INDIANAPOLIS (Dec. 29, 2005) -- Two days after burying his son, Tony Dungy rejoined the Indianapolis Colts on Dec. 29, hugging his players and assistant coaches and thanking the public for its support while he dealt with his personal tragedy.
"It was the right time to come back," he said following an afternoon workout. "I talked about it with my wife, and we went through the grieving process and now we're starting with the healing process."
Dungy left the team Dec. 22 when his 18-year-old son, James, died. A preliminary autopsy report indicated the teen took his own life, but the exact cause of death won't be released until a toxicology examination is completed in four to six weeks.
Team president Bill Polian and owner Jim Irsay urged Dungy to stay with his family as long as needed while assistant head coach Jim Caldwell filled in. On Dec. 27, players, coaches and team officials flew to Tampa for the funeral, the first time they had seen their coach since he left to be with his family.
His return surprised and excited everyone, as did his announcement that he would coach the regular-season finale in Arizona on Jan. 1.
A locker room that had been subdued during Dungy's absence suddenly came alive. The Colts also appeared to walk off the field with more pep, and after practice, Polian and Dungy even shared a laugh.
"It's great to have him back," Polian said. "It's been a long ordeal for him and his family, and I think it will be a long, long time before they have a sense of peace and consolation. But I hope this is one place he can find some peace and consolation."
Dungy said he spent Dec. 28 with his family at the Tampa Zoo. He said he discussed the decision with his wife, Lauren, and flew back to Indianapolis late that night with his other teenage son, Eric. At about 7:45 a.m. -- his usual arrival time -- Dungy walked into the team complex, where he was greeted with embraces, handshakes and condolences.
As Caldwell hastily called a team meeting, Dungy spoke briefly about how much he appreciated the players' support.
"It was like a sigh of relief. He gave everyone a big hug," linebacker David Thornton said. "He didn't have a chance to do that the other day when we came down. But he hugged everyone. He was so excited to be back with his family, his football family. Everyone is so happy for him. We're still supporting him."
"I thought maybe he might wait until probably after (the regular season) when we started to get ready for the playoffs," defensive lineman Raheem Brock said. "I hope being back helps him."
Dungy spent much of the day catching up. His team lost its last two games after starting 13-0, but has already clinched home-field advantage in the AFC for the playoffs.
Dungy acknowledged a handful of regular starters would sit out this week. He also said he had to slow down the Colts' regular routine because he wasn't as familiar with Arizona's schemes as the players and assistant coaches who had been working on the game plan.
But there was no sign of weariness on Dungy's face -- nor in his actions.
"It's been a tough couple of days and it's been tough being away," he said. "But it's been made easier by all the support everyone has shown for me and my family and I want to thank them for that."
Before leaving, Dungy reiterated the message he gave during a brief talk during the funeral service, asking players to take responsibility for being role models and urging parents to hug their children every change they get.
Then Dungy tried to find some solace in the work that will carry some painful reminders of James, who frequently spent game days on the sideline.
"The game, I think, from talking to people who have gone through this kind of thing before, will be easy, but I've never gone through this path," he said. "For me, I have some very good memories that bring hurt. When you do things that were very special and joyful, that's hard. But every day gets a little easier."
The Associated Press News Service
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