The keynote speaker at Sports World’s Choose to Win banquet last year, Tony Dungy couldn’t make it this year. But several of his former Colts players did.
They gathered at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center last Saturday for the annual dinner and auction. And with Dungy’s impending Hall of Fame induction, they spent much of the evening talking about their beloved former coach and the legacy he built in Indianapolis.
“What stands out to me is the culture and community that Coach Dungy built,” said former cornerback Marlin Jackson. “He was the only coach that I’ve ever heard list the priorities: faith, family, then football. I have never been around another coach or too many men at all that led off a conversation, led off a meeting talking about the importance of us being men of God, leading our families, and then our occupation falls into place after that.”
Jackson was joined by Ryan Diem, Ben Utecht, and Gary Brackett, all great players and role models in their own right. And all credit Dungy as having major influence on the men they’ve become.
“Coach Dungy was so special in so many ways,” said former tackle Ryan Diem. “Everyone in the city of Indianapolis can say that he probably influenced you in some way.”
But none more so than the guys who worked alongside him day in and day out.
Former linebacker Gary Brackett recalled the 2007 season when the Colts lost two games in a row, a rarity during that era.
“Coach Dungy goes in the room and says, ‘If we were in New England, five guys would have got fired. If we were in Pittsburgh, four guys would have got fired. If we were in another city, probably three guys would have lost their job.’ And he said, ‘The same people who won eight games in a row just lost two games in a row. And I’m committed to you guys.’”
It was on that stable foundation, Diem said, that the team was able to build lasting success.
“From the outside looking in, some people might think that he didn’t have enough fire on the sidelines because he wasn’t pulling a Bill Cowher and spitting in somebody’s face. But, that’s not what we needed. That’s not what I needed, at least. I didn’t need to be challenged in that way.”
But it was former tight end Ben Utecht’s story that really spoke to the character of Tony Dungy.
One of the top tight ends coming out of college, he suffered an injury that ended his senior year and caused his draft stock to tumble. He found himself at a speaking engagement with Coach Dungy just weeks before the draft.
“I got up in front of 700 alumni and because Coach Dungy is a Gopher, I get up in front of all these people and I say, ‘Coach, us Gophers, we stick together, right? I expect you to draft me in the upcoming draft.’ And everybody got a kick out of it.”
Then, it was Coach’s turn to speak.
“He got up and was gracious enough to say, ‘Ben, we drafted a tight end last year, Dallas Clark.’ Then he paused as if he was being downloaded something and he said, ‘If for some reason, you slip through the cracks, for some reason if you don’t get drafted, I promise I’ll be the first person to call.’”
The draft came and went and every team passed on Utecht.
“And twenty seconds after the free agent market opens, the phone rings at my agent’s desk and I pick it up and who do you think it was? Tony Dungy. Tony Dungy! Are you kidding me? And all of the sudden, I remembered what he had said two months prior in that speaking engagement.”
Dungy kept his word – and then some. Utecht spent his rookie season recovering while getting paid like he was playing.
“The miracle for me is that three years later, I’m one of the starting tight ends on a Super Bowl championship team.”
In a game known for toughness and grit, it’s character that is Tony Dungy’s lasting legacy. The seeds he planted in Indianapolis are still growing.
Darrin Gray, leader of Dungy’s All Pro Dad foundation, said the two were just talking about a conversation he had with a reporter who covers Indiana high school sports.
“And how coaches are approaching the game and making it more about character and values and ethics and we’re raising up young men as opposed to just winning a football game.”
How you play the game matters. How you live your life matters. That’s the message Tony Dungy brought to Indianapolis and the game of football.
It’s more than a lesson. It’s a way of life that’s being passed down from coaches, parents, and former players.
And you live it one day at a time, one step at a time, one choice at a time.
Sports World brings former athletes into schools to help young people make positive choices. For more information, visit their website: http://www.sportsworld.org.