Commentary

Dungy's life work begins after football but NFL lucky to have him

Updated: February 3, 2010, 2:51 PM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

In the penultimate paragraph of his best-selling book, "Quiet Strength," a work whose subject matter certainly transcends the folly and fleeting stardom of sport, Tony Dungy wrote this: "I coach football. But the good I can do to glorify God along the way is my real purpose."

Clayton: More Of Same

The Indianapolis Colts should expect the same effort from Tony Dungy although he could have spent more time away from the team. Blog Insider

For one more year at least, perhaps even a little longer than that, Dungy will continue to moonlight in those pursuits, to address with great purpose the duality of his life, and to chase both his ultimate vocation and his higher-profile avocation.

And for at least one more season we're all the richer for it.

The former means serving his maker by bearing witness to his deep-rooted faith. The latter encompasses scratching the itch that on Monday precluded Dungy from simply walking away from the game that has been such an integral part of his life since he was persuaded by a respected educator and friend to rejoin the Parkside High School football team for his senior season, after he had quit in protest when his best friend was not elected a captain.

But make no mistake: The day is coming, and unfortunately all too soon, when those parallel paths surely will diverge.

Football is going to lose the personal tug-of-war for Tony Dungy's heart, essentially because he believes the battle for his soul is infinitely more important. And so while the much-awaited Monday resolution regarding his football future ended with a decision to remain with the Colts for at least the 2008 campaign, culminating a high-anxiety week in which his annual private inventory-taking was transformed into a public passion play he never intended it to be, Dungy is now officially a short-timer.

Then again, when it comes to football, that's precisely what Dungy always considered himself.

Even after occupying four decades of his 52 years, football still does not define Dungy, nor does it confine him. He is as multifaceted a personality as you will ever encounter, a man whose personal prism diffuses many colors and as genuine a human being as it is possible to be. Those who perceive Dungy as ersatz or manufactured, who have snidely suggested that his persona is an overly rehearsed, too-good-to-be-true facade, clearly don't know him very well at all.

Or they are simply hardened skeptics whose own lives are woefully shallow.

I will age myself here by noting that I have known Dungy since his brief NFL playing career in the mid-1970s, have watched him grow from college quarterback to modestly talented safety, to young assistant coach, to coordinator, to head coach. And now, in the eyes of many, to national icon.

[+] EnlargeTony Dungy
AP Photo/AJ MastTony Dungy ended speculation by saying he would return next season.

In none of the formative stages did Dungy change a bit, nor has his success at the highest levels of the game altered him or his outlook on life.

It would diminish the character of some of the fine people I have encountered in life, and in work, to proclaim that Dungy is the finest man, outside of my father, I have ever met. This claim, however, I will make: There have been none finer.

There are times in this business when you sit down to transcribe an interview or review your notes, and you quickly discover there isn't a usable quote to be had on the tape or among the scribbling. Spend even five minutes with Dungy, replay the tape, and you find yourself with the unenviable task of editing out material you'd kill to have on other occasions. In any story about Dungy, his words are far more eloquent than any of your own, but the bosses don't pay you to merely file a monologue. A lot of quality stuff, suffice it to say, gets left on the cutting room floor.

Yeah, that's how good Dungy is. The people who view him only from afar and form judgments with no intimate knowledge of the man, well, that is their loss.

Without annexing the role of a Pigskin Pygmalion, he shapes lives and builds character. And his destiny is to somehow do the same outside the forum of sport. Which is why, with every day the NFL bought with Dungy's announcement on Monday that he will coach in 2008, and then again review his status, we are all the beneficiaries.

The contentions that Dungy will work only one more season before stepping aside and setting in motion the process by which assistant head coach Jim Caldwell succeeds him are as erroneous as were the several reports that he wasn't coming back at all. Neither he nor his wife, Lauren, nor his family knows yet when he will coach his last game. The same way none of them knew, until after weeks of prayer and introspection, how he would approach 2008. There is a balance to Dungy's life that could prompt him, his energy permitting, to stick around beyond 2008, perhaps even past his current contract, which runs through the 2009 season.

Clayton: More Of Same

The Indianapolis Colts should expect the same effort from Tony Dungy although he could have spent more time away from the team. Blog Insider

But we who observe the game, from both close and afar, likely won't be that fortunate. The clock is ticking, as it really always has been, on Dungy's public life. When he walks away from football, there won't be any return, no encore performance like a Bill Parcells or a Joe Gibbs. Nope, when Tony Dungy leaves, to commence the full-time work in the ministry for which he has been preparing, it will mark the end of his football career. And so we would all be wise to enjoy what remains of it.

Dungy's life in general has been a victory tour of sorts, but one that he believes will culminate in a reward much loftier than the Vince Lombardi Trophy. And so it's doubtful he will treat the 2008 season any differently than the dozen campaigns in which he has served as a head coach.

The Colts will move into their new stadium in 2008 and it's going to be exciting, Dungy has conceded, to be a part of that new chapter in franchise history. There are, however, many more pages to be written in Dungy's life story, and the vast majority of them will come after he has exited the NFL stage.

One of Dungy's most influential mentors, Hall of Fame coach Chuck Noll, who is cited frequently in his book, had a pet phrase: "Getting on with your life's work." He used it often to remind his players that it was critical to prepare themselves for what would transpire when they stepped out of the arena and the cheering stopped.

In planning his ministry, beginning his work with prison inmates, establishing family-centered initiatives, and by every day bearing witness with his own example, Dungy has embraced exactly what his "life's work" will entail in private. But with his Monday decision to stick around a little while longer, it's nice that he gave the rest of us at least one more public year in which to revel in the elegance and dignity of his simple, quiet strength.

Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.

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