NEW PORT RICHEY — Like other kids gathered in the cafeteria at Deer Park Elementary School on Wednesday, Asher Krimmel, 7, wasn't even born when Tony Dungy was busy making a name for himself as head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Even so, the little boy with big dreams to one day play on the gridiron made sure to wear his No. 20 Bucs jersey to greet the famous coach and his wife, Lauren.
"I know he used to be a football player," Asher said, as children in kindergarten through second grade filed in. Some wore Indianapolis gear, a nod to Dungy's successful tenure with the Colts that included a 2007 Super Bowl victory. Some wore the black and gold of the Pittsburgh Steelers, where he played as a young man.
"I can't wait to meet him," Asher said. "I love football."
That subject was bound to come up, but the Dungys weren't there to talk about football. Their visit, coordinated by media specialist Kristi Theurer and Nancy Barbara, manager of customer relations for Barnes & Noble, was all about a children's book the couple co-authored that comes with a message of friendship and inclusion.
"What does it take to be a good friend?" That's the question the Dungys posed to students at two separate assemblies. The children answered:
• "Saying kind things."
• "Treating other people fairly."
• "Giving stuff to people and playing with each other."
You Can Be a Friend, released in January, is definitely a team effort; the first in a series of eight books the couple is writing that feature life lesson stories and the Dungy children as main characters. You Can Be a Friend is based around their daughter, Jade, 9, and her quandary over whether to include a new wheelchair-using friend named Hannah in her plans for a birthday party doing her favorite things at a local water park.
"It's a way to get the point across that you can't judge a book by its cover," Mrs. Dungy said.
It's a good story with a good ending that helps to enhance the school's emphasis on character education, said Deer Park principal Margie Polen. "Our theme this year has been to develop the potential of every student. This was a really good fit with that theme."
"The books are loosely based on our children's experiences. They all love to read and are thrilled to find themselves in the stories," said Mrs. Dungy, who aside from being a full-time mom teaches Sunday school, volunteers in the Family First iMOM program and serves as vice president of the Dungy Family Foundation.
"These are about typical problems that families go through," she said, adding that the books all convey "God's message that we are to love one another and be friendly and kind to everyone."
"We have seven children," Tony Dungy said. "So at one time or another we've had that problem with things like one of them being left out."
The idea to co-author books that teach messages about bullying, sharing, adoption, moving to a new house or simply paying attention, was born back when Dungy was still coaching and Mrs. Dungy, a former sixth-grade teacher, was visiting classrooms with other football wives to read to students.
"There was not a lot of material that was fun to read and had a message," said Dungy, who besides being a football analyst for NBC sports, is already a bestselling author, the national spokesman for All Pro Dad and supports charitable organizations such as Big Brothers/Big Sisters and Boys and Girls Clubs of America. "We wanted to write books that would focus on family, kids' problems and everyone working together to help each other get through it."
So far, the book has been well-received, by Deer Park parents who ponied up for autographed copies for their children and even by youngsters who aren't at all familiar with Tony Dungy or his sports career.
Many of them crowded around his wife to ask about her kids or what it's like to be a teacher while he stood alone, off to the side. Dungy recalled another school assembly where a little girl stood up to tell him, "One day I want to be an author just like you."
"I think that's good in a lot of ways," he said with a smile.
Michele Miller can be reached at email@example.com.