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Thursday, December 22, 2005
Updated: December 23, 9:44 AM ET
Dungy shouldn't have to live with regrets

By Michael Smith
ESPN.com

Little Jordan, you see, had just learned how to use a cell phone last Friday afternoon. He had gotten a hold of his mother's, and proceeded to repeatedly dial his father's office line until Jackie Cook, Tony Dungy's assistant, poked her head into the head coach's office and politely interrupted an interview. "It's Jordan. He's called three or four times … "

"Excuse me," Dungy told the reporter as he picked up the phone. Dungy had to ask a few times, and a couple of ways, but he finally coaxed it out of his youngest son that he was, in fact, using mommy's cell phone. Jordan called to remind his father not to forget to pick Jade, his youngest daughter, up from day care, which Dungy does on Fridays. Dungy promised that he wouldn't forget. It was a nice moment between a father and his innocent youngest son. A week later, the scene seems so much more poignant.

Dungy's second of five children and eldest son, James, was found dead in his Tampa, Fla., apartment early Thursday morning.

The thing about Dungy, head coach of the Indianapolis Colts, is that he never forgets about his family. They come second only to his faith. But they come before football. That's the way it is with Dungy: faith, family, football. In that order. Always.

James Dungy's tragic death is a reminder that none of us knows what a day will bring forth, and that tomorrow is not promised to any of us. It's when we forget that we end up with regrets.

Tony Dungy, along with the rest of his family, is hurting right now. Their pain is the kind you don't wish upon anyone. But as far as we can tell, Dungy doesn't have to wish he'd done a lot of things differently. Regardless of how James Dungy left this life, Dungy doesn't have to live with many, if any, regrets.

If he didn't do everything right, he certainly did the best he could to be there for his family. With his family.

Dungy possesses what too many football coaches do not: perspective. He has his priorities in order. Faith, family, football.

Since his days as Tampa Bay's head coach he's been involved with community service organizations the likes of Family First, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, and All-Pro Dad. Both of Dungy's parents have passed on, his father just last year. Wil and Cleo Dungy passed on to their son a love and an appreciation and a respect for the institution of the family. Both teachers, they were always home for Dungy and his three siblings.

Dungy has a couch in his office, but it doesn't double as a bed. No offense to those who live this lifestyle, but he isn't one of those maniacal coaches who open and close the facility.

He takes his younger children to school every morning. He says he won't coach much longer because he doesn't want to miss Jordan's and Jade's events the way he's missed many of Tiara's and Eric's and James'.

Faith, family, football.

"When I look at this game, and the pressure that's on coaches to win, he's not overwhelmed by it," first-year Colts defensive tackle Corey Simon was saying last week. "It doesn't define who he is."

Who Dungy is is a role model, not just for other coaches, but for all men. James' death should serve as a wake-up call to anyone who obsesses over his work and in the process neglects his duties as a husband and father. The pain from the loss of a child can seem unbearable. But at least Dungy can live with himself and take comfort in knowing he was a good father, is a good father. God forbid, but if the time comes, guys, will all of us be able to say the same thing?

Hmm, hmm, hmm. Isn't it amazing? For the past several weeks we've spent airtime and ink and cyberspace discussing and debating whether Dungy should sit his starters or pursue a perfect regular season (a moot point now, the Colts having lost their first game last week). Now, understandably, Dungy won't even coach the team in Seattle Saturday. Jim Caldwell, Indy's assistant head coach/quarterbacks coach, will take charge in Dungy's absence. Who knows when Dungy will be back? Who cares?

Dungy, thankfully, always focused on what was most important.

Faith. Family. Then football. He stresses that to his players, one of the many reasons they respect him so much and play so hard for him.

"He talks to us in a way in which you know that he really cares for your well being," defensive tackle Montae Reagor said. "He cares about what goes on in your life. He always says family's first. When it comes to family, it takes precedence over football. He loves family, and he treats us as his own."

It's really the only way Dungy knows.

"I was really fortunate," Dungy was saying just last week, "playing and coaching for Coach [Chuck] Noll, and then going to work for Denny Green. Those guys were very, very good, but [coaching] didn't consume them. Being around that environment I realized that you could be very good by just being very efficient, by working hard when you worked but realizing that there was plenty of life outside of the office.

"Coach Noll was very much a family man. Denny allowed us to be very autonomous. He would say, 'Defensively, here's what we need to get done. When you get it done, go. Don't stay because I'm staying or because the offense is still here.' So I never went into it paranoid, thinking, 'If I don't work 17-hour days, we won't get it done or we won't win.' I've just never had that problem."

That isn't to say it hasn't been hard for Dungy. His success (he's the league's winningest coach since 1999) has come with something of a price, albeit a smaller one than many of his peers pay. But absentee dad? Never.

"It's tough because you don't spend as much time with them as you would like," Dungy said. "My dad was there all the time. He never missed a game that I had. Eric's played a bunch of games that I haven't gotten to see him play. I only got to see my oldest son play high school football one game. It's not the way I would want it, but it's never going to be to the point where I haven't seen my kids all week, that kind of stuff that you hear."

Just recently, Simon and his family experienced a tragedy similar to the one the Dungys are going through. Tony Dungy has an open-door policy. Simon walked in and told him the situation. They prayed together.

"He told me that I have to be strong," Simon recalled. "That I have to be the man and when I walk in my house, I have to be strong for my wife and allow her to grieve. He helped me to understand that God's will is pleasing and perfect. He said that maybe I can't see it and maybe not in that particular situation and that particular time, but in God's time, things are going to work out.

"It's big being able to sit down and have that conversation with your coach. It helps you see that life is so much bigger than this game."

Amen.

Now it's Tony and Lauren and Tiara and Eric and Jordan and Jade Dungy who need all of our prayers.

Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com.