Valuable Lessons From My Sons

Tony Dungy, Coach of the Indianapolis Colts

(Speech given at the Athletes in Action NFL Super Bowl breakfast)

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I'm going to illustrate three things that I've learned about the Lord, and I'm going to use my boys to illustrate that.

I'm going to start with my middle son, Eric. He's 14 years old, and if you watch a lot of football, you've probably seen him on the sidelines of Colts games. He looks more like me than my other two boys do. As a matter of fact, he looks so much like me, when I look at him I see myself at 14, and I see a lot of the same things. Eric is very, very competitive -- ultra competitive. He is focused on sports to where it's almost a problem. He's super-emotional to where it's almost scary. Now, those of you that see me now would say, "Wait a minute, that doesn't sound a lot like you," but it was me at 14. I grew up not too far from here in Jackson, Michigan, and there are some people in this room that knew me when I was 14 years old. So when I look at Eric now at 14, and I look at myself, that's one of the things I know about God. I know how powerful His Spirit is; I know that He can change people; and I know that He'll do that if we allow Him to, and I really believe He's going to do that with Eric as he grows.

The second way I've seen God's hands at work is through our youngest son, Jordan. He's five years old. Jordan was born with a rare, very, very rare neurological condition. It's called congenital insensitivity to pain. There's only two or three cases in the whole United States. It's a little more prevalent in other countries, but there's only been about three diagnosed in the United States, and basically what happens, he is missing the conductors that allow the nerve signals to go from his body to his brain. And that sounds like it's good at the beginning, but, I promise you, it's not. We've learned a lot about pain in the last five years since we've had Jordan, and we've learned that some hurts are really necessary for kids. Pain is necessary, really, for kids to find out the difference between what's good and what's harmful. Jordan loves cookies, but in his mind, if they're good out on the plate, they're even better in the oven, and so he will go right in the oven, if my wife's not looking, when she's baking them, reach in, take the rack out, take the pan out, burn his hands, okay, eat the cookie that's too hot, burn his tongue and never feel it. And he doesn't know that that's bad for him. When we got to the park, he'll go on the slide, and all kids know it's fun to go up the slide and slide down, and he has fun doing that, too. To him, it's just as much fun jumping off from the top. He has no fear of anything, so we constantly have to watch him. We've also learned that pain actually helps the body heal -- something I didn't know until talking with the doctors, that you get an injury, your brain senses there is pain there, and it sends the right healing agents naturally to that spot because it sense something is wrong. Without that sensation of feeling something is wrong, Jordan's body doesn't send those healing agents and, consequently, he's got cuts from June and July that haven't healed yet.

So that's what we've seen and, really, why does the Lord allow pain in your life? Why do bad things happen to good people? If God is a God of love, why does He allow these hurtful things to happen? Well, we've learned that, a lot of times, because of that pain, that little temporary pain, you learn what's harmful; you learn to fear the right things. Pain sometimes lets us know we've got a condition that needs to be healed, and pain inside sometimes lets us know that spiritually we're not quite right, and we need to be healed, and God will send that healing agent right to the spot. And sometimes pain is the only way that will turn us, as kids, back to the Father. So we've learned a lot about that.

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, and he was, by far, the most sensitive, the most compassionate, of all our boys -- very, very compassionate, very sensitive. As most teenage boys today, James was getting a lot of messages from the world that maybe that's not the way to be, and you've all seen them on TV, in the movies, the music they listen to, the magazines that they are able to read, and you get those conflicting signals and mixed signals. And he was struggling very much with how you should respond to the world, and he ended up taking his life right before Christmas, and 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, and it goes right along with the last thing that Bart just shared. 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, and 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, and 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. I've gotten a lot of letters like that from people who have heard what I said and said, "Hey, you brought me a little closer to my son," or "a little closer to my daughter," and that is a tremendous blessing. We are able to donate some of James's organs to Organ Donors Program; got a letter back about two weeks ago that two people had received his corneas and now can see. [applause]

That has been a tremendous blessing.

I had the privilege of talking to a young man who is James's age who was going through some struggles; didn't know if he could make it, and we talked for about a week, and his voice just didn't sound good, but every day it sounded a little bit better and better, and about 10 days later he called me back and asked me how I was doing, and I could just feel in his voice he was doing better, and he was going to make it, and that was a tremendous blessing.

I got a letter from a girl in our church who had grown up with James, and she said, "You know, 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 the celebration 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, and 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, the biggest part of that, I know in my heart that James's death has affected many people and benefited many people, and that makes me feel better, but I also know this -- if God had had a conversation with me and said, "I can help some people see; I can heal some relationships; I can save some people's lives; 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 would 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. And because He said yes, because He made the choice that I wouldn't make as a parent, that's paved the way for us to come back into relationship with Him. That's paved the way for us to see changed lives like Curtis's. That's let us know with certainty that we can live in heaven. That's the benefit I got by accepting Christ into my heart; that's the benefit James got. I went back to work one week after my son died. I had a lot of media people, a lot of sportswriters, a lot of fans ask me, "How could you get back to work so quick after something like that? How have you recovered so quickly?" And I'm not totally recovered. I don't know if I ever will be. It's still very, very painful. But I was able to come back because of something one of my good Christian friends said to me after the funeral. He said this, "You know, James accepted Christ into his heart, so you know he's in heaven, right?" I said, "Right, I know that." So with all you know about heaven, if you had the power to bring him back right now, would you?" And when I thought about that, I said, "No, I wouldn't. I would not want him back with what I know about heaven." That's what helped me through the grieving process -- because of Christ's Spirit in me, I had that confidence that James is there at peace with the Lord, and I have the peace of mind in the midst of something that's very, very painful. And that's my prayer today -- that everyone in this room would know that same thing.

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