Jamie Dungy, Tony Dungy’s oldest son, died three days before Christmas in 2005. Investigators ruled suicide as the cause of death of the 18-year-old, whose famous father was the highly successful head coach of the Indianapolis Colts and is now a studio analyst for NBC’s “Football Night in America.”
Dungy delivered the eulogy at Jamie’s memorial service in Tampa, Florida, and among other things, spoke of not hugging his son on Thanksgiving a few weeks prior to his death. Six weeks after the funeral, while speaking at an Athletes in Action (AIA) breakfast, the coach spoke publicly about Jamie’s death: “It was tough, and it was very, very painful, but as painful as it was, there were some good things that came out of it.”
During the breakfast, Dungy recalled the tremendous support he and his wife, Lauren, received through cards, letters, telephone calls and face-to-face encounters with other parents who’d lost their children to suicide. He even appreciated words from those parents, who after hearing Coach Dungy speak, decided to reconnect with their children on a deeper level.
Among the many outpourings of love the Dungys received was a letter from a girl who attends the family’s church in Tampa. The girl had known Jamie for many years and went to the funeral. Dungy shared part of the girl’s letter at the AIA breakfast: “When I saw what happened at the funeral, and your family and the celebration and how it was handled, that was the first time I realized there had to be a God,” she wrote. “I accepted Christ into my life and my life’s been different since that day.”
Dungy added, “That was an awesome blessing, so all of those things kind of made me realize what God’s love is all about.” Days after Jamie’s death, Dungy was back in Indianapolis coaching his Colts. He acknowledged that he wasn’t fully healed, but he felt a strong conviction to lead his playoff-bound team.
“Because of Christ’s spirit in me,” Dungy told the AIA crowd, “I have the peace of mind in the midst of something that’s very, very painful. That’s my prayer today. That everyone would have this same peace.”
The message continues
Years after Jamie’s death, Dungy still talks to parents reeling from the loss of a son or daughter to suicide. “I know in my heart Jamie’s death has affected many people and benefited many people,” Dungy says. “I also know that if God had had a conversation with me and told me, ‘I can help some people see; I can heal some relationships; I can save some people’s lives; I can give some people eternal life — but I have to take your son to do it. You make the choice,’ I would have said, ‘No, I’m sorry. As great as all that is, I don’t want to do that.’ And that’s the awesome thing about God. He had that choice and He said yes.”
Dungy became a Pro Football Hall of Fame coach by honing his craft and meticulously poring over details he was convinced would lead his team to achieve unequaled success. When he went back to coaching the Colts after Jamie’s death, Dungy was not sure how he planned — or how God planned to use him — to translate his pain into hope and comfort for other people who have had, or will have, to deal with a similar tragedy.
“After the fact, it’s tough because we can only rely on our faith and God and eternity,” Dungy says. “There’s nothing you can do on earth after it’s happened, other than take care of your other family members and focus on nurturing them.” Dungy insists unconditional love and open dialogue could help prevent many suicides. “You have to say, ‘How can I keep those relationships with my kids, keep the lines of communication open? How can I help them see the worth and the value that they have?’”
Dungy knows he could have done a better job in all of those areas with Jamie. But beating himself up was not going to help him or his family though this difficult time. What has helped bring healing is for him to talk openly about his family’s experience. Dungy has spoken about Jamie’s death on numerous occasions and in front of many different groups. He is aware that suicide is on the rise in America, especially among the youth, which he says has become an epidemic.
“I probably talk to 15 [or] 20 parents a year who have lost kids to suicide,” he says. “It’s not easy. It’s not fun. And it’s very painful.”
The message Dungy gives to parents is consistent with the way he and Lauren handled Jamie’s death. “The only way you can make it through, in my opinion, is to have that faith in God and rely on Christ,” he says. “Lauren and I had different ups and downs — periods when both of us were feeling good [or] both of us were feeling bad. We just had to support each other. What we found was the most important thing . . . with our family was to keep those lines of communication open.” They found that how they were feeling was best processed with each other as a family.
Dungy also hears from parents who lost children to non-suicide death. “Any time you lose a child, it doesn’t matter how, it’s devastating,” he says. “You’ve got to really draw closer to the Lord. That has to be your goal.”
In his book Quiet Strength, Dungy writes about those early days following Jamie’s death when his entire family was in shock. “We believe God when He says that He works all things for His good for those who love the Lord.”
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Triumph from tragedy
Dungy’s Colts were a perennial playoff team during his tenure in Indianapolis, but his 2005 team entered the AFC playoffs as the No. 1 seed. A loss in the divisional playoffs weeks after Jamie’s death, was not the way Dungy or his players envisioned their 2005 season ending.
Their 2006-2007 playoff season was marked by an incredible comeback, and they eventually defeated the Chicago Bears and became champions of Super Bowl XLI. In the locker room after the game, Dungy challenged his players to look beyond the thrill of the moment. He asked them, “How are we going to conduct ourselves tonight and after this game? After the biggest win of most of our careers?’” Dungy is fully aware of the ups and downs of sports and life.
The world is a more complex place today than when he was a kid growing up in Jackson, Michigan. To high school kids, he stresses the importance of a purposeful life and living in the present. He says, “You’re not going to win every game. You are going to have some losses. And you have to bounce back from them. And you can bounce back from them. You can also understand that you can be behind in the first quarter, behind in the second quarter, behind in the third quarter and still win the game.”
Dungy feels it’s important for children to learn how to deal with disappointment in a healthy way. He says, “There are going to be times when you say, ‘Man, this is just not going right, but I have to hang in there and things are going to be OK.’ ”
Today Dungy leans on his faith more than ever. “It’s easy to say, ‘I really believe in God and God’s with me’ when everything is great and you’re winning Super Bowls. But when you have a negative situation, and you realize that God pulls you out, it strengthens your faith. So, for me, my faith has grown.”
Dungy and his wife did not let Jamie’s death detour them from growing their family. In addition to their current three biological kids, they have adopted seven others and have taken in foster kids. Jamie’s death changed them, but their prayer is that God will continue using their heartbreaking loss for His good and glory.