About the Guest
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. 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 son, James, committed suicide. Hear how the family survived the loss.
Bob: Tony Dungy, who was coach of the Indianapolis Colts when they won the Super Bowl, has known tremendous success and joy, as a football coach. He has also known profound loss and suffering, as a dad.
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. James got beheaded, and Peter got released.” Both of them were God’s will. We can feel badly for James—and I’m sure they all did—but God had a plan for that. So, that's how I've kind of looked at it. It’s 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 Wednesday, October 22nd. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I’m Bob Lepine. We will hear today from Coach Tony Dungy about how he has dealt with the loss of his son to suicide.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. 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.
Bob: Well, I’ll tell you what—a lot of us miss seeing you on the sidelines when we watch the games on Sunday—but it is fun to see you in the broadcast booth every Sunday night. I know that way you get a chance to catch a few of the Oregon games and watch your son play college football.
Bob: Yes. And we just appreciate you taking some time out to talk to with us today.
Dennis: 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.” 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. They give an award called “The Bart Starr Award”—
Dennis: —which is just a—it's a great event. I've attended it a couple of times. 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, Jamey, had taken his life. I want you to listen to a clip that we have from that breakfast and what you said. 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: 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.
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. He was struggling very much with how you should respond to the world, and 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—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.
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, 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 the 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. 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. 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, 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. 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. 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. 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. It’s quite a shock. 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 are:
“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. 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—it’s 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. You have to move forward, and you have to try to think about why God allows things to happen. 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. James got beheaded, and Peter got released.” Both of them were God’s will. 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. It’s 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. In preparation for our time together, I called a friend, whom you also called—Tom Lamphere.
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. 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. 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. 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. That’s what gave me the sense of what I had to do with other people.
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. 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. 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 are a lot of people, that those kind of tragedies happen to, that don’t have that. 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.
He said, “I was not surprised but was watching him lead his family, spiritually. Coach was quoting Job when Job was addressing his wife and said, ‘Do 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 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. 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 are disappointments / there are things—there are losses / you lose games—but you have to go on. 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: I’m sitting, here, listening to you relive some of what has to be the most tragic moments of your entire life. And 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. It’s been much tougher, I think, on her. She is one that wears her emotions on her sleeve, and she was close to James. 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, more so 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. You have to be understanding of the other person. There will be some days when you’re doing well and the other person isn’t, and vice-versa. 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. 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.
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. Again, I was able to share some things with them about the importance of not taking your kids for granted and that. 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. 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. You said this—this is what Tom said—said: “Well, I got up that morning and spent time in God’s Word; and I was focused on how much God loved me. 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. 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. 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. 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 draw the water out of the well of what God has done in your heart and your life. 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 just a wonderful, wonderful privilege. Thank you.
Bob: I should also say, “Thank you for your participation in the Stepping Up™ video series.”
I’ve had a lot of guys comment on some of the insights that you share during that series—about how you have mentored players, when you were coaching—how you were, not just helping them become better football players, but helping them become men—how you saw that as a part of the mission that God had given you, as a football coach.
And I mention that because we are hoping, as the new year gets started in 2015, that a bunch of our listeners will take the challenge and get a group of guys and go through that ten-part Stepping Up video series. I think the guys are going to find it beneficial. I think they are going to be challenged. I think they are going to be encouraged. I think they are going to be equipped.
The feedback we are getting from the more than 100,000 guys who have already been through the material is that this is transformative in a man’s life. So, we are hoping that our listeners will get the vision, now, to start the new year by rallying a group of guys together and going through the Stepping Up video series.
You can do it with the guys in your church / you can do it in a men’s small group. We’ve had fathers and teenage sons going through the material together.
In fact, our team has decided that they want to rename the first month of the year—just call it “Manuary”—and see if we can’t get 50,000 guys or so going through this material. That could have quite an impact on marriages, and families, and legacies, and communities—if guys would catch a vision for biblical masculinity.
If you want to find out more about the Stepping Up video series, go to FamilyLifeToday.com and click the link at the top of the page that says, “GO DEEPER.” That will take you to an area where you can get information about the Stepping Up series. Right now, if you are ready to sign-on and to make this happen—join with us in trying to strengthen and empower men in the body of Christ—you can go to FamilyLifeToday.com and you can order ten manuals so that you’ve got manuals for, at least, ten guys that you are going to go through this material with. If you do that, we’ll send you the Leader’s Kit—that has the videos in it—for free.
So, you get the videos free if you’ll just agree to take ten guys through it in the new year.
The offer is good through the end of this month. So, go to FamilyLifeToday.com, right now. Click the link that says, “GO DEEPER,” at the top of the page—find out more about the Stepping Up series. Order the manuals, and the DVDs will come at no additional cost. If you have any questions, you can call 1-800-FL-TODAY. You can order over the phone if you’d like. Or you can order, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com.
Tony Dungy is in the series—Matt Chandler, Joshua Harris, James MacDonald, Robert Lewis, Stu Weber, Dennis Rainey, Crawford Loritts, Voddie Baucham—got a bunch of great guys who are a part of the Stepping Up video series. And we hope you’ll go through it and take a group of guys through it with you.
You know, we are very grateful for those of you who believe in the mission of FamilyLife. Our goal here is to strengthen and develop godly marriages and families.
We want to help husbands and wives / moms and dads live out their faith—in their home, in their relationship, in their marriage, and in their family. And we are grateful that many of you share that vision with us and contribute to make it happen. FamilyLife Today is listener-supported. Without your help, we couldn’t do all that this ministry is doing. And so, we are very grateful for your partnership with us.
In fact, we’d like to say, “Thank you,” if you can help with a donation, right now, by sending you a resource that Barbara Rainey has developed. It’s a chalkboard that is in the shape of a house. At the top of it, it says, “In this home we give thanks for” and, then, there’s a place for you to write whatever you are thankful for on the chalkboard. It’s a great teaching tool to teach gratitude in your home. It’s our gift to you when you support the ministry today. You can make a donation, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com. You can call 1-800-FL-TODAY to make a donation; or you can send your donation to FamilyLife Today at PO Box 7111, Little Rock, AR.
The zip code is 72223. Be sure to ask for the chalkboard when you get in touch with us so we know to send that to you as a thank-you gift.
And I hope you can be back with us again tomorrow when we are going to talk to the lead singer of the group, Sanctus Real—Matt Hammitt—to talk about a song he wrote when God convicted him of his need to be a leader in his home, and his marriage, and his family. We’ll talk to Matt tomorrow. I hope you can join us 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.
FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas.
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