This is a Father’s Day story that begins before the father is ever born. In an America unified by war, and separated by race.
Wilbur Dungy wanted to serve but was told the Air Force had no place for African-Americans in World War II. So the teenager who was still years from becoming Tony Dungy’s father found his way to a small town in Alabama where he joined an all-black unit known as the Tuskegee Airmen. And when he came home from war and got a degree, he was told to keep right on walking past the white schools nearby and find an all-black high school if he wanted to teach science.
His children, by the way, would later grow up to become a nurse, a doctor, a dentist, and a Hall of Fame football coach.
There’s hope in that story, but plenty of sadness, too. For as much as perseverance matters, it is tragic to think of skin color as a factor having to be overcome.
Which brings us to this Father’s Day, and the next generation of black children. And that mix of sadness and hope that Tony Dungy feels when he realizes his children are watching protesters in the street and seeing some of the same harsh realities his father had to explain to him in the 1960s.
“What are you going to do and how are you going to respond to authority when maybe the rules aren’t perfect?‘' Dungy asked rhetorically. “When you are asked to be on a school bus out of your district, or you’re watching a small black-and-white television and George Wallace is standing up in front of the University of Alabama and saying we’ll never have a negro student here? I was 8 or 9 years old, asking my dad these questions. What’s going on, what is this was all about? So, yeah, these conversations have gone on for a long time.
“My dad used to say we should do what we can to make things a little bit better for everyone. Hopefully, along the way, some hearts can change. Because I’m afraid that’s what it’s going to take.”
Wilbur Dungy was 78 when he passed away in 2004. He never saw Tony’s bust in the Hall of Fame. Never watched him smiling beneath the confetti that falls around a Super Bowl champion coach. Never got to meet many of Tony’s 11 children, including the eight he has adopted in recent years with wife Lauren.
Even so, there is a little bit of Wilbur in this latest generation of Dungy children. Because there is still a whole lot of Wilbur in son Tony.
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Like the time at Frost Junior High in Jackson, Mich., when Tony was asked to run for class president, but told his father he was reluctant because no black teenager had ever been elected to an office at the school. Wilbur didn’t raise his voice and didn’t try to coerce his son. Instead, he asked Tony what he would tell his own children and grandchildren years later when they wanted to know if he had always worked to be the best. Fifteen years later, Tony became the first black defensive coordinator in NFL history. And 25 years or so after that, he became first black head coach to win a Super Bowl.
Wilbur had a way of getting his point across subtly, allowing his children to feel as if they were coming to the realization on their own. He was a teacher, but he was not a lecturer.
These are lessons Tony employed for 30 years in coaching, and even more today as a father. His oldest children are adults, but he still has eight of them in the house, including 4-year-old Jaela. They have watched the video of George Floyd’s death on a Minneapolis street. They have watched buildings burn and protesters clash with police.
“We’re having to address this with kids who are 6, 7, 8 years old and asking why this person is kneeling during the National Anthem,” Dungy said. “Why did this happen to this man in Minneapolis? Aren’t the police supposed to help? You have to say, ‘Yes, this shouldn’t have happened. It’s wrong and somehow it’s got to be addressed.’
“But then we also tell them we have policemen in our Bible study who wouldn’t treat people like that. So you can’t just make a blanket statement that the police do this, or the protesters do this. Or white people do this, and black people do this. When you’re that age, you’re not programmed that way. You haven’t been taught that some people just don’t like others. That’s a hard concept for a young person to grasp.”
At 64, Dungy is three years younger than Bucs coach Bruce Arians but gladly left the profession behind a dozen years ago. His days are filled with a variety of non-profit groups focusing on families and religion, as well as his television work during the NFL season.
It’s been more than a half-century since he sat in the living room and watched news coverage of police protests in Detroit with images of a city burning 75 miles away from the family home in Jackson. Two weeks ago, Dungy and his wife joined with some local Tampa churches to walk down Fowler Avenue past similarly burned-out buildings.
So how does he feel as a father in 2020? Is hope still alive?
“To march down there with a group of churches, and to be of one accord and say, ‘Hey we stand against this, but we’re going to stand in faith and we’re going to stand together.’ It was really inspiring,” Dungy said. “There were people driving by, honking and giving a thumbs-up. Lauren and I had a wonderful time.
“But it is sad to be having the same discussions and seeing the same things going on this summer that went on in the summer of 1968 when I was 12 years old. It’s unfortunate. I believe it’s going to take a heart change. And I believe that faith and my Christian beliefs is where it starts, and that’s what I try to get across to our kids. It’s got to start in your heart and it’s got to start with what you believe about who we are as people and how we’re going to treat others.”