Dungy speaks to Mississippi FCA

Published 7:00 pm Saturday, May 4, 2013

JACKSON – Tony Dungy surveyed the overflow crowd gathered in the First Baptist Church auditorium. Two-thousand more student-athletes watched on large video screens located in the church sanctuary and in an adjoining room. Obviously, he appreciated the standing ovation from 4,000 folks.

On a gray, rain-soaked day, Bill Buckner, State Director for the Mississippi Fellowship of Christian Athletes, provided Friday’s sunny introduction. His 25-year friendship with Dungy finally brought the Super Bowl championship coach to the Capital City for the 26th Annual FCA Wild Game Luncheon.

“We prayed that Tony would one day come to Jackson and speak to our group,” said Buckner. He and his wife, Patti, became acquainted with Dungy and his family 25 years ago when Buckner was directing an FCA summer camp at Black Mountain, N.C.

Dungy is only one of three players in NFL history to win a Super Bowl as a player (Pittsburgh) and later coach a team (Indianapolis) to a Super Bowl victory. “He’s from Jackson, too,” grinned Buckner, “Jackson, Michigan.”

Dungy grew up in a solid, Christian-based home, the son of two teachers. He was a regular on Sundays and participated in numerous church functions. “My mother used to get us together on Thursday nights and discuss what she was going to teach in Sunday school.”

A standout high school quarterback, Dungy said God led him to sign a scholarship with the University of Minnesota. He accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior as a youth, but sports, especially football and basketball, were his high school idols.

“My priority was sports,” said Dungy. “I had to get good grades to play sports.” Scholarship offers began to fill his mail box when he was a junior.

“My passion for football kept me out of trouble in high school and college,” Dungy admitted. “I went to class and I played football.”

In 1977, his visions of a professional career were shattered when he was bypassed in the NFL Draft. “The next day a former Minnesota Gophers coach called me. He said the Steelers wanted to sign me as a free agent.”

His quarterback future took a hit when he arrived in Pittsburgh. Coach Chuck Noll and his staff elected to put Dungy in the defensive secondary. “I used to run away from those guys on defense. Now I was one of them.”

Dungy credited Pittsburgh defensive back and former roommate Donnie Shell with having a major impact on his Christian lifestyle. “Donnie was a strong Christian. Whenever I asked him about different alignments or coverages on defense, he would always put the Lord in his answer.”

He became associated with a core group of nine Steelers who were devout Christians. Dungy began to grow in his walk with the Lord.

After helping the Steelers win the Super Bowl, Dungy said he was full of confidence as his second preseason camp arrived. However, a team physical exam and blood test revealed he had contracted mononucleosis.

“The doctor said I needed rest,” said Dungy. “I didn’t mind lying around the dormitory room in air conditioning, because is was so hot outside.”

Dungy couldn’t shake the mono and he became frustrated. “Donnie said, ‘God is testing you. He wants to know where your priorities are. He wants to be No. 1.'”

Dungy had a revelation. “No matter what, I had to put the Lord first. FCA became a reality.”

He was traded to the San Francisco 49ers, at that time one of the worst NFL teams. “I watched my old team win another Super Bowl. Then I was traded to the Jets and got cut.”

There was good news at a dark hour. Coach Noll called Dungy and invited him to be part of Pittsburgh’s coaching staff. That launched a 28-year coaching career, leading to success at Tampa Bay and then a Super Bowl championship at Indianapolis.

Looking back, Dungy said he wished he could have been involved with FCA at Minnesota, during his four years of college. An FCA Huddle had been established on the campus when he was a senior.

Recalling an incident at Tampa Bay, in his first NFL head coaching job, Dungy said he was contacted by the FCA director at the University of Florida. He was asked to come speak to a group of college athletes.

“He said their FCA meeting was at 10 o’clock on a Wednesday night,” Dungy recalled. “I wondered if maybe five or 10 people would be there at that time of night. I was shocked. There were 350 athletes from all sports to hear me speak. They were excited about Jesus and the FCA ministry on the Gainesville campus.”

Dungy said the FCA Huddle groups in high schools and colleges are a blessing to the student-athletes. It keeps them focused on God.

“Over the years I have seen so many professional athletes struggle spiritually,” said Dungy. “They are successful stars with million-dollar contracts, but their personal life is a disaster. They don’t have a spiritual life. They are lost.”

He quoted one of his mother’s favorite Bible verses from Matthew 16:26 “What profit a man is there if he gain the whole world and lose eternal life?”

Dungy said Coach Noll put life in perspective when he met with the rookies in training camp. “He said, ‘Welcome to the NFL. You are being paid to play football. But football is not your whole life.'”

Scanning the crowd of coaches, athletes and businessmen, Dungy stressed Christian priorities.

Dungy said, “Don’t get completely wrapped up in sports. FCA can open doors at schools and other places. FCA has helped me become a better coach and parent.”

Contact sports editor Tom Goetz by Email: tom.goetz@dailyleader.com