Family success proves dividends of Tony Dungy's haul of fame

Tony Dungy is pleased with what he sees before the start of a Buccaneers Wild Card game against Philadelphia in 2002. [Times files]
Tony Dungy is pleased with what he sees before the start of a Buccaneers Wild Card game against Philadelphia in 2002. [Times files]
Published July 31, 2016


More than a half dozen times since retiring from coaching in the NFL, Tony Dungy has been asked if he would consider a return to the sideline. It includes an overture from the Buccaneers, his former team which is on its fourth head coach in six years.

"I never talked directly to the Glazers," Dungy said of the family that owns the Bucs. "I got that second hand. A number of teams asked me, especially the first few years. It was kind of funny. I would call a team and recommend someone and they would say, 'before we go any further, would you be interested?' I would say, "No, I wouldn't.' "

Dungy timeline, photos and stats:From Michigan to Canton

What interested Dungy was heading up his own expansion team. He and his wife, Lauren, have 10 children, seven boys and three girls, including seven they adopted. They have two living biological children — Tiara, 31, and Eric, 21. Their son James was 18 when he committed suicide three days before Christmas in 2005. The youngest adoptee, Jaela, is 8 months old.

That Dungy, the only African-American to win a Super Bowl as head coach who will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Aug. 6, felt the magnetic pull of family, is no surprise. He always had his priorities in order — faith, family and football. His first adoptive son, Jordan, is now 15 and was born with a congenital disease that prevents him from feeling physical pain. That has resulted in many hospital visits and a metaphor for coping with James' death. "Pain inside sometimes lets us know that spiritually we're not quite right and we need to be healed and that God will send that healing agent right to the spot," Dungy says.

When the children started coming, Dungy, 60, never expected the numbers to swell so quickly. But this is what he and Lauren decided to do with their lives, and being pro-life Christians, opening their hearts and doors to children seemed right.

"The original conversation and talking through it was there's all these kids out there that need homes," Dungy said. "So to be conservative Christian and pro-life and against abortion and women do have abortions, but some do not have abortions and they carry them to full term, so who steps up? And we could step up. So that was the original thought. Of course, I probably would've been okay to just step up a couple of times and then encourage somebody else to step up."

The fact is Lauren always wanted to huddle up with lots of children.

"I came from a big family, and being a former school teacher, I always had a love for children," Lauren said. "We felt that God had blessed us in so many ways with good health, and with resources that we could have a big family. Adopting children was a way for us to pass on some of those blessings."

The Dungys' large house in Avila is a typhoon of activity. Tony works fall weekends for NBC as a commentator on Football Night in America, so he is home most mornings to take kids to school and navigate schedules of homework and sports.

"(Lauren) buys a lot of matching clothes and shoes," Dungy said. "So they can wear each others and nobody gets bent out of shape." Somehow, they make it seem manageable, even at meal time.

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"There always seems to be a high chair and one orbital booster chair around all the time," Dungy said. "There's a big table in the kitchen with an island where some of the bigger kids eat. It's hectic but fun."

In addition to Jordan, the other adopted Dungy children are Jade, 14, Justin, 9, Jason, 6, Jalen, 4, Jaden, 3, and Jaela. "She loves it," Dungy says of his wife. "She thinks it keeps her young. So when I'm at the ballfield now, they say, 'Your grandson can really hit.' But she doesn't get that for some reason."

Ask for a scouting report on the kids and Lauren is ready with her evaluations.

Tiara is independent. Since graduating from high school she has lived in Atlanta, Philadelphia, Johannesburg and New York.

Eric, who played receiver at Oregon and USF, is athletic and competitive. "He doesn't get close to a lot of people but when he does he is a loyal friend for life," Lauren said.

Jordan is a "mama's boy.'' She says his spirit is infectious and he plans to be a chef.

Jade is artistic and creative and loves to write and paint. She's also a good athlete who runs track, swims and plays soccer.

Justin is the most like Eric. He asked his teacher for all his assignments early so he could be at the Super Bowl for the HOF announcement.

Jason plays linebacker. He's tough and "out of control at times," but loves to read.

Jalen wants to keep up with the older kids. But he's a handful. No inhibitions. If something is broken in the house he's the first one interrogated.

Jaden is tough and doesn't back down. He has a big vocabulary. Jaela is the baby. Lauren says she may never walk "because all the boys fight over carrying her."

Eric, who sells real estate in Tampa, says he has loved getting to know so many siblings. "It's a cool experience," Eric said. "You share moments with each sibling. When I think of Jordan and all that he's been through, I wonder what would be if he had happened to go to another family and I get emotional."

Dungy is sitting with a reporter in a north Tampa restaurant. Although he'd started working on a Hall of Fame speech, he is anxious about it.

The whole thing still feels a little surreal to Dungy. He knows his credentials are worthy. He went 139-69 in his 13 seasons as a head coach with the Buccaneers and Colts. He made 10 consecutive playoff appearances, made history by winning a Super Bowl. He grew an enormous coaching tree that included NFL minority coaches such as Herm Edwards, Lovie Smith, Mike Tomlin, Leslie Frazier and Jim Caldwell. He served as a sounding board and inspiration for minority coaches for most of the past two decades.

"It is hard to visualize because it's not something you expect, it's not something you plotted out," Dungy said. "For me, I think of Chuck Noll. Bill Walsh. So it doesn't register. But you are going through this process and all the invitations ready and then wanting to get your speech lined up and setting an appointment to go out and sit with the sculptor. All these different things and you just think, 'Man, this is really happening.'

"It's crazy. You go up and visit the Hall and that was pretty unbelievable as you get to walk through and see some things. I didn't realize Coach Noll and Bill Walsh went in at the same year (1994), so to see that, two guys I played for … I think what struck me was the amount of people I had been around and crossed paths. Eddie (DeBartolo) and Lamar Hunt and Wellington Mara, both Dan and Art Rooney, two coaches, 10 teammates. So you start to see where you get things from and who the Lord put in your path. It's pretty incredible."

But that's how life has smiled on Dungy. As if being an NFL player for the Steelers and a Hall of Fame coach wasn't enough, he also authored three best sellers — Quiet Strength, Uncommon and Uncommon Marriage. The last book and several children's books were co-authored by Lauren.

Although he could've coached much longer, Dungy left the NFL after the '08 season. "I really wanted to make some mark where I lived," Dungy said. "We would go to schools and read to the kids. That's been great to get the message out, especially to boys, that there's nothing wrong with learning, nothing wrong with reading and developing your foundation that way. I've been able to do some things with my church and be around more."

What Dungy never planned on was coaching the grief-stricken. It has been 11 years since James died, and that hole in their hearts will never close. Faith tells them because James was a Christian, they will be together again.

Memories of that tragedy collided with Dungy's greatest triumph. Upon returning from Miami after winning Super Bowl XLI, the Indianapolis Star also ran a story of two brothers who left their home so their mom could get it ready for a Super Bowl party and the vehicle they were riding in was struck by a train, killing both.

"I get a call from the third-grade teacher saying our kids are having a tough time with this," Dungy said. "I get to meet them, meet the whole family and hear the whole stories. I said this is incredible but you can get through it.

"I've talked to hundreds of parents who have lost kids over the years. It's never something you want to do but if I can help one person."

Dungy has tried to help them all. The Iowa truck driver whose son died in a motorcycle accident. The high school coach in Wisconsin whose son committed suicide. The parents in Tampa whose son died in a car accident.

"I think God put us in this position to show people a lot of people go through it, you can overcome it," Dungy said. "Looking back on it, it's been 11 years for us. I used to feel badly until you talk to someone who lost a 2 year old, or 5 year old and then you realize I had 18 years to enjoy him and some people don't have that."

And in a way, maybe that's why Dungy and his wife continue to fill their house with seven more little miracles. Who knows if they're done? "The bike rides, the hikes and going to games has been amazing," Dungy said. "It's just the way it's happened, the way God intended it."