By the time I left Indy late last week, the front of the Colts' practice facility was decorated with one of those giant, two-story inflated football-player balloon thingies. Just slightly larger than tackle Tarik Glenn and dressed in a Colts uniform, it swayed in the wind, waving a puffy, yet confident index finger at passing motorists. But it wasn't until I was right under the thing that I noticed the memorial flowers and bereavement bouquets that had been placed near its giant toeless feet.
This contrast -- giant, gleeful, over-the-top hype balanced by small, powerful reminders of the recent death of James Dungy, the 18-year-old son of Indianapolis coach Tony Dungy -- will define this year's NFL playoffs for the Colts. But what struck me even more was how, just a few days earlier, the balance between the two had been so dramatically reversed: football had been a tiny afterthought laid at the feet of the team's giant, looming and all-consuming sadness and grief.
That is, until Dungy made his courageous return to his team.
The Colts facility was a dark and somber place the day after the team flew en masse to Florida to attend James Dungy's funeral. It was quiet and sparsely populated, and sportswriters often outnumbered players in the locker room. Those who did talk did so in hushed voices, seeming almost mesmerized by the strength and faith of Dungy. No matter whom you talked to, the message was the same: It is a strange thing to attend a funeral with your mind swirling with all the sad, horrific thoughts associated with such events and to walk away inspired, uplifted, renewed and with a new definition of toughness.
Although it was largely taken for granted by the outside world, Colts owner Jim Irsay's decision to send his entire organization to Florida to support Dungy was a powerful gesture that provided the framework for the team's emotional turnaround. I'm happy to report that, in what can be a nasty, coldhearted business, it seems pretty typical of how this organization operates. And I, for one, can't think of a more reassuring or uplifting scenario than seeing all the wisdom, grace and strength Tony Dungy has given so unselfishly to others come back to him with such force in his time of need.
(One of those people who has benefited from being a part of the Colts' "family" is middle linebacker Gary Brackett. Since joining the Colts in 2003 as an undrafted rookie free agent out of Rutgers, Brackett has buried his father, mother and older brother. Struggling with his sorrow while trying to make the team, he once wondered whether anyone in the NFL cared, or even knew about, what he was going through. Then, while Brackett was stretching before a preseason game, Irsay came over to him and whispered in his ear that he was praying for Brackett and his family. "Can't even describe what the meant to me," Brackett says.)
Before last week's funeral in Florida, Dungy met with his team in a room to the side of the chapel. He entered wearing a warm, confident smile that seemed to radiate inner strength. "That's when most of us knew everything was going to be OK," Brackett says. "Oh, the relief."
Glenn, the Pro Bowl blocker and eloquent team leader, put it this way: "We love coach Dungy, and when you love someone and they're going through something like that, you hurt and grieve, too. He was hurting in a way that I have never seen before. But he still managed to give us so much strength, like he was coaching us from up there. To me, that's the definition of faith, when it's so strong that it's not affected by circumstances. We left inspired to make sure we still achieve everything he had set us up to do."
Dungy spoke that day about cherishing loved ones and being bold in the way you live your life. The Colts were certain he was talking right to them, about the de facto family they had become and about the bold statement they could still make as a football team. "The message was: Nothing is guaranteed," Brackett says. "We've got everything in place we've been striving for; the Super Bowl still has to go through us. So let's cherish this rare opportunity."
The team's leading tackler and maybe the most mature, balanced and insightful 25-year-old I have ever met, Brackett sometimes yells out "Am I my brother's keeper?" to his teammates before the ball is snapped. He chuckled lightly when I made the silly suggestion that the team might now play even harder for Dungy. We were 13-0 at one point, he replied, I'm not sure how much harder or better any of us can play.
He's right, of course. But I could feel a difference. Something seemed different with this team.
"The tragedy has increased our sense of urgency," Brackett told me. "It has brought us closer. Communication is what brings teams together, and this really had guys talking -- about real things and real issues. You just wouldn't know how guys feel about things unless something like this forces you to reach out to each other. Teams that don't talk, everyone has their own opinion, their own agendas, and everyone is so far removed from each other. No one knows where anybody stands on anything. But this death really showed us how much everybody loves Coach and just how much we're all in this together. Everyone is coming from the same place now with the same motivation -- let's finish what we started."
But from inside the Colts facility, that didn't really seem possible until Dungy returned early Thursday morning, quietly hugging players at breakfast and making his rounds through the facility with his teenage son Eric. The day before, it had been so quiet you could hear the din of the fluorescent lights overhead. And then, after a single, loud burst of laughter seemed to crack the somber sonic bubble around the team, the entire atmosphere around the Colts changed with a single avalanche of emotion.
Brackett says that in times like these, what you crave is normalcy. That if you were born to play or coach football, staying away from the thing you love only makes things worse. That, walking to the football field, you can almost feel the heavy burden of grief drop off your shoulders like a discarded backpack of bricks. You pick it back up when the day is done, of course, but the respite means everything to someone who is suffering.
It certainly seemed that way with Dungy. The coach clearly needed his football team and his football team clearly needed him and, somehow, satisfying that need boosted both. And while the focus never left the Dungy family and its terrible loss, the emotion behind it somehow had changed from sorrow to strength. It's a subtle but monumental shift, the difference between mourning a life and honoring a life. "That's when healing really begins," Brackett says, "when you start to look forward again, not back."
There was laughter. Music. Loud voices. Joy. Enthusiasm. Movement.
As if the forward motion of the team seemed to have been restored.
Then, while waiting near the indoor field for Dungy's first practice to end, I heard another piece of the team's recovery fall into place as the most magnificently cheesy sounds came from the Colts' weight room.
Sometimes, the best indication the fog has begun to clear is when people realize that life goes on; that the world is still turning and, despite the horrible things that can happen, this is still a goofy, weird and, yes, wonderful world we live in.
A place where you can still have a 20-minute conversation with Pro Bowl safety Bob Sanders about Erie, Pa., about learning how to be tough from your sisters and the sublime pleasure of de-cleating a ball carrier. A place where wideout Marvin Harrison can walk by, looking like a character from "The Cat in the Hat," balancing a giant plate of fruit salad in one hand and his helmet in the other. A place where, in the grand scope of things, the pursuit of the Lombardi Trophy can be at once utterly meaningless and gravely important.
It's called rediscovering hope. For me, the sound associated with that always has been laughter. But for the Colts, I guess it's Night Ranger.
'Cause that's whose gawd-awful tune was blaring from the speakers in the weight room late last week. Although it was hard to hear with the players screaming along to Corey Hart, Steve Perry and then, ugh, 'When You Close Your Eyes'. I didn't need to open the door to know that someone inside had added a mean Ted Nugent air guitar to his pre-playoff circuit training.
Just as I started to hum along, the doors burst open and out ran three special teamers, kicker Jose Cortez, holder Hunter Smith and long snapper Justin Snow. They were still singing and laughing as they sprinted past on their way out to practice.
A day earlier, those speakers were quiet, that hallway was dark and those same players seemed to be moving in slow motion. Not anymore.
Well, I thought as they bounced past, the joy and the weirdness are definitely back.
And that means the Colts are, too.
David Fleming is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine. His book, "Noah's Rainbow," a father's emotional journey from the death of his son to the birth of his daughter, can be preordered through Baywood Publishing. Contact him at Dave.Fleming@espn3.com