungy They were introduced to each other by the Pastor of a church where Tony spoke at a father and son banquet

Tony begins the first chapter by taking the reader on a walk with him as he goes to gather up all his belongings from his office at the headquarters of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, after having just been fired. It was a very low day for Tony. He knew, however, as do most Christians, that when God closes a door, he opens another one.

Tony began trying to imagine where God was going to lead him next. He considered the possibility that this was the end of his coaching career. Perhaps God was going to direct him into a fulltime ministry of some sort. He was already deeply involved in the All Pro Dad organization as well as Abe Brown’s prison ministry.

In the second chapter, Tony talks about how influential his parents were in his life when he was growing up in Jackson, Michigan. His parents were both educators so, unlike many of his peers who immediately went to work in the auto factories right after high school graduation, he always knew that his parents expected he and his siblings to go to college. Tony’s parents always told Tony and his siblings that whatever they did with their lives, if it was done God’s way, for the right reasons, they would be successful.

Growing up with parents who were educators also taught him the importance of teaching and good communication. As a result, he made it a point to hire assistant coaches who had the ability to teach and communicate well with players.

Seeing the way his parents disciplined him and his three siblings differently, according to their individual temperaments, taught Tony that football players needed to be treated distinctively according to their unique personalities and abilities.

However, the greatest gift his parents gave him was faith. His mother, a Sunday school teacher in addition to being a public high school teacher, would practice her Sunday school lessons on Tony and his siblings. Tony remembers at age five learning that Jesus died for his sins so he could go to heaven when he died if he would invite Jesus into his life.

Tony plays quarterback in high school and college

Tony’s football career started in high school. He was the starting quarterback at Parkside High School in Jackson, Michigan from his sophomore year. He almost quit in his senior year over a disagreement he had with his coach, but the issue was repaired when his junior high assistant principal, a mentor he kept in touch with, intervened.

From this experience, he learned the importance of avoiding hasty decisions and of developing relationships—principles he has successfully applied to his adult life and coaching in particular.

After high school, Tony played football for the University of Minnesota. In college, Tony was confronted with the temptation to indulge in excessive partying along with the accompanying alcohol, smoking, and illegal drugs. He had never entertained using these substances in high school because he knew it would affect his performance and would meet with his parents’ disapproval. Having the desire to fit in socially and knowing his parents wouldn’t have to be privy to it, he found the allurement in college much harder to resist.

In the end, he kept his commitment to refrain from abusing his body with these substances. Later, he was glad he had made this decision as he observed the undesirable effects these habits had on his peers.

Playing for the NFL

Tony’s successful college football career as quarterback for the Minnesota Golden Gophers made him feel confident that he would be easily drafted into NFL.  But on the day of the draft he never got a phone call.  Later, when undrafted players were being called as free agents, Tony got offers to play defensive back or wide receiver, but not as quarterback.  He was devastated. 

A Canadian football team wanted him to play quarterback and was offering a huge bonus.   He really wanted to play with the NFL, but they were only offering a puny bonus and a different position.  He prayed repeatedly for days for God’s wisdom about what to do.  In the end, he got an offer from coaches he knew well at Pittsburgh who felt sure he would fit into their organization somewhere.  So he signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers. 

He was pleased to discover that the team included some fine Christians including head coach Chuck Noll.  In fact, these tough Steelers would actually meet together for a regular Bible study and Tony began meeting with them.  From the Steelers and their Bible study, Tony began learning for the first time what it meant to put God first in everything.

Tony ended up playing safety for the Steelers, but got an unexpected opportunity to play emergency quarterback in one game in Houston in 1977.  Both Steeler quarterbacks Terry Bradshaw and Mike Kruczck were taken out of the game because of injuries, and the third quarterback was inactive, so Tony had to fill in for the fourth quarter.  He didn’t play well because he had never practiced as a quarterback with the team.  But he realized that coach Noll knew he had the ability to play quarterback in the NFL.  He began to wonder if the reason he had never been chosen in the draft was because of race. 

Tony worked out extra hard to prepare for the 1978 season and had put on some needed weight. He felt this was going to be the year he would really show the team what he could do.  Then he noticed that as time drew near to report to preseason camp he began to drag physically.  The team doctor diagnosed him with mononucleosis.  He expressed frustration to a team member that he had to miss several weeks of the preseason and would have a hard time catching up once he was finally good to go.  His team member reminded him that Tony professed to put God first in his life and to trust God with every situation.  Now he was at a point in his life where he had to prove he could walk the walk and not just talk the talk about Christianity. 

In other words, it was a test.  Was he going to trust God with his future?  Now looking back, he realizes that was a key moment in his Christian life.  How would he respond to this difficult time?  He prayed and asked God for help in keeping Him first.  As it turned out, he was able to play two weeks later.  He had a great year, the team had a great year and they beat Dallas in the Super Bowl.  He led the team in interceptions and placed 10th in the NFL.  Looking back he reflects that, although it was a great year for football, it was the first year he realized that football was not the most important thing.  He realized God had him where he was for a reason and it wasn’t just to play football.

Tony finds romance

On the Father’s Day weekend of his first year coaching with the Steelers, Tony was asked to speak at a father-and-son breakfast in a local church.  Having accepted the invitation somewhat reluctantly, he was taken aback when the minister afterward suggested he meet a young woman in the congregation.  He wasn’t thrilled with the idea.  He had actually never had a girl friend up to that point and he didn’t want to get involved with someone unless it was someone he would consider marrying. 

The minister kept bugging him about it for weeks afterward.  Actually, the minister had been bugging the girl about it, too, and she wasn’t thrilled with the idea either.  Finally, the minister made the arrangements for Tony to meet Lauren Hill.  She was beautiful and sincere.  He soon realized he had to see her again.  Their first date was going to breakfast and to church—the rest is history.  They soon realized they were right for each other, and on June 19, 1982 they were married.

Playing for the NFL ends

Despite doing so well in the 1978 season, he was dismayed to find out that he was being traded to San Francisco for the 1979 season—from the best team to the worst.  Now more mature in his faith, he accepted it as God’s will; whereas, a year earlier he probably wouldn’t have handled it too well.  After one season, the forty-niners traded him to the Giants; after three months with the Giants, he was released.  The end of the line had arrived for Tony as an NFL player.  What was he to do now?

As he was leaving New York, the Giants coach, Ray Perkins, told Tony that he would make an excellent coach.  At the time, Tony thought Coach Perkins was only saying that in order to have something to say instead of simply saying “good-bye.”  But to his surprise, at the end of the season, Coach Perkins called to offer him a coaching position.  Then, when Coach Noll of the Steelers heard that Tony was open to coaching, he also called Tony and offered him a coaching position with the Steelers.  Once again, Tony was a Steeler.  At age 25, he became the youngest coach in the NFL.  The coaches and players accepted him easily and he fit in well.

Lessons in coaching and leadership

Five years and two kids later, Tony had to leave the Steelers due to new management, and took a defensive back coaching job with Kansas City.  After three seasons with Kansas City, Tony took a job as defensive coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings when his third child was only eight days old.   He believes his four years with the Vikings are what prepared him to ultimately become a head coach.  Head coach Denny Green took special interest in mentoring Tony and preparing him to be a head coach.  Specifically, he helped Tony develop decision-making ability by including him in his important decisions for the team.

The chaplain of the Vikings encouraged Tony to do a deep Bible study of the book of Nehemiah as it contains many profitable lessons on godly leadership.  Tony says he learned three important truths from studying the book of Nehemiah for over a year.  First, opportunity came in God’s time, not Nehemiah’s time.  Second, Nehemiah had to prepare his heart and mind, so at the right time he would be ready.  Third, Nehemiah had to be ready to take on problems and adversity that come from within and from without.

His tenure in Minnesota had been a great experience, and Tony felt he was ready for a head coaching job.  Besides, his wife Lauren was eager to leave the frigid northern weather.  In 1993, the Vikings had the best defense in the entire NFL and there were seven head coaching job openings.  But Tony did not get one phone call or interview.

Head coach for the Buccaneers

Finally, in 1995 he got called by Tampa Bay.  Lauren was thrilled with the prospect of a warm climate, but Tony told her he didn’t think he had much chance and not to get her hopes up.  After the interview, Tony read in the newspaper that the Bucs had only interviewed him to appear they were committed to diversity, but had no intention of hiring him.  Apparently the reporter who wrote that article didn’t have the right connections because Tony was chosen to be the new coach for the Buccaneers.

As Tony began to work with the Bucs players, he realized he would have to overcome a longstanding defeatist mentality, since the Bucs had gone so many years with a poor winning record.  Once again, Tony went back to the book of Nehemiah in the Bible.  Nehemiah had had to deal with a group of pessimists as he made his plans to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.  Tony knew that the team had talent; it was the culture he would have to change in order to turn them into winners.  When the team lost their first five games in the 1996 season, Tony and the coaches realized it was going to be harder than they thought.  Tony always prayed with the team before and after games, and Tony told the team they would thank God whether they won or lost.

Some of the players were surprised that Tony didn’t blow up at them. But Tony wasn’t that kind of coach.  He was very soft spoken.  He never used profanity, and though he never told the players to refrain from cursing, they started to follow his example. 

Tony coached the Bucs from 1996 to 2001, and in four of those six years they made it to post-season playoff games, but never to the Super Bowl.  As a result, he was fired after the sixth season, but he had turned the Bucs from a losing team to a highly competitive team, and had prepared the stage for the next coach.  With so much of the work having been done by Tony and his assistant coaches, the next coach, Jon Gruden, was able to lead the Bucs to the Super Bowl the very next year in 2002.      

The Indianapolis Colts

After Tony was fired as the Bucs coach, he and Lauren got on their knees and prayed for several days seeking God’s direction.  The family really enjoyed living in Florida and had established many relationships in the community, including professional ones.  Tony had started a ministry there with two other men called All Pro Dad.  Its purpose was to encourage men to be exemplary fathers.  They conducted monthly father-son breakfasts and clinics.  This ministry was born out of the knowledge that two-thirds of African-American teens have no father in the home and that the majority of men in prison had grown up without a solid father figure in the home.

In addition to the All Pro Dad ministry, Tony had become involved in Abe Brown’s prison ministry.  Abe Brown was a Tampa high school coach who started a prison ministry after he began visiting one of the young men he had coached in prison and saw he was having an impact on the other prisoners as well.  Tony had become friends with Abe Brown and had begun making prison visits with him when his coaching schedule permitted.  Now that he was no longer a coach, perhaps he could become more involved in it.

After on a few days of wondering what to do next, Tony came home one day to find a message on his answering machine.  It was from Jim Irsay, owner of the Indianapolis Colts.  Irsay left a lengthy message saying that he wanted Tony to be the new head coach for the Indianapolis Colts and proceeded to elaborate on his coaching philosophy. Tony was touched and thrilled to hear that Irsay’s approach to coaching matched his own.  He considered it as clear direction from God and accepted the position.

Fortunately, the Colts did not have to be rebuilt the way the Bucs did and they already had a top-notch quarterback in Peyton Manning.The first season (2002) they made it to the playoffs, but lost in a wild-card game against the New York Jets.

The second season they started out hot by winning their first four games.  Their fifth game was to be against the reigning Super Bowl Champions and Tony’s former team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.  At half-time they were losing 21-0, but in the fourth quarter they starting making one touchdown after another, including three in the last four minutes of the game, and ended up winning the game in overtime.  It also happened to be Tony’s birthday that day and the come-from-behind win against the Bucs was a fantastic birthday present!

That year (2003) and the next (2004), they again went to the playoffs, winning the AFC South, but losing the AFC championships both times to the New England Patriots. In 2005, the same thing happened:  they won the AFC South but lost the AFC championship this time to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Tragedy strikes the Dungy home

Tragic struck toward the end of 2005.  On December 22, 2006, Tony got a call in the wee hours of the morning telling him his 18-year-old son Jamie had committed suicide.  Though he was grief stricken, Tony had peace knowing that he would see his son in heaven some day since Jamie had received Christ as his Savior when he was a small child.  This was undoubtedly the great trial of his faith but he remained determined to trust God through it all, knowing He would “work out all things out for good.”  He knew from the Bible that God will give strength to those who stay close to Him through difficult times.  Later, after he had experienced God’s supernatural strength in tragedy for himself, he would be able to help other people with similar experiences.

Letters and cards poured in to the Dungy’s from all over the country.  Many people offered love and sympathy and described their own similar stories.  Tony realized that teenage suicide was much more common than what most people are aware of.

But the Dungy household had no shortage of children.  It addition to their other two biological children, Tony and Lauren had made good use of their affluence by adopting and giving a good home to three additional children.

Super Bowl winner at last

The 2006 season started with the “Manning Bowl”—Peyton Manning and the Colts against Peyton’s brother, Eli Manning and the New York Giants. The Colts won and continued with a great season. They won the AFC South and had to play New England again for the AFC Championship.  This time they beat them.

The Colts had finally made it to the Super Bowl!  They would be playing the Chicago Bears.  The Bears’ head coach, Lovie Smith, also an African-American and a committed Christian, was a very good friend of Tony’s.  Tony was amazed by the fact that, no matter which team won the Super Bowl, it would be the first time it was won by an African American coach.  He was also blessed by the fact that both coaches were very devout Christians and that, once again, no matter who won, they would have the opportunity to give God the glory for it.  In fact, someone paid for a full page ad in USA Today so both men could publicize their faith and explain how it influenced the way they coached football.  He was thrilled to realize that the 2007 Super Bowl would be a memorable day for African-Americans. 

Of course, recorded history now confirms that the Colts won the 2007 Super Bowl. Tony ends the book at this point, but he coached the Colts for two more years after winning the Super Bowl and then retired.

Tony states repeatedly throughout this book, and reiterates it again on the last page, that football is not the most important thing.  Glorifying God through the way he lived his life was the most important thing.  That way, others would come to faith in God as they watched the way Tony lived his life and shared his faith with others.  This was Tony’s stated purpose in writing this book.  I think he succeeded wonderfully.  This man’s perspective on life is amazing.  Even if you are not a fan of football, this is a very inspirational book!

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Comments 1 comment

Vladimir Molotkof profile image

Vladimir Molotkof 5 years ago from Mid West

Thanks so much for this article on Coach Tony. I love the colts so much, I actually have an nfl grill cover featuring the colts. It's always fun to learn more about sports teams that you love. :D http://www.grillkitsandmore.com/nfl-grill-covers/

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