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Death of coach's son leaves Colts somber

INDIANAPOLIS (Dec. 22, 2005) -- The Indianapolis Colts wanted to emulate Tony Dungy's businesslike approach. But their thoughts were with their missing coach.

Hours after learning Dungy's 18-year-old son, James, was found dead in his Florida apartment, the Colts' players walked somberly into their locker room and each reflected on the shocking news in their own way. Some sat in stunned silence. A few talked with team chaplains. Others spoke in hushed tones and the normal locker room card games and video games were abandoned.

"It breaks your heart to see something like that happen to such a great person," receiver Brandon Stokley said. "We're just going to pray for him and ask everybody else to pray for him."

Colts players were informed of the death in the morning when owner Jim Irsay and team president Bill Polian spoke at a team meeting. Players were told Dungy had flown to Florida and would be out indefinitely. It's unlikely Dungy will coach the Colts on Dec. 24 at Seattle.

Irsay also addressed the team after practice.

Assistant head coach Jim Caldwell, who also coaches quarterbacks, will take over in Dungy's absence. But as the scheduled practices and meetings continued, the players' thoughts were with their cherished leader or his family.

"Players were surprised and upset emotionally about it," two-time MVP Peyton Manning said. "Everybody said a team prayer for Coach Dungy and his family. It's laying on the hearts of all the players here today."

It wasn't just the Colts whose thoughts were with Dungy.

Thoughts and condolences came from former players, old coaching buddies, even Tampa mayor Pam Iorio, who asked for a moment of silence before a park dedication. Dungy's first head coaching job was with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and he still has a home there.

A few fans left flowers and mementoes in a tribute outside the RCA Dome, prompting the Colts to issue a request that flowers be sent to Northside New Era Baptist Church in Indianapolis.

Polian's voice even cracked and his hands trembled as he answered questions during a 15-minute news conference at the team's practice facility.

"We have the greatest role model there is in Tony Dungy," Polian said. "And as Jim said to the team this morning, we'll emulate our leader."

From Dungy's standpoint, that means getting back to football and moving forward.

"He's an amazing individual with great strength and integrity, even in the toughest times," Caldwell said after practice. "He told us to carry on as usual."

Stokley, whose infant son was seriously ill with bacterial meningitis in January 2004, said football can help provide a respite. Linebacker Gary Brackett, who had three relatives -- his mother, father and a brother -- die in an 16-month span beginning in late 2003, agreed.

And, perhaps, they suggested, that's the environment the Colts need right now.

"Any time you're on the field, it's a place you can run around free and not think of all the outside influences," Brackett said. "It helps."

Dungy was in the midst of his best season as a coach. He won his 100th career game in October, wrapped up home-field advantage for the first time in 10 seasons as a head coach and helped lead the Colts to a 13-0 mark, becoming the fourth team in league history to achieve that feat before they lost 26-17 on Dec. 18 to San Diego.

One day earlier, the locker room was abuzz with the news that the Colts had put seven players on the AFC's Pro Bowl team -- the most by the franchise since 1971.

The next day, the death hit hard, especially for players who have children.

"It's an extremely sad day and an extremely sad time," center Jeff Saturday said. "We want to handle ourselves in the way Coach wants us to."

The message Dungy left for his players was to persevere.

He wants the Colts to regain their momentum before the playoffs start, and he believes in Caldwell's ability to guide the Colts. Caldwell was a former head coach at Wake Forest.

The Colts intend to follow the plan -- as difficult as that may now seem.

"It has to go on, and Coach Dungy has done a great job," linebacker David Thornton said. "Coach Dungy wants us to practice hard, stay focused and get a win. This will be a true test for a championship team, it will show you our character and how we react to adversity. And we're all thinking of coach Dungy."

It was the third death in Dungy's immediate family in three years. His mother, Cleomae, died in January 2002. His father, Wilbur, died in June 2004.

AP NEWS
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