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Dungy book: In 2008, family received racist hate mail about son

Editor's note:

This story has been changed to acknowledge the following clarifications: Rob Nelson, the principal of Tampa's Plant High School, now says he remembers Tony and Lauren Dungy's son receiving racist hate mail in 2008. When the story was first published Feb. 7, Nelson told the Times, through a district spokesman, that he was unaware of the incident. And the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office says it was able to locate part of an investigative report on the incident. Sheriff's officials had previously told the Times no report existed.

TAMPA — The first racist hate letter arrived at the Dungy home shortly after Eric Dungy — son of the former Buccaneers head coach — enrolled at Plant High School in 2008.

"The letter said Eric shouldn't try out for the football team because too many blacks were coming to Plant and taking spots from the white players," Lauren Dungy, Tony's wife, wrote. "The anonymous writer threatened trouble for the entire family unless Eric left Plant immediately."

The letters continued for weeks, according to Uncommon Marriage, a new book by Tony and Lauren Dungy. The anonymous letter-writer stepped up racial overtones and urged the Dungys to "do the right thing" and withdraw Eric from Plant, the well-regarded South Tampa high school he transferred to via a special exception from the school district.

Finally, Tampa police arrested the man and discovered he had been sending similar letters to other black players at Plant, Lauren Dungy wrote.

This story of racist hate mail plaguing Plant's state championship football team in 2008 had never been publicly reported before the release of the Dungy's book this month. The precise details — primarily, who wrote the letters — remains shrouded in mystery, despite an effort by the Tampa Bay Times to corroborate the story this week.

The murkiness is partly because the book is inaccurate on a few points and partly because a local law enforcement agency says it investigated and solved the case without creating a public record -- a contention it later acknowledged was in error.

The Dungys' home in Avila is zoned for Gaither High School. Tony and Lauren Dungy wanted to send Eric to Plant, though, because their older son James, who committed suicide in 2005, went to Gaither, and they worried attending Gaither would be painful for Eric.

Plant High School, with its sterling academic and athletic reputation, seemed perfect. Then the letters started coming, addressed to Lauren Dungy.

"It was sad to learn people feel that way and have that much hatred in their heart," she said in an interview this week. "This was just an innocent boy trying to go to school, get an education and contribute to the football team."

Eric cried when his parents told him about the letters. The Dungys resolved, however, to keep Eric at Plant.

"It gave us a chance to talk to our kids about principles and not being bitter, but not to back down," Tony Dungy said this week.

The Dungys didn't leave their son's security to chance. They contacted NFL security (Dungy was coaching the Indianapolis Colts at the time). The NFL contacted Tampa police and the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, according to Tony Dungy.

Tampa police and the Sheriff's Office initially said they had no records of the incident. Neither did the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, the FBI's Tampa field office or the U.S. Attorney's Office.

Hillsborough school district officials say they had never heard about the letters, either. District spokesman Steve Hegarty said he asked Plant High School principal Rob Nelson and district athletic director Lanness Robinson. They remember complaints about Eric's enrollment, but nothing about hate mail sent to several Plant students. After the story was published, however, Nelson told the Times he did remember the letters.

Plant High football coach Rob Weiner did not return multiple voice messages and text messages this week.

In followup interviews and emails, the Dungys clarified that the Sheriff's Office pursued the case, not Tampa police. When the Times asked Sheriff David Gee about the story, he said he remembered it.

Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Debbie Carter told the Times the Dungys' complaint was directly referred to the agency's intelligence division in 2008, which is why no record of a complaint exists. (Normally, any citizen complaint shows up in records as a call for service.)

Detectives located the man writing the letters, Carter said, but the Dungys decided not to pursue charges, so he was never arrested.

So who wrote the letters? That detail is in a Sheriff's Office intelligence report, Carter said. She declined to release the report, however, saying it was exempt from public records law. At one point, she said no report exists, though after the story was published she released a partial report.

The decision to refer certain cases directly to the intelligence division is "made on a case-by-case basis," Carter said.

That the letter-writer was never arrested was news to Tony Dungy.

"We were informed they found the person who wrote the letters and he was apprehended," he said through a spokeswoman. "We were asked if we wanted to press charges and we declined. I guess we assumed apprehended meant arrested."

Dungy is certain of one thing: After the Sheriff's Office got involved, the letters stopped.

The Dungys included the story in their book — which focuses on the strength of their marriage — to illustrate the importance of family meetings. After the incident, the Dungys talked with their children about how life isn't perfect and there are some people you'll never be able to understand.

"We prayed for the man who'd sent the letters," Lauren Dungy wrote, "asking that his hardened heart would change."

Times staff writers Patty Ryan, Sue Carlton and Marlene Sokol, and researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Will Hobson can be reached at (813) 226-3400 or whobson@tampabay.com.

Dungy book: In 2008, family received racist hate mail about son 02/07/14 [Last modified: Monday, February 17, 2014 3:52pm]

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