Tony Dungy's impact on those who knew him

Craig Altman
Craig Altman
Published Aug. 7, 2016

The impact of Tony Dungy, who was inducted Saturday night into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, reached far beyond Tampa Bay and the NFL. Here are a few stories of how he touched the lives of many who never played for him but came to know Dungy as a friend in the 20 years since he took over as Bucs coach.

His players, who spent countless hours with him every week preparing for games, knew him best, but Dungy always cared about much more than football, and his legacy is reflected in the wide range of people who simply knew how much he cared about them.

MARK MERRILL (president, Family First, All Pro Dad — All Pro Dad launched in 1997 by Merrill, with help of Dungy, who arrived in Tampa as Bucs coach in 1996)

"We met through (former Bucs assistant coach) Clyde Christensen. I'll never forget it. I walked into One Buc Place. Old, beat-up One Buc. I talked to Tony about the vision we had nationally, getting fathers more involved in kids' lives. Tony said, 'Man, I'm in.' Then he said he needed to go pick up the kids from school. I thought, 'This is the man we want on our team.'

"This is a great moment. I've watched him over the last 20 years. I've seen how he is as a father. I see a guy who lives a consistent life, where the walk matches the talk in all areas. I'll beam with pride for a friend and co-laborer in this work. There's no pretense about him. People talk about humility. He lives it. That's who he is.

"I've had people call me. They've lost children. Can they speak to Tony? I don't know when Tony hasn't had the time. He takes the phone number. He talks to them. Some people, he keeps in touch for a long, long time. He makes so many people feel like they're the most important person on earth.

"Tony loves to fish. Well, I'll never forget it. We were way out in the gulf, miles out. We weren't catching a thing. Tony throws a line over and we're all just sitting there. Everybody is getting frustrated. We're ready to go. Tony said three words I'll never forget. And they really epitomize Tony's style, how he coached and how he lives life. He said, 'Patience, men, patience.' And you know what happened? It wasn't just one fish that got caught. All of a sudden the lines started getting hit and we've got a lot of grouper. Tony didn't say a thing. He just reeled them in and smiled."

CRAIG ALTMAN (pastor, Grace Family Church, Tampa)

"That he has such a huge platform but remains so grounded, that's what remains incredible to me.

"A lot of people don't know that when Tony first started serving our church, we put him on traffic control for services. And he actually hurt us on traffic control because people slowed down to look at him. He was creating traffic problems, not clearing them up. I think it lasted three or four weeks until we wondered what was going on out there. So we had to fire Tony from his first job.

"But that's him: 'Where can I help? Where can I serve?' He leads the Wednesday night Bible study when he's in town and does a great job. His wife, Lauren, is one of our first impression greeters at the door.

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"The verse for Tony is, 'If you humble yourself, God will exalt you.' He's humbled himself, and God has exalted him to a place where has a great voice in the community and the nation. People listen to him."

WARRICK DUNN (played for Dungy 1997-2001; began Homes for the Holidays program and helped 150 economically disadvantaged single parents and families to first-time home ownership; his mother, a police officer in Louisiana, was killed in line of duty in 1993, so Dunn cared for his brothers and sisters)

"For me to be drafted by Coach Dungy, for him to help me propel my career on and off the field, it meant so much.

"He told us that as professional athletes we had a responsibility. It was always to play hard and win but also to care about your community. He told me, figure out what your passion was and make it part of who you are and where you are. That really helped me to decide what I wanted to do.

"I played for Coach (Bobby) Bowden (at FSU), so I had a chance to play for two great coaches. They had some of the same principles, both Christians who expected the most out of their players but challenged them to be men.

"I'll always be thankful to Coach Dungy and his family when my younger brothers and sisters moved in with me my second year in the league. His voice I needed at that time. Coach and his wife were there for me. He was there to talk to, and his wife was able to assist me, going to the school, talking to the teachers, all those things. Coach Dungy was there for me.

"When he lost his son, he showed such strength. When you're the head of the family, you have to show strength. It was remarkable."

ROBERT BLOUNT (president, Abe Brown Ministries; Dungy met the late Abe Brown shortly after moving to Tampa; prison ministry focused on those who were incarcerated, helping those individuals and their families)

"I know he's going into the NFL Hall of Fame, but he could go in the Hall of Fame of life. He's a virtuous man. I'll be thinking of his genuine understanding and compassion for people, love for the least of these in the community.

"I asked for permission to put stuff out on social media. And so we started a little 'Dungy Deserves the Hall' campaign. It never went viral. It was just something we could do.

"Coach Dungy grew up in Michigan, with a prison not far from his home. I've been on several crusades with him, from him and (his wife) Lauren quietly going into a juvenile detention center, to Coach Dungy bringing Michael Vick after he'd been released from prison to share his story. We get letters from people whose lives Coach Dungy has touched in prison. I recall a young man writing to tell me that he didn't get a chance to get Coach Dungy's autograph, but on that day Coach Dungy autographed his soul."

KEN WHITTEN (pastor, Idlewild Baptist Church, Lutz; has known Dungy since the former coach came to Tampa)

"He was never too busy to run the carpool for the neighborhood. He was never so important that he couldn't do vacation Bible school for the kids. He and Lauren still read weekly to kids in schools.

"Reputation is what people think about you. Character is what God knows about you. I'm happy not just for Tony and Lauren. I'm happy for us. They love Tampa. We were there for him at the lowest point in his life, when he lost (his son) James. And we're here for him, proud of him, as he gets in the Hall. We kind of feel like we're all getting inducted.

"What's going through my mind is how happy I am for him and Lauren and their incredible family. Those wonderful children they've adopted. And I'm sure Tony will feel his son James has the best seat in the house, and that James is proud, too."

Off in tiny George, Iowa, far from Tampa or Indianapolis, Brad Lemke said there was no way he would miss former Bucs and Colts coach Tony Dungy's induction speech on Saturday at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

Lemke has never met Dungy, and he spoke to him only once, by phone in 2010.

Dungy had called Lemke's brother Mark, an Iowa truck driver, in 2007 after reading in Sports Illustrated that his son Cory had died at age 19 in a motorcycle accident. Dungy had lost his 18-year-old son, James, after he committed suicide in 2005, and he often reached out to other fathers who had shared the same tragedy.

They talked regularly, and when Dungy's Colts team won the Super Bowl in January 2007, Lemke attended as his guest, even meeting Dungy and the team pastor before the game.

"They got together over their kids, and he was everything to Mark," Brad said. "He took Mark under his wing, told him everything would be all right. It was unreal."

Mark had also lost a daughter to cancer at age 2. In 2010, Brad called Dungy to let him know that Mark, 54, had died after battling brain cancer. In a diary on his website in 2011, Dungy called Mark "one of my closest friends," saying that he missed him but found solace in knowing that he and Cory "are back together and that's something I know Mark cherished very much."

The Lemke family holds a free parent-and-child golf tournament in Mark and Cory's names each year as part of the World Amateur in Myrtle Beach, S.C., with the simple message of parents and children enjoying time together.

"I'd love to see Tony come in," Brad said.

Greg Auman, Times staff writer