Game took players', Dungy's focus off tragedy

The Colts' game in Seattle provided coach Tony Dungy, who watched it on TV, a brief distraction from his son's tragic death.

Updated: December 24, 2005, 10:52 PM ET
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

SEATTLE -- Colts general manager Bill Polian's first thoughts coming off Qwest Field on Saturday was to call his grieving coach, Tony Dungy. Just as Polian thought of Dungy, Steve Champlin, the team's director of player development, heard his cell phone ring.

It was the coach all right, calling to discuss Saturday's 28-13 loss to the Seahawks. For Dungy and the Indianapolis Colts, this day was like no other. For three hours of the toughest time of his life, Dungy from afar was watching a team he coached. He was expected to be back in Indianapolis on Christmas Day as his family copes with the loss of his 18-year-old son, James, who died in an apparent suicide Thursday in Florida.

Maybe no NFL team reflects the personality of its coach better than the Colts. Dungy is a quiet, stoic presence on the sidelines. He stands for faith and professionalism. His mission as a coach, and Christian man, is to make his players better on and off the field.

"We wanted to honor Tony by doing our best," Polian said of the Colts. "But the fact this game provided him three hours of solace, it was the best we could hope for."

Dungy was pretty natural during the phone call. For three hours, his mind was off the tragedy and on football, the game he loves. "He told me that know he understands how frustrated I get sitting there watching," said Polian, whose emotions spike and face turns red during games.

Our head man is a man of faith. He isn't going to keep his head low even during those tough times and so we want to go out there and exemplify his character.
Colts WR Troy Walters

After concluding the call with Dungy, Polian went into the locker room and spoke to the team. Like Dungy, the Colts exude a quiet confidence and professional demeanor. The mention of Dungy's name welled up emotions. Players listened to every word Polian said. The Colts are a team with a heart, and those hearts are broken knowing the emotional pain their head coach and friend has been experiencing.

"He wanted the players to know how proud he was of them," Polian said.

On Saturday, his players offered Dungy solace by playing hard despite the toughest week in recent franchise history. Their coach was absent. The offense was playing without injured wide receiver Marvin Harrison and right tackle Ryan Diem. The defense didn't dress defensive linemen Corey Simon, Montae Reagor and Robert Mathis, linebacker Cato June and safety Bob Sanders. Defensive end Dwight Freeney, fighting an arch injury, was limited to a handful of plays.

"Obviously, it's a different feeling," quarterback Peyton Manning said. "For four years now, he has always been the guy to address the team before the game and you see him pacing the sidelines, so it's always an adjustment and a different feeling there. Coach Jim Caldwell talked to him and we sort of had his orders to go out and try to win for this team and how we would have liked to have done that. I guess that he watched the game and he was proud of the way that we competed and gave good effort.

"Hopefully, we will see him back here real soon."

For the team, the hardest part is yet to come. The toughest day will be Tuesday. Owner Jim Irsay is flying the entire organization to Tampa, Fla., for James Dungy's funeral. That will be the first time since James' death that players and staff will see Tony Dungy. It might take a while for the Colts, as a team, to recover from that experience because the players all knew James Dungy. Plus, they dearly love the coach who is grieving his loss.

The lesson learned Saturday was that pro football is a game, yet an event that offers a mental getaway during tough times. The NFL played following the assassination of president John Kennedy, and, for a few hours at least, those who watched had their minds off the tragedy at hand. Dungy took time from his toughest hours to watch his players. Players hustled around the field Saturday and didn't think what was facing them Tuesday when they fly to the funeral.

"The game helped us to put what happened out of our minds a little bit," wide receiver Brandon Stokley said. "He wanted us to come out and play. It was tough for all of us. We wanted to come out and play well, and we didn't play as well as we liked."

Dungy had a right to be proud of the effort. Manning started the game as if nothing was wrong. He took the game-opening drive from the Colts' 22-yard line to the Seahawks' 6, eating up seven minutes of clock. Unfortunately for them, the Colts didn't finish the drive with a touchdown and settled for a 24-yard field goal. On Manning's next drive, he marched the offense to the Seahawks' 13 but couldn't connect with wide receiver Reggie Wayne on a third down. A blocked field goal cost them another score.

The bond between Dungy and his players transcended some 2,000 miles. Offensive players knew how Dungy, at home trying to give his family as close to a Christmas Eve as is possible under the circumstances, would preach about finishing drives.

"We didn't punch it into the end zone but we had two good drives getting it down there so you can always take some good things from the game," Manning said. "There are some things that we can improve on as well."

The defense took two series to adjust, and that was expected since it was without arguably six of its best players. Matt Hasselbeck of the Seahawks engineered 46- and 83-yard touchdown drives to give the Seahawks a 14-3 second-quarter lead. As per the plan, Manning came out after two series and 22 plays. Wayne was also out after two offensive possessions. The Colts relied on as many backups as possible to get them through the rest of the game.

"The thing about our team is that they have always been resilient," Caldwell said. "They have always been a very, very tough bunch, I think because of the way that Coach Dungy has always preached and demonstrated toughness and go out in a bit of adversity and still be able to play. I expect them to play well, maybe even better than they played. They did shore things up a little bit later. We tackled better and had some stops."

I've known Tony Dungy since he was an undrafted rookie safety for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1977. He's one of the most principled and organized individuals I've ever met. Hearing the details of his phone call to Polian gives me the sense he will be back coaching, not only during the playoffs but there after. It's not as though Dungy needs the game. Faith and family come first in his life, and it's not out of the question for Dungy to commit more to his family after the season than coach football.

But Dungy is also a role model. He has my vote for NFL coach of the year. If the team can rebound from the adversity -- which I believe it will -- he will be the first minority head coach to win a Super Bowl. Listen to Colts defensive tackle Larry Tripplett and you understand Dungy's value to young athletes.

"He means more to me than I can even speak about," Tripplett said. "I can't even put into words how he changed my life. He changed my life with the way he represents himself to his kids and to his family. He's a role model for the way I approach my kids and my family."

The most religious of the Colts players missed him as much on the chapel service the night before the game as they did on the sideline.

"Our head man is a man of faith," wide receiver Troy Walters. "He isn't going to keep his head low even during those tough times and so we want to go out there and exemplify his character. We are professionals so it is our jobs to go out there and win the game. There was no pity party for this team."

Winning wasn't in the cards for the Colts on Saturday, and it wouldn't have been had Dungy been present. With the AFC South and home-field advantage clinched, the Colts were going to rest their best players to make sure they are healthy for the playoffs, most likely opening for them with a showdown against the New England Patriots in the RCA Dome.

"I know Coach," safety Mike Doss said. "He was probably sitting on the edge of his chair on every play, hoping a guy would make a tackle or force a turnover. He knows the game. He understands it, and I'm just glad we could give him some comfort for three hours."

On Tuesday, the Colts' players will see Dungy at the funeral. Perhaps in another week, he probably will return to get the team ready for the playoffs and possibly the Super Bowl. Though the Colts didn't win on Saturday, they did something more important.

For three hours, they gave their coach a needed distraction. It meant everything in the world to them to hear he was proud of them.

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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