I have watched my parents bury two of my four siblings, the most recent just six weeks ago, when we laid to rest my brother. He would have celebrated a birthday on Thursday. I have witnessed the raw emotion that accompanies such a tragic event.
So when the ESPN.com editors dispatched an e-mail Thursday morning, seeking a reactionary column to the death of James Dungy, the 18-year-old son of Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy and his wife, Lauren, I approached the laptop keyboard with this firsthand reality: Not even the greatest literary giants of this or any other time are capable of crafting words sufficient to assuage the profound grief that is inherent to the passing of any parent's child.
Admittedly more hack than wordsmith am I, so there isn't a single syllable of this column that can adequately console the Dungy family on their loss, or even remotely make sense of the situation. Editors have a pet term, "weighing in," on such stories. But words, even the sort of eloquent prose of which I'm rarely capable, carry little gravitas at these times.
To say nothing, though, in such cases is to essentially be as hollow as the hollow words themselves, and so some sincere effort is surely in order.
There is a devastating incongruity that transpires when the circle of life suddenly comes unraveled, and parents are called upon to bid an early farewell to a child. The celebrity imposed upon Tony Dungy and his family because of his station in life will neither lessen nor exacerbate what certainly must be the most painful experience imaginable.
Less than a week ago, Dungy presided over a group of men poised on the cusp of football immortality. On Thursday, he was forced to identify a young man he fathered and, in so doing, to confront his own mortality. It is, to be sure, an exercise in which a parent must plumb the depths of emotion and dip deep into the reservoir of faith.
There were times 14 years ago, when my youngest brother died in an accident, when I saw my parents, who like Tony and Lauren Dungy are people of great faith and values, question everything. There were times, indeed, when I wondered whether they could survive such a tragedy. And then, last month, the emotions were revisited, and I can tell you this: For the first few days, a parent doesn't go from hour to hour, but rather lives from one breath to the next, because the pain is so psychologically debilitating.
Benumbing does not begin to describe the experience. Truth be told, a parent who loses a child never has the hurt scarred, never grows a callous over the wound. Instead, they must lean on each other and, even more so, on faith. And must, although seemingly impossible in the moment, find some source of enduring strength.
From the moment I first met Tony Dungy, as an undrafted free agent college player with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1977, I have known him to be a strong man. His principles and his values are deep-rooted, unwavering and, blessedly, real. There is nothing feigned, manufactured or ersatz about the man. What you see publicly is, trust me, what you get in the private moments as well.
This is how I feel about Tony Dungy the man: Were he to have become a teacher, his likely vocation had he not moved into coaching after his brief playing career, his impact might have been every inch as significant as it is now. Had he pursued a career as, say, a salesman or stockbroker or an attorney, Dungy would have been the same man he is today, albeit with much less celebrity. But, probably, no less effective.
Strong people of faith are not defined by what they do for a living but, rather, how they live what they do. Tony Dungy is one of those people.
The last time I saw Tony Dungy, on Sunday evening at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis, he was handling the Colts' first defeat of the season with characteristic aplomb. And with the outward veneer that most personifies his public image that somehow always supersedes his roiling inner emotions. The 2005 season suddenly blemished, Dungy was upset more by the Colts' spotty performance than by the defeat itself.
Now this most blessed of seasons has come unhinged for Dungy and his family, just three days before Christmas. And I pray, and hope you do, too, that Tony and Lauren Dungy and their four other children can find some semblance of peace and understanding.
It will, no doubt, be a most daunting experience. Lose a football game and there is almost always a make-good opportunity just a week or so removed. Lose a child and a parent, no matter how ideal the child-rearing, experiences a painstaking self-examination. When he recently lost his father, Dungy, unsurprisingly responded with dignity. He will be no less dignified, I'm sure, in responding to the passing of his son.
Which is not to say that Tony and Lauren Dungy, remarkable people in every facet of their lives, won't need considerable support and plenty of prayers. On Thursday morning, some well-intentioned but shortsighted people were wondering how it is that Dungy can even try to get through the rest of this football season.
After having seen the crippling ramifications of a child lost, from an up-close-and-personal perspective, I know there is a more pressing concern. And that's why, at some private moment, at a quiet and contemplative time on Thursday, you would do well to maybe whisper a prayer that Tony and Lauren Dungy find the faith and the strength to just get through the next few days.
He is a great football coach. Dungy, I can assure you, is an even better man, and he should be in our thoughts.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.