EDITORS’ NOTE: Dallas-based sportswriter Art Stricklin is reporting this week on the spiritual side of the Super Bowl. His final story from Detroit will appear in BP Monday.
POSTED Saturday, Feb. 4.
DETROIT (BP)–An emotional Indianapolis Colts head coach Tony Dungy, in his first speaking engagement since his son’s funeral, headlined the 19th annual Athletes in Action Super Bowl breakfast Saturday morning at the Super Bowl XL headquarters hotel in Detroit.
New York Jets running back Curtis Martin received the Bart Starr Award, given annually to an NFL player on the basis of character and service. But all eyes were on Dungy, who was given two standing ovations in telling of the pain and the lessons from his son’s suicide in December.
Dungy said he had learned a lot from his sons, Eric, 14 and Jordan, 5, “but the most important thing came from James, who would have been 19.”
“He was a Christian and is today in heaven. He was struggling with the things of the world and took his own life. People ask how I could come back to work so soon. I’m not totally recovered, I don’t know if I ever will be, it’s still ever-painful,” he said, wiping back a tear. “But some good things have come out of it.”
He said he has received dozens of letters from people who heard him speak at his son’s funeral or at a Colts news conference on the peace and assurance he has in his son’s salvation and eternal destination. Dungy told of two people having received the gift of sight from his son’s donated corneas and of the youth to whom he has talked who are wrestling with similar problems as his son.
But Dungy used the most important lesson to drive home his point before the packed ballroom full of former NFL players and coaches, league officials and fans.
“If God had talked to me before James’ death and said his death would have helped all these people, it would have saved them and healed their sins, but I would have to take your son, I would have said no, I can’t do that.
“But God had the same choice 2,000 years ago with His Son, Jesus Christ, and it paved the way for you and me to have eternal life. That’s the benefit I got, that’s the benefit James got and that’s the benefit you can get if you accept Jesus into your heart today as your Savior.”
Dungy said the biggest regret in his life is that when he saw his son for the last time during the Thanksgiving holidays, he did not hug him when he left but only gave him a causal goodbye.
He said he didn’t want to have the same regret at the sold-out breakfast, as he led the crowd in prayer, asking those who did not have Jesus in their life to accept Him for the very first time.
“I want you to know there is a peace in your mind through God’s spirit when you know Jesus and know you will be in heaven with Him.”
When he got up to speak, Dungy said it was the eighth or ninth time he had attended the annual Super Bowl event, but his dream remains to attend just 24 hours before he takes the field as a Super Bowl coach.
“This is a tremendous event and it’s great to be here, but I didn’t want come here as the invited speaker, but as the head coach of a Super Bowl team. My goal is to fill a couple of tables with my players the day before the game.
“It hasn’t happened yet; I’ll sure be happy when it does.”
Before he got up to speak, a brief video was shown of Colts players talking about the impact Dungy had on their life before and after the tragic death of his son.
“This is the way a Christian man should coach a team,” punter Hunter Smith said. “I believe it’s the way Jesus would coach a team.”
Martin, in his acceptance speech for the Bart Starr Award, said his faith in God helped him overcome a rocky beginning to his life, including family and friends being killed when he was young and an abusive home situation where his dad regularly beat his mom.
“I always thought I would die before I was 21, but I appreciate life now and I do realize we have a God who forgives whatever we can do.”
Hall of Fame members Steve Largent, a receiver with the Seattle Seahawks, and Lem Barney, a Detroit Lions cornerback, also voiced testimonies of God’s goodness both on and off the field.
“Why does God allow pain in our life?” Dungy asked in his emotionally charged speech. “Because we’re loved by God and the pain allows us to head back to our Father.”