Valuable Lessons From My Sons
About the Guest
Tony Dungy, head coach of the Indianapolis Colts, shares what he's learned from his sons, Eric and Jordan, as well as his son James, who died in 2005.
Tony Dungy shares what he’s learned from his sons Eric, Jordan, and James.
Valuable Lessons From My Sons
Bob: In December of 2005, James Dungy, the son of the football coach for the Indianapolis Colts, Tony Dungy, took his own life. A few weeks later, right before the Super Bowl, Coach Dungy reflected on the pain his family had been through and how pain is sometimes a tool, in the hand of a merciful God.
Tony Dungy: Pain sometimes lets us know we’ve got a condition that needs to be healed. A lot of times, because of that pain—that little temporary pain—you learn what’s harmful. You learn to fear the right things. Pain, inside, sometimes lets us know that, spiritually, we’re not quite right. Sometimes pain is the only way that will turn us back to the Father.
Bob: And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us on the Wednesday edition. With the Super Bowl coming up this weekend, everybody is kind of focused on the world of professional football. It’s in all the papers and on TV everywhere. We thought, today, we would revisit what was a difficult chapter in the life of a figure whose life is tied to pro football because of his time as a player and as a coach. That is Coach Tony Dungy.
Dennis, you and I, on a couple of occasions, have had the opportunity to sit down with Coach Dungy. In fact, we went up to the Colts headquarters in Indianapolis, back when he was still coaching for the Colts, and sat down and had an extended conversation with him.
Dennis: He’s such a real deal. Bob, our trip to Indianapolis—when we interviewed him—I was so impressed with him—his authenticity, the family he grew up in as a young man, the impact of his father upon his life, and his mother.
It’s so easy—among professional sports, among the coaches and the athletes—to kind of lose your perspective, but he just doesn’t seem to have lost his perspective in the midst of a lot of competing priorities. He is fully committed to his wife, and his family, and his faith. Coach Dungy is authentic. The reason for that is, as a man, he has placed his faith in Jesus Christ.
Not only have we had the chance to interview Coach Dungy, but I’ve had the opportunity, on more than one occasion, of going to the Super Bowl, and doing a chapel for one of the teams, and also going to the Athletes in Action NFL Super Bowl breakfast. It’s a first-class breakfast for somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 people. It’s a great breakfast, where they honor sports figures who have character and faith and who are models to the next generation. One of those figures that they honor at the breakfast is Bart Starr. I’ve had the privilege of meeting him. He’s a great competitor. Of course, he was a quarterback for the Green Bay Packers. They’ve actually created an award in his honor.
At that breakfast, one of the things they do is conclude the breakfast by actually sharing the Gospel, and making a presentation about who Jesus Christ is, and what His claims are to each individual person’s life. Here’s this crowd of people, who are all there to celebrate two teams that made it to the pinnacle of their sport’s finals; and yet, there is an organization, Athletes in Action, showing up, setting up these sports figures to make the Gospel known in a clear way.
Bob: Back in 2006, Coach Dungy had been invited to be the keynote speaker at the Super Bowl breakfast. It turned out that just weeks before he was to speak, his son had taken his own life. You remember there was a lot of media scrutiny. There was a spotlight on this event, as a result of what the Dungy family had been through. As the Coach spoke at the Super Bowl breakfast that morning, he reflected on the lessons he had learned from being a dad and raising a number of boys—raising different children. It was a powerful presentation.
Tony Dungy: I’m going to illustrate three things that I’ve learned about the Lord. I’m going to use my boys to illustrate that. I’m going to start with my middle son, Eric. He looks more like me than my other two boys do. Matter of fact, he looks so much like me that when I look at him, I see myself; and I see a lot of the same things. Eric is very, very competitive—ultra-competitive. He’s focused on sports to where it’s almost a problem.
He’s super-emotional to where it’s almost scary. Now, those of you that see me now would say, “Wait a minute. That doesn’t sound a lot like you,” but it was me at 14. I grew up not too far from here in Jackson, Michigan. There are some people in this room that knew me when I was 14 years old. When people talk about me being composed and calm on the sideline, my buddies laugh because that’s not the guy they remember.
I was the guy that got the technical fouls, that got thrown out of the games, and that got in the fights. I quit the team my senior year because I had a disagreement with the coach. Now, when people ask me, “How do you stay so calm on the sideline?” I really have to tell them, “It is Christian maturity.” It didn’t happen overnight. It was a process. So, when I look at Eric and I look at myself, that’s one of the things I know about God. I know how powerful His Spirit is. I know that He can change people, and I know that He’ll do that if we allow Him to.
The second way I’ve seen God’s hand at work is through our youngest son. Jordan was born with a rare—very, very rare neurological condition. It’s called Congenital Insensitivity to Pain—only two or three cases in the whole United States. It’s a little more prevalent in other countries, but there have been only about three diagnosed in the United States. Basically, what happens—he’s missing the conductors that allow the nerve signals to go from his body to his brain.
That sounds like it is good, at the beginning; but I promise you, it’s not. We’ve learned a lot about pain in the last five years since we’ve had Jordan. We’ve learned that some hurts are really necessary for kids. Pain is necessary really for kids to find out the difference between what’s good and what’s harmful.
Jordan loves cookies, and cookies are good for you; but in his mind, “If they’re good out on the plate, they’re even better in the oven.” So, he will go right in the oven—if my wife’s not looking, when she’s baking them—reach in, take the pan out, burn his hands, eat the cookie that’s too hot, burn his tongue, and never feel it. He doesn’t know that that’s bad for him. When we go to the park, he’ll go on the slide. All kids know it is fun to go up the slide and slide down. He has fun doing that, too. To him, it’s just as much fun jumping off from the top. He has no fear of anything. So, we constantly have to watch him.
We’ve also learned that pain actually helps the body heal. Something I didn’t know, until talking with the doctor, is that you get an injury—your brain senses that there’s pain there. It sends the right healing agents, naturally, to that spot because it senses something is wrong. Without that sensation—of feeling something’s wrong—Jordan’s body doesn’t send those healing agents. Consequently, he’s got cuts from June and July that haven’t healed yet.
The other thing we’ve noticed with him and our other four kids, is that pain is the quickest way to get your kids to come back to you. If you have young kids, you’ve all experienced that before: “Hey, don’t do this,” “Don’t do that. You’re going to get hurt.” They don’t always listen; but as soon as they get hurt, they come screaming back to you. We’ve got a daughter—the same way. She’s the same way. As soon as something happens, she runs, and races, and is very dramatic; but she comes and jumps in your arms. “Jordan, be careful. Don’t run in the house. You’re going to run into something. You’ll get hurt.” BAM! But he keeps on going because he doesn’t feel the pain, and he doesn’t turn back to us all the time. So, that’s what we’ve seen.
Really, you get the question all the time: “Why does the Lord allow pain in your life?” “Why do bad things happen to good people?” “If God is a God of love, why does He allow these hurtful things?” We’ve learned that, a lot of times, because of that pain—that little temporary pain—you learn what’s harmful. You learn to fear the right things. Pain sometimes lets us know we’ve got a condition that needs to be healed. Pain, inside, sometimes lets us know that, spiritually, we’re not quite right. We need to be healed; and God will send that healing agent, right to the spot. Sometimes, pain is the only way that will turn us, as kids, back to the Father. So, we’ve learned a lot about that.
But I think the most important lesson that I’ve learned about the Lord, I’ve learned from my oldest son, James. As you heard, James would have been 19; but he died right before Christmas. James was a Christian. He was, by far, the most sensitive, the most compassionate of all our boys. Because of that, he was always looking around for that person that needed help. He was always looking for the one that was hurting, the one that was alone.
Most of his friends that we had gotten to know—if I ever asked them, “How did you get to know my son?”, they’d say, “Well, I was sitting by myself in the cafeteria one day,” or, “One day, the kids were picking on me,” or, “One day, I was walking home by myself; and he gave me a ride.” That’s the kind of guy he was—very, very compassionate—very sensitive. As most teenage boys today, James was getting a lot of messages from the world that maybe that’s not the way to be. You’ve all seen them—on TV, in the movies, the music they listen to, the magazines that they’re able to read. You get those conflicting signals—mixed signals. He was struggling very much with how you should respond to the world. He ended up taking his life right before Christmas. It was tough. It was very, very painful; but as painful as it was, there were some good things that came out of it.
When I was at the funeral, I talked about one of my biggest regrets. James was home for Thanksgiving and was leaving—going back to school and going back to work—just the normal process—you don’t think about it. I said, “Hey, I’ll see you later.” My daughter took him to the airport. We just exchanged, “See you later.” That was the last time I saw him. I talked to him on the phone a lot, but never saw him again. I shared, at the funeral, that my biggest regret was that I didn’t give him a big hug the very last time I saw him.
I met a guy, the next day after the funeral. He said, “You know, I was there. I heard you talking. I took off work today. I called my son and I said: ‘I’m going to take you to the movies. We’re going to spend some time and go to dinner.’” That was a real, real blessing to me. I’ve gotten a lot of letters, like that, from people who have heard what I said and said, “Hey, you brought me a little closer to my son,” or, “...a little closer to my daughter.” That is a tremendous blessing.
We were able to donate some of James’ organs to an organ donors program. Got a letter back about two weeks ago that two people had received his corneas and now can see. [Audience applause] That has been a tremendous blessing.
I had the privilege of talking to a young man, who was James’ age, who was going through some struggles—didn’t know if he could make it. We talked for about a week, and his voice just didn’t sound good; but every day, it sounded a little bit better and better. About ten days later, he called me back and asked me how I was doing. I could just feel, in his voice, he was doing better; and he was going to make it. That was a tremendous blessing.
I got a letter from a girl, in our church, who had grown up with James. She said: “You know, we’ve been going to the same church in Tampa for all these years. I sat there in church every Sunday, but never really knowing if there was a God or not. I came to the funeral because I knew James. 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 has to be a God.” I accepted Christ into my life, and my life’s been different since that day.” [Audience applause] That was an awesome blessing.
So, all those things have made me realize what God’s love is all about. But here’s the biggest part of that—I know, in my heart, that James’ death has affected many people and benefitted many people. That makes me feel better. But I also know this: “If God had had a conversation with me and said: ‘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 know how I’d have answered that. I’d 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, I’m going to do it”—2,000 years ago, with His Son, Jesus, on the cross. And because He said, “Yes,”—because He made the choice that I wouldn’t make, as a parent—that’s paid the way for us to come back into relationship with Him. That’s let us know, with a certainty, that we can live in heaven. That’s the benefit I got by accepting Christ into my heart. That’s the benefit James got.
Now, I went back to work one week after my son died. I had a lot of media people—a lot of sports writers, a lot of fans ask me: “How could you get back to work so quick after something like that? How have you recovered so quickly?” I’m not totally recovered. I don’t know if I ever will be. It’s still very, very painful; but I was able to come back because of something one of my good Christian friends said to me, after the funeral. He said this: “James accepted Christ into his heart. So, you know he’s in heaven; right?” I said: “Right. I know that.” “So, with all you know about heaven, if you had the power to bring him back right now; would you?” When I thought about that, I said: “No, I wouldn’t. I would not want him back with what I know about heaven.”
That’s what helped me through the grieving process. Because of Christ’s Spirit in me, I have the confidence that James is there, at peace with the Lord. I have a peace of mind, in the midst of something that’s very, very painful. That’s my prayer today—that everyone in this room would know that same thing.
Bob: Once again, today we have been listening to a message from the former coach of the Indianapolis Colts, Coach Tony Dungy—a message presented at the 2006 Super Bowl Breakfast.
Dennis: I have to believe we’re talking right now to an individual who, because of the compelling nature of what Tony just shared, has come to the realization that he needs to decide what he needs to do with Jesus Christ—or perhaps she needs to decide what she needs to do with Jesus Christ. Are you going to trust in Him to be your Savior—your Lord, your Master, your Redeemer—who can redeem you from certain judgment or are you going to trust in yourself? Are you going to think you’re going to make it to God through your good works? That simply will not work. You’re not going to get there. In fact, I want to just read the words of Christ to that person who is contemplating his eternal future. Jesus said in John, Chapter 5, verse 24, “Truly, truly I say to you, he who hears My word and believes Him who sent Me has eternal life, and does not come into judgment but has passed out of death into life.”
A person who doesn’t know Jesus Christ is in death. They are under certain judgment. They have to pay their own price for their own sins. The reality is—they don’t have the payment that God demands—but the person that places their faith in Jesus Christ, who paid the penalty for your sin by becoming a man—living a life of perfection over 30 years, and then going to a cross and paying the price on the cross for your sins, and bearing the wrath of God—He makes an offer to you because He’s alive from the dead today and says, “If you’ll place your faith in Me, you can pass out of death and judgment and into life.”
The question is: “What are you going to do with Christ? Will you take Him at His word and place your faith, right where you are?” Maybe, you need to pull off the road. Perhaps, you’re at work or at home. Just stop, right now, and bow your head and pray the following prayer. The words of the prayer are not important—as is the attitude of your heart:
Lord Jesus, I need you. I accept You as my Savior and Lord—my Master. I now trust You to do what I can’t do. Thank You for dying on the cross for my sins, for being raised to life so that You can offer me life eternal.
If you place your faith in Christ, He promised you that you will not come into judgment. You have just passed from death to life. You know what? You just began to live, as God designed it. I think that’s what Coach Dungy—what we’re all about—here on FamilyLife Today. We want people to know about who Jesus Christ is and what He came to do for individual people.
Bob: On our website, at FamilyLifeToday.com, we have a link that describes two ways to live. It really does explain that there are two paths that every person is on. You’re either on one path or you’re on the other. There are two destinations you’re headed toward.
If you’ve not resolved this issue of which path you’re headed on—whether you are headed in the right direction—go to our website. Go to FamilyLifeToday.com and click on the link that says, “Two Ways to Live”. I think that will help clear things up for you—help you understand the issue that is before every one of us, which is: “Where are we going? What is life all about?” Again, go to FamilyLifeToday.com and click on the link that says, “Two Ways to Live”. Then, we’d love to hear from you. We’d love to know about where you are in life, spiritually, what you’re doing, and how we can help you get pointed in the right direction and help you grow in your relationship with Jesus Christ.
In fact, one of the ways we can help you grow—if you’re a guy—we’d love to invite you to join us this Saturday for the Stepping Up™ Super Saturday event that we have scheduled in cities, all around the country. Local churches are going to be hosting this event. There are hundreds of locations already set to be Super Saturday locations for this rally—this one-day event for men—coming up this Saturday. You can go to FamilyLifeToday.com and click on the link we have there to find out where a Super Saturday event is being held near you, and just show up. Just come be a part of this one-day event for men. Again, go to FamilyLifeToday.com for more information.
Coach Dungy is a part of Super Saturday, as is Dennis Rainey, and James McDonald, and Crawford Loritts, and former Secretary of Education Bill Bennett is with us, Mark Driscoll, and Matt Chandler. In fact, speaking of Mark Driscoll, he and his wife Grace were here, not long ago, and sat down and talked about their marriage—some of the challenges they have faced as a couple—about the book that they wrote together called Real Marriage. We have a CD of our conversation with Mark and Grace Driscoll that we’d love to make available to you, this week, if you’re able to help support the ministry of FamilyLifeToday with a donation. We are listener-supported. Your donations help cover the cost of producing and syndicating this daily radio program, and we could not do it without you.
So, “Thanks,” to those of you who have supported us in the past. If you make a donation this week, be sure to ask for a copy of the CD with Mark and Grace Driscoll. It’s our thank-you gift to you for your support. You can make your donation, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com. Just click on the button that says, “I CARE”, to make an online donation; or you can call 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY”; and make a donation over the phone. We appreciate your partnership with us. It’s always nice to hear from you, and we look forward to it.
And we hope you can join us back again tomorrow when we’re going to hear, this time, from a former NFL quarterback, Jeff Kemp. Not only was Jeff a quarterback; but his dad was an NFL quarterback before he ran for Congress, and served in the Presidential Cabinet, and ran for Vice President. We’ll hear from Jeff about lessons he’s learned from playing quarterback in the NFL—that he applies to his life, as a husband and a father today. I hope you can tune in for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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