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Victories in the Midst of Tragedy

with Tony Dungy | January 18, 2008

In the midst of incredible success as the Indianapolis Colts head coach, Tony Dungy experienced heart-wrenching loss when his teenage son, James, committed suicide. Today on the broadcast, hear how the family survived the loss and what he leans on to see him through.

In the midst of incredible success as the Indianapolis Colts head coach, Tony Dungy experienced heart-wrenching loss when his teenage son, James, committed suicide. Today on the broadcast, hear how the family survived the loss and what he leans on to see him through.

Victories in the Midst of Tragedy

With Tony Dungy
|
January 18, 2008
| Download Transcript PDF

Tony: My pastor in Pittsburgh had a great lesson on that when we were a young married couple.  He said, "You know, James and Peter were in prison, and the church prayed for both, and James got beheaded, and Peter got released."  Both of them were God's will, and we can feel badly for James, and I'm sure they all did, but God had a plan for that, and so that's how I've kind of looked at it – as painful, you never want it to happen, but how can you move on, how can you make the situation better?

Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Friday, January 18th.  Our host is the president of FamilyLife, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine.  We will hear today how Coach Tony Dungy has dealt with the tragedy of the loss of his son to suicide.  Stay tuned.

 And welcome to FamilyLife Today, thanks for joining us on the Friday edition.  This is a real treat, isn't it?

Dennis: It is a real treat.  Coach Tony Dungy joins us again – welcome back, Coach.

Tony: Thank you very much.  It's great to be with you.

Dennis: Congratulations, again, on your Super Bowl victory of a year ago, and …

Bob: I've got my fingers cross for this year, all right?  I don't know if that does any good, but …

Tony: We'll take it.

Dennis: We're getting in trouble with listeners because this broadcast is heard in every state across the land.

Bob: I know, and I grew up …

Dennis: There are some other people who are fans for other teams, you know.

Bob: I grew up in St. Louis, so I really don't have anything to cheer for this year, so I'm [inaudible] Colts fans.

[laughter]

Tony: Well, we appreciate it.  We'll take them all.

Dennis: Yeah.  Well, Coach, there is an event that you're a part of and have been a part of for a number of years called the "Super Bowl Breakfast."  My friend, Bill Pugh, and yours as well, along with Athletes in Action, host this on the day before the Super Bowl.  It's a gathering of, I don't know, 1,500, a couple of thousand people, in a magnificent setting, to honor football players who have character, and they give an award called "The Bart Starr Award," which is just a – it's a great event.  I've attended it a couple of times, and a couple of years ago you found yourself on that stage speaking in a situation that you didn't think you would find yourself in whatsoever.  You had helped start a ministry called "All Pro Dad," you were helping dads be better parents, and yet your own son, Jamie, had taken his life.

 I want you to listen a clip that we have from that breakfast and what you said, and then I want to ask you to take us to what you were thinking and feeling as you made those statements a couple of years ago.

Tony: [from audiotape.]  But I think the most important lesson that I've learned about the Lord, I learned from my oldest son, James.  As you heard, James would have been 19, but he died right before Christmas.  James was a Christian, and he was, by far, the most sensitive, the most compassionate, of all our boys.  As most teenage boys today, James was getting a lot of messages from the world that maybe that's not the way to be, and he was struggling very much with how you should respond to the world, and he ended up taking his life right before Christmas, and 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 and going back to school and going back to work, and 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," and that was the last time I saw him.

 I talked to him on the phone a lot, but never saw him again, and 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, and 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, and we're going to spend some time and go to dinner.'"  That was a real, real blessing to me.

 We were able to donate some of James' organs to Organ Donors program.  We got a letter back about two weeks ago that two people had received his corneas and now can see.  We got a letter from a girl in our church who had grown up with James, and she said, "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 how it was handled, that was the first time I realized there has to be a God, and I accepted Christ into my life, and my life's been different since that day."

 [applause]

 And that was an awesome blessing.  So all those things have kind of made me realize what God's love is all about.  But here is the biggest part of that – if God had had a conversation with me and said, "I can help some people see, I can heal some relationships, 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 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, I'm going to do it," 2,000 years ago with His Son, Jesus, on the cross.

Dennis: Coach, it's been three years.  What's it like to listen to your words?

Tony: I can hardly even believe it, I guess, when you're up there talking, you don't know how it sounds.  I'd always had the dream of taking my team to that breakfast and talking about the game, and that's what I had hoped to do that year, and it didn't work out that way.  But I realize, at the time, I had a great opportunity to tell people about something more important than the Super Bowl, more important than the team, to talk about Christ and the lessons that I had learned from all three of my boys, and listening to it, it's hard to believe, but that was really what was on my heart at the time, and it was just the proper place to say it.

Dennis: You've taken the story, on more than one occasion, to be able to point people back to God and not become embittered toward Him but ultimately to move toward Him and toward faith and trust in Him.  You really believe that's what we must do.

Tony: We have to do that, and there are things that we don't understand and why does God allow these things to happen?  Why does God take situations that we think are tragic and use them?  Why doesn't He always bless us the way we want to be blessed?  Those are the questions that we'll never really be able to answer, but faith and believing really mean believing in all situations.

Dennis: Take us to the phone call you received.  It was 1:45, three days before Christmas.  I mean, you were accustomed, on occasion, to getting a phone call, perhaps, about a player getting into trouble, and when the phone rang that night, you had no idea what was about to be said.

Tony: No, you really don't, and it's quite a shock, and it's not a phone call you'd ever wish anyone would get, but I've talked to a lot of parents since then who have gotten the same type of call, and it's just – as painful as it is, you have to understand that it does happen; that we can't allow it to shake our faith; and we do have to move forward.  And, really, the only way to move forward is with God's help.

Bob: You describe the last time you saw your son that Thanksgiving.  There had been phone calls.  Do you remember the last conversation with him?

Tony: I don't remember specifically the last conversation, but it was kind of like they all her, "Hey, what's going on?  How was work?  How was school?  What are you up to?  What are you going to do tonight?  Where are you headed?"  Just the normal things, and that's probably the biggest lesson I learned out of all that is we just can't take life for granted.  The Bible says tomorrow is not promised to us, and we tend to think it is.  We think everything is going to go along the way it normally does, and I think it's just made me more thankful for every little thing and the things that I don't want to take for granted anymore.

Bob: It's natural for a parent to think, "Did I miss a signal?  Was there something I should have seen and should have known?"

Tony: You know, I talk to people all the time about that.  You can second-guess yourself forever and go back and look at things that you'd hope to see.  Most of the parents that I talked to are in the same boat.  They really can't explain it, they'll never understand why.  That's the hurtful thing is, is there something I could have done?  Why didn't I see this?"  But the fact is, most of the time you don't.

Dennis: Were there any hints that he was struggling with depression or with suicidal thoughts along the way that you recall at all?

Tony: Not really, not really.  And, again, as I say, with most of the people I talked to, it's the same way – never really any idea at all, this is a total surprise.

Bob: You know, folks are going to hear you talking about this on the radio, and it's going to sound like the ache is gone.

Tony: It really isn't, but you have to move on, and you have to move forward, and you have to try to think about why God allows things to happen, and one of – my pastor in Pittsburgh had a great lesson on that when we were a young married couple.  He said, "You know, James and Peter were in prison, and the church prayed for both, and James got beheaded, and Peter got released."  Both of them were God's will, and we can feel badly for James, and I'm sure they all did, but God had a plan for that, and so that's how I've kind of looked at it – as painful, you never want it to happen, but what can be positive from it, how can you move on, how can you make the situation better?

Dennis: One of the things I've heard you say, Coach, is that rather than asking the question – why?  We need to ask the question – what?  That's the question you're trying to answer in the loss of your son.

Tony: What am I supposed to learn from this?  What am I supposed to do to help other people?  How can we make it as positive as we can?  And you're always going to have the heartbreak, you're always going to have the pain in your heart, but how do you really look forward and see how you can go and grow from that point.

Dennis: You didn't go through this alone.  This morning, in preparation for our time together, I called a friend who you also called – Tom Lamphere.

Tony: Okay, yeah.

Dennis: And so the day after you received the news of your son's death, you got on the phone with Tom and said, "Would you come and stay with our family over Christmas and spend some time with us?"

Tony: No.  Tom called me and said he was coming.  I said, "No, Tom, you need to be with your family," but Tom was our chaplain with the Vikings, and I had been gone probably six years at that point.  But he's the type of person that is never going to leave you alone once you're one of his guys, and so he got a reservation, got on a plane, left his family at Christmas, and came and stayed with our family.  That's just the type of person he is.

Dennis: And what did he do during that time, Coach?

Tony: He just prayed with us, and he talked about how we could move forward, and how we had to stay together as a family and really just was there and ministered to us, and that's what gave me the sense of what I had to do with other people, and that's probably why I talked to so many people at this point in time, because he gave our family a lift when we needed it, and I felt I can do that for some other people.

Bob: And it's critical, if you're going through something like this, to open the door to community and to guys like this to come in – not to go it alone, isn't it?

Tony: It is, and we were very fortunate.  Obviously, part of being in such a public position, it's tough, because everybody knows about it, and you feel you're out there, but part of the benefit was we got so many cards, we got so many letters, so many encouraging notes, but there's a lot of people that those kind of tragedies happen to that don't have that, and how do they get encouraged and where are we for the normal person?

Dennis: You might find it interesting, Coach, in my conversation with Tom.  I asked him what he remembered most about those three days with you over Christmas, and he said, "I was not surprised but was watching him lead his family spiritually."  He said, "Coach was quoting Job when Job was addressing his wife and said, 'So we accept the good things from God and not accept the trouble that comes our way,'" and that you were leading your family in faith in the midst of what had to be just an enormous heartbreak.

 And the other thing he said was, he said you went to church on Christmas Day.  You led your family in not withdrawing or retreating but going ahead and stepping out and joining a community of believers.

Tony: We did, and it was a great thing for us.  We got to see just how much the church cared and got that encouragement from the congregation and our pastor, and it was hard to do, because you really, at that point, didn't want to talk to a lot of people but, again, I think that's what, to me, sports kind of prepares you for – that there's disappointments, there are things – there are losses, you lose games, but you have to go on, and we're disappointed in life but if we really believe in God and really believe that He is in charge, He is working everything according to His plan for His glory, then you've got to accept it.

Dennis: Coach, I'm sitting here listening to you relive some of what has to be the most tragic moments of your entire life, and we've chuckled earlier about how you have this stoic personality that doesn't look like you have much of a temper, but you said you do, and you're feeling things that you're not expressing.  Usually, when we pick a spouse, we pick someone who is the direct opposite of us, and I'm wondering how your wife, Lauren, has handled this tragedy, because she has undoubtedly handled it differently than you have.

Tony: No question – different emotions, and it's been much tougher, I think, on her.  She is one that wears her emotions on her sleeve, and it's harder for the wives in our business, because they're not used to being in the public eye and having your whole life thrown open.  So this has been very difficult, and she was close to James, you know, so it's been tough.  But gradually it's improving, slowly but surely, and that's one of the things that I've related to a lot of people that I've talked to.  The pain of losing a child never goes away, and I think for the moms moreso than the dads, it's even more acute.

Bob: Given the differences between how the two of you processed this – how have you tried to love her and lead her in the midst of this?

Tony: You have to try to be understanding, and that is one of the things in the loss of a child no matter how it is, people grieve at different times, different ways.  They process at different speeds, and you have to be understanding of the other person, and there will be some days when you're doing well, and the other person isn't, and vice-versa, and you've got to be understanding, you've got to be loving at those times.

Bob: Parents who lose a child, it often has an impact on their marriage relationship.

Tony: Very much so.  We had read that, we heard that from counselors, and you have to take steps to avoid that and you have to, every day, say no matter how it goes, we are going to be together in this, we're going to be united, we're not going to let Satan get a foothold in our marriage because of our emotional feelings.  It's something you have to really work through, and I've talked to many, many couples who are experiencing the same thing.

Dennis: How have you helped your children?  Because, you know, children who are real little don't understand at all, but your daughter was in her 20s when this happened?

Tony: Yes, it's been tougher on the older kids, without question.  They understand it, they're both a little more introverted.  Our young kids really are just trying to process the whole thing about what it means to die, what it means to be in heaven, but it's been a great teaching experience for us to talk about the Lord and heaven, the whole concept of where you go and how you get there.  And so it's probably been a teaching moment for the young kids more than anything.

Dennis: You experienced your first Father's Day after that, and you happened to be with some NFL coaches on that first Father's Day after you lost your son, James.

Tony: Yes, and the first time around is tough.  All those anniversaries, the first time, but I was with a group of guys that understood about fathering, they had the same type of Christian spirit, so it was a good group to be with and, again, I was able to share some things with them about the importance of not taking your kids for granted and that, and I think it was good for me to be with them, and I think probably they heard some things and saw some things from me that helped them, too.

Dennis: I asked Tom Lamphere about just how you processed this, and it was interesting, Coach.  He said, "Coach Tony Dungy is the same man when he has lost a son to suicide as he was the same man when he won the Super Bowl as he was the same man who was leading his family."  He said you're just consistently keeping on placing your faith in Jesus Christ, walking with Him. 

 And he went on to tell the story of what you had done that morning on that first Father's Day.  He said he asked you how you were handling it, and you said this, this is what Tom said, he said, "Well, I got up that morning and spent time in God's Word, and I was focused on how much God loved me, and I was just overcome with how much God really does care for me and has a plan for me and loves me."  And you shared that with those NFL coaches, and, you know, anyone else could share something like that in the midst of life, Tony, but to share that in the midst of a tragedy on a day like that, that's a remarkable thing.

Tony: Well, for me, that's what's gotten me through everything is to look forward and to understand that God is in control, and God is there for us not as an adversary but as one who does love us, and if we understand that, then I think you can take everything.  It's just like with your parents – sometimes you're mad at them, sometimes they're not letting you do what you think you ought to be able to do as a kid, but you understand they have your best interests at heart, and even when you're not sure of why they're doing things, you know that they love you, and they're doing it for your best, and I think we've got to develop that same type of thought and relationship with the Lord.

Dennis: Well, Coach, I want to thank you for allowing us to come up here to the Colts headquarters and just draw the water out of the well of what God has done in your heart in your life.  It was a privilege to do that a couple of years ago when Bob and I came up here, and we just appreciate you, the man you are, and how you represent Jesus Christ, and we're cheering you on as you continue to represent Him.

Tony: Well, thank you, and it's been great being with you these past three days and just a wonderful, wonderful privilege.  Thank you.

Bob: Well, and we want to encourage our listeners to get a copy of your book.  It's called "Quiet Strength," and it's a great book for football fans or just for people who want to read a compelling story of a man who has experienced the pinnacle of success in your profession and has also experienced some of the tremendous valleys that go deeper than most of us have had to face.

 Again, the book is called "Quiet Strength," and it's a book that we have in our FamilyLife Resource Center.  You can go to our website at FamilyLife.com, and if you click the red "Go" button that you see on the home page, that will take you to an area of the site where there is more information about how to order a copy of Coach Dungy's book.  Or call 1-800-FLTODAY, and someone on our staff can let you know how we can make arrangements to have a copy of the book sent out to you.

 Now, this is also the last chance I have to remind our FamilyLife Today listeners about the special offer that we've been making this week to our listeners – an opportunity for you to sign up for one of our spring FamilyLife Weekend to Remember Marriage Conferences and save $60 per couple off the regular registration fee.  We're going to be hosting dozens of these conferences in cities all across the country this spring, and if you sign up today, right now, on our website at FamilyLife.com or by calling 1-800-FLTODAY, and you identify yourself as a FamilyLife Today listener, you can take advantage of this special offer that is about to expire.  This is the last week we're making this offer available.

 So, again, you sign up for a FamilyLife Weekend to Remember Marriage Conference.  If you're doing that online, when you come to the keycode box on the form, you need to type my name, "Bob," in the keycode box, and that way we'll know you're a FamilyLife Today listener.  If you call 1-800-FLTODAY, and you get registered over the phone, just mention that you listen to FamilyLife Today or say "I'm a friend of Bob," or some way to let us know that you listen to our program and, again, this special offer is available to you right now, but it ends this week.  So either go online today or call 1-800-FLTODAY and get registered for an upcoming FamilyLife Weekend to Remember Marriage Conference, save $60 per couple off the regular registration fee.

 Well, I hope you have a great weekend.  I hope you and your family are able to worship together this weekend, and I hope you can join us back on Monday when we're going to talk about what you do when a teenager is angry.  Lou Priolo will be our guest.  I hope you can be here as well.

 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'll see you Monday for another edition of FamilyLife Today.

 FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas, a ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ.

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