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With Tony Dungy on hand, conversation flows with ease at Foster's Barber Shop (w/video)

Former Plant High School football coach Darlee Nelson, talks with Tony Dungy, former Buccaneers and Colts head coach at Foster's Barber Shop in West Tampa on Tuesday, November 1, 2016. Dungy stopped by his barber shop to discuss community, football, and social issues in the community.
Former Plant High School football coach Darlee Nelson, talks with Tony Dungy, former Buccaneers and Colts head coach at Foster's Barber Shop in West Tampa on Tuesday, November 1, 2016. Dungy stopped by his barber shop to discuss community, football, and social issues in the community.
Published Nov. 6, 2016

TAMPA — Open the heavy glass door, step inside and the conversation already is flowing.

"I just don't understand why the Dallas Cowboys are the most glorified team in this country and haven't won anything in almost 20 years!"

"Forget the Cowboys, what about the Bucs? What about Jameis?"

"Man, they ain't got no dogs up front, that's the Steelers' problem."

Welcome to Foster's Barber Shop in West Tampa. Pull up a chair.

While stylist Ben Wright cuts hair in one corner, the four walls are lined with 13 gentlemen, ranging in ages from early 30s to late 60s. They come from all walks of life. A pilot. A real estate agent. A CEO of a communications company. One is retired. Another is running for Hillsborough County School Board.

Some sit in barber chairs where there are no barbers. Others sit in stiff seats, backs against mirrors, underneath crinkled old pennants, framed and yellowed newspaper stories of when the Bucs were good, and a painting of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

There are no seats to be had. Today's one-room town hall is so crammed because of a special guest: Pro Football Hall of Famer, NBC analyst and former Bucs coach Tony Dungy. As the conversation gets louder and rowdier, Dungy just laughs.

"You don't even need to interview me," he says.

For the African-American community, the barbershop is a special place, a gathering spot to discuss the news of the day — from sports to politics to social issues to the neighborhood. It's a place to catch up, to share joys and troubles, to laugh, to cry, to pray and to tell a tall tale or two.

"Everybody knows everybody here," Ben's uncle, Norman Wright, says.

"We can be ourselves," adds Joe Jordon-Robinson. "What is said in the barbershop stays in the barbershop."

"It's tradition, man," Rick Perry says. "This barbershop has been here forever."

Actually, it has been here since 1965. Across the street from delicious garlic snow crabs at the West Fortune Fish Market. There's a small house on one side and an empty grass lot on the other, where the old Foster's used to be. Dungy has been coming regularly since 2001.

"This is the information place," says Dungy, 61, who then tells everyone why he doesn't coach anymore: "They used to cut my hair. Now I don't have any hair left to cut."

You come to Foster's to see Dungy. You stay for the conversation.

For the next hour, as customers rotate through Ben's chair, the conversation rotates between who is the biggest con artist in the room to the problems of today's youth. It goes from light-hearted to emotional, such as when the name of the shop's original owner, Nathaniel Foster, comes up.

Mr. Foster doesn't cut hair anymore.

He's 78 and retired, home with recent health issues.

"Mr. Foster was my childhood barber," Ben says while snipping wild gray hairs from the top of Jordon-Robinson's head. "Mr. Foster is the reason I'm in here now. When I was a kid, I looked up to him. I ended up working here, and it was the best thing that ever happened to me. Because I needed it."

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Ben chokes up and starts to cry before escaping to the restroom. That's how much Mr. Foster means to everyone.

"Mr. Foster was a father figure that a lot of us didn't have," another customer says. "Me and Ben grew up without our fathers. Looking for a male role model is very important for men of color that do not have that connection in life. So when you see someone that you want to emulate, they become very powerful in your life, and that's what Mr. Foster was to us."

With clippers in hand, Mr. Foster taught life lessons with a story and heavy dose of truth.

"He told us how it is and how it's going to be," a voice says, "and sure enough it was exactly the way it was."

Dungy listens and smiles. Then he shares his own Mr. Foster story.

"He'd stand right behind that chair and listen to everybody talk," Dungy says, "and then he would say, 'You know what I think?' And everybody just stopped and listened. Then it was his room."

That's why this place is so special.

When Ben returns, still dabbing his eyes, the conversation lightens.

Let's talk football.

"Hey, Coach, tell us about the old Steelers defense?"

"Jack Ham might have been the best player I ever played with," Dungy says. "Never said a word. Just a quiet assassin."

"Hey, Coach, what was it like to make the Hall of Fame?"

"You dream about making it to the National Football League," Dungy says. "You dream about playing in the Super Bowl, winning the Super Bowl. But meeting the president and going to the Hall of Fame? You never even dream about that."

"Hey, Coach, you miss coaching?"

"I miss the relationship with the players and the staff," Dungy says. "But I don't miss the day-to-day stuff. Plus, with the union and so forth, you can't do anything anymore. You can't even hardly raise your voice."

Raise your voice? Tony Dungy?

"I was a hothead playing," Dungy says. "My high school buddies give me a hard time when people talk about me under control and cool and all that. That wasn't me."

But it became him — the leader with grace and poise.

"But," a voice shouts out, "you were a disciplinarian. Because I know there were some guys who would do something on Saturday and by Monday they were at Publix, (asking), 'Paper or plastic?' "

The room roars with laughter.

"You can get things across to players without yelling," Dungy says.

The conversation rolls along. Be careful, though. Say something wrong and Ben will reach into the drawer with the combs and come out with a homemade penalty flag. Curse in front of a child and you get a yellow flag. Lie or say something dumb or rude and you get a red one. A red one will get you kicked out.

Dungy talks about family and charity and how much he enjoys working in broadcasting. Every time he speaks, the room grows silent.

"Tony Dungy is an icon," says Darlee Nelson, who was a player at the University of Tampa in the '70s and was a longtime high school coach at Jefferson and Plant. "You know you always look for someone who says the right things, does the right things. He does that for all communities. He's inclusive. Some people are not inclusive. Coach Dungy is inclusive. He believes in people."

His impact extends far beyond football.

"Unfortunately, a lot of us in the black community grew up without fathers," Perry says, "but what we have is a man whose actions match his words. He is someone you just idolize."

The room turns even more quiet and respectful when the conversation turns to social issues.

The room wants more African-American coaches. They want to see African-Americans in ownership. They support 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick's right to protest. They talk about the police and the military and the flag.

They talk Clinton and Trump. It's not as one-sided as you would think.

But, before it's time to break up and get back to the rest of the day, one last issue remains.

"Coach, what are we going to do about the Bucs?"

"I think they have a good plan," Dungy says. "They got Jameis. Build the offense around him. … The Bucs just have to be patient and stay with one system and let it play out. Not go a year-and-a-half and not get results and say, 'Let's do something else.' Stick with it. You're going to go through ups and downs. When you see a team like New England, they stay with the program. That's what we have to do, I think."

Dungy said, "We."

He did so on purpose. The men like that.

The haircuts are finished. Ben is sweeping up. Hugs and handshakes and goodbyes are passed around.

Jordon-Robinson says, "See, this is it. It's the camaraderie and the conversation that you get here. You can get this at any barber­shop, but this barbershop has a good flow of people coming in. All walks of life. So the conversation is always good, and you can learn something from a lot of people at any given time. That's what keeps me coming back to Foster's."

Dungy walks out the door. But, someday soon, he will back. He always comes back.

This is the place to be.


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