TAMPA — If the TV gig as an analyst with NBC’S “Football Night in America” doesn’t work out, Tony Dungy has another job waiting in the wings:
Tampa’s own evangelist.
The former Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach packed a meeting hall Wednesday at the Tampa Convention Center, drawing more than 850 people to the 43rd annual Tampa Bay Mayors Prayer Breakfast.
“I think we ought to rename this event ‘The Coach Dungy Prayer Breakfast and Ol’ What’s His Name,’” quipped Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn. “Because it’s clear who people are here to see.”
The event is hosted by the Tampa Bay chapter of the Christian BusinessMen’s Connection, and makes no apology for its purpose — to encourage prayer and Christian leadership in the community.
And Dungy, who is very public about his faith commitment, didn’t sway from that message. He acknowledged that what the group represents isn’t “necessarily politically correct,” but that should not deter their mission.
“Once I took the Lord off the back burner and put him out front, everything changed in my life,” he noted.
Dungy spoke of some of the earlier influences in his life — specifically, former Pittsburgh Steelers coach Chuck Noll and strong safety Donnie Shell — who provided spiritual mentorship in a profession where faith isn’t always a priority.
“Sometimes you don’t think of all the people that God puts in your path,” he said. “It was the Lord looking out for me, even when I didn’t know it at the time.”
The first time he met Noll at a players’ meeting, the coach welcomed all to the National Football League — and promptly followed up with: “I promise you it’s not your whole life.”
One lesson Dungy never forgot from Noll was that there is a responsibility that goes along with playing for a team, “and not just three or four hours on a Sunday.” In 1978, his second year in the NFL, Dungy said, he recommitted to those Christian values his educator parents raised him with growing up in Jackson, Mich.
“That’s when I let the Lord take control of my life, every day of the week,” he said.
Having a strong faith foundation has kept him anchored in the worst of times, such as the 2004 death of his father from leukemia and, a year later, the suicide of his and wife Lauren’s teenage son.
For years, his faith helped him deal with the disappointment of always coming in second or third for a head coaching job in the NFL.
That patience was finally rewarded in 1996, when the Bucs front office tapped him to lead the team. He got to the playoffs four of six seasons before being fired. He went on to Indianapolis for seven seasons, eventually winning Super Bowl XLI by beating the Chicago Bears, 29-17.
Dungy, who makes his home in Tampa, now devotes his time to charitable organizations, writing books, speaking engagements, television work and raising nine biological and adopted kids with Lauren.
He encouraged the audience to reach beyond their paid jobs and lend a hand to “someone different, someone who doesn’t look like you, something who needs a mentor” in the community. He gave a shout-out to three former Bucs who are doing just that with their nonprofits: Mike Alstott, Warrick Dunn and Derrick Brooks.
“People here will never forget they won the Super Bowl,” Dungy said. “But what’s more important is the work they are doing now. That will have a lasting impact.”
Laurie Hill, founder of the fledging Christian Chamber of Commerce and one of the few women at the event, said Dungy’s message was “very real and very bold.” She was impressed that he didn’t just talk about the moments of glory he’s experienced, but also the trials and tribulations, and how walking with Christ made a difference.
“Coach Dungy is a humble man. He doesn’t see himself as a celebrity, even though people treat him that way,” she said. “He sees himself as a person of influence for God. He is using his high profile to be an example to us all.”