NEW TAMPA — Fifth-grader Sam Tkacik walked into the Pride Elementary School cafeteria Thursday morning for the Great American Teach-In and got a shock.
The speaker was Tony Dungy, former Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach.
"What is he doing here?" Sam thought. "He should be on SportsCenter or something."
The story of how Dungy ended up at this suburban elementary school dates back nine months to a dinged car in a church parking lot. And it only burnishes the image that has made him a beloved local figure.
In early February, Lori Farmer, a gifted education teacher at Pride, left services at Grace Family Church in Lutz and found a note on the windshield of her red Mazda CX7:
"I scraped your car backing in. So Sorry. Please call me if we don't see you after church," the note said.
Farmer was slightly bummed. Then she read the name.
It was signed Tony Dungy, along with a phone number. She wondered if someone was playing a trick on her. She knew Dungy, who coached the Indianapolis Colts to a Super Bowl title and is now an NBC football analyst, attended her church because she often saw him and his family there. Despite her kids' pleas to seek an autograph, Farmer would not allow them to bother them.
She turned over the note, which was written on a scrap of paper bearing details of a flight to Indianapolis. Maybe it was real.
Farmer inspected her car, which happened to bear a lot of scuffs.
"I didn't see anything," she recalled. "All the dings kind of blended together."
So Farmer texted Dungy, telling him not to worry about the scrape. He responded right away via text, insisting that he pay for the damage.
She couldn't discern the dings and told him so. But he texted back that it didn't feel right.
So she made him an offer: Visit students at Pride during the Great American Teach-In, a day when adults talk to children about their professions, and they would be even.
He thought it sounded like a fair trade and accepted.
Right before school started in August, when the date for the Teach-In was released, Farmer texted Dungy a reminder.
It took him a little time to get back with her because of his busy schedule, but last week, they confirmed his visit.
When Dungy arrived, teachers whipped out their cellphones and took pictures of him as he walked through the halls. For most elementary-age kids, Dungy was a coaching great before their time. But not for 11-year-old Sam, a big Pittsburgh Steelers fan. Dungy played defensive back for the Steelers' 1978 Super Bowl championship team.
Dungy coached the Bucs from 1996 to 2002, turning around a moribund football franchise. He remains arguably the most popular coach in team history.
At Pride, Dungy addressed a group of third-, fourth- and fifth- graders. He spoke of the importance of getting a good education, of being themselves and about reaching their goals.
Then he posed for pictures with everyone who wanted one.
"He has proven that he has great character and integrity," said Pride principal Cindy Land. "He . . . kept his word. This is precisely what our students need to learn from in our community."
Dungy, who has visited area schools for various occasions — mainly at his own children's schools — had never participated in the Teach-In.
"It was a win-win situation for me," he said later. "It was something I knew I would enjoy and also help them out."
Both of Dungy's parents were teachers, and his wife is a former educator.
"I understand how getting people in to help the teacher in the school day is really important," he said. "It was fun doing it. I'm sorry I had to run into her car to facilitate it."
Later, he came up with ways he could have made the experience much more exciting. But he's not divulging any details.
He plans to unveil them next year when he returns to Pride.