TERRE HAUTE, Ind. – Tony Dungy never lost his passion for football. He simply wanted to do more than win games and rings.
Six months after leaving the NFL, Dungy has accepted a bigger challenge – helping others – with the same vigor he brought to the field for more than three decades. Whether it’s the high-profile case of Michael Vick or the lower-profile project of advising high school athletes through an instructional movie, retirement hasn’t changed Dungy’s mission.
“It’s a chance for me to not necessarily just speak to 23- to 35-year-old football players,” Dungy said from his Florida home. “I talked at the Northwestern Mutual annual meeting and have spoken to junior high kids. It’s been exciting and the Vick thing has taken on a life of its own.”
Indeed, the Vick matter has overshadowed Dungy’s other work. But things have not slowed down since he left the fast-paced world of football in January. Instead, Dungy’s schedule is so full he turned down an appointment to President Barack Obama’s faith-based advisory council.
What’s on Dungy’s docket?
Well, there is that weekly gig he landed at NBC. He’s also been criss-crossing the country for book signings and speeches, is still involved with the prison ministry and, of course, working with Vick at the urging of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.
“What people don’t understand is that maybe you’ve done this 50 times before with someone, but it’s not with someone with as high a profile as Mike,” Dungy said. “I’ve done it with young guys who are just getting out of jail and you feel good when they come back and say, ‘You helped me a little bit.’ ”
Dungy fits the profile of role model perfectly. He earned the respect of players and the reverence of fans with his stoic presence and genteel nature.
In seven seasons with the Indianapolis Colts, he never threatened to bench a player and rarely raised his voice. Instead of casting blame after the Colts’ 41-0 playoff loss at New York in January 2003, Dungy told players not to let it cloud their achievements. And when the Buccaneers finally won the championship during his first season in Indy, Dungy offered congratulations.
Yet he never wanted to be in the spotlight unless he could do something meaningful. That’s what his retirement is all about.
His newest project debuts Tuesday when about 500 movie theaters show the premiere of “Tony Dungy’s Red Zone ’09.” The presentation is geared toward high school coaches, players and players’ families, and includes a star-studded cast. Three-time league MVP Peyton Manning, 2007 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Bob Sanders and other Colts are prominently featured. Hall of Fame receiver Michael Irvin talks about making right and wrong decisions. Southern California coach Pete Carroll talks about recruiting.
The overall message is something Dungy’s players heard repeatedly.
“You want to talk about drills and things that players can do to make themselves better on the field,” Dungy said. “But if you only do that, it’s not going to help them in the long run. What makes great people and players is what you do with your life. Don’t fall into the trap of abuse of drugs or alcohol or freedom.”
What has changed is how Dungy can express those views.
Without the time constraints of being an NFL coach, Dungy has taken his campaign on the road. He can fly in and out of cities whenever he wants, speak in classrooms and attend book signings even when they came with rumors about Vick, which happened last week when he was in Rochester, N.Y.
Although the pulpit is different from the bullhorn of the NFL, Dungy’s successful record may get more people to listen.
Players were drawn to Dungy for reasons other than just football.
“He was a coach and mentor, almost a father figure kind of guy,” said Colts defensive captain Gary Brackett, who also appears in the movie. “He was so consistent in what he believed that he gave you the same answer whether it was in the heat of battle or in the locker room. That’s why he was so successful.”