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Love, Faith And Football In An 'Uncommon Marriage'


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now it's time for Faith Matters. That's the part of the program where we talk about matters of faith and spirituality. It's just a few days after the Super Bowl and a week before Valentine's Day. So what a perfect time to talk about love, faith and football with Tony Dungy. And if you follow sports, then you know him as a retired football player and coach and the first African-American head coach to win a Super Bowl back in 2007.

But his latest project has more to do with life off the field. He has co-written a new book with his wife Lauren Dungy of more than 31 years. It's called, "Uncommon Marriage: Learning About Lasting Love and Overcoming Life's Obstacles Together." And they are together with us in our bureau in New York. Welcome to you both. Thank you both so much for joining us.

TONY DUNGY: Thank you, Michel.

LAUREN DUNGY: Thank you. Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: Coach, you know I have to let the steam out of this for the football fans. I just have to ask one question then we'll let it go. The Seattle Seahawks trounced the Denver Broncos, which were of course led by Peyton Manning who was your quarterback when you coached the Colts and won the Super Bowl. He had a really rough game. Thoughts on what happened?

T. DUNGY: I was really surprised, Michel. I knew Seattle had a great defense and I thought it would be a close game that could go either way. But for them to just dominate the game, they played suffocating defense, and Peyton didn't have a good day. So that hurt. I wanted to see him win it, but you have to give Seattle all the credit.

MARTIN: All right. Well, with that being said, let's go to the book. This is not the first book for either of you so why this book at this time?

T. DUNGY: We just really think that marriage is a great topic now. Our publishing company talked to us about doing this for the last couple of years. And that we wanted to try to encourage people in their marriages.

MARTIN: Lauren, what about you?

L. DUNGY: We really thought it was important to, as Tony said, encourage people that they too could have strong, lasting marriages. And I think they just need to learn and to hear maybe from our story some of the valuable lessons that we learned along the way.

MARTIN: It is very candid, though. I mean, this is one of the things that I think it might surprise some people in that you do share a lot of the things that, I think, many people have wondered about, like what it's like to be fired in a job that's so public. What it's like to, you know, to have to go out and have people say things to your children about the job that...

L. DUNGY: Exactly.

MARTIN: ...Your dad is doing. And also, you know, a very difficult situation, which would be for any family, was when you lost one of your sons to suicide.

L. DUNGY: Yes.

MARTIN: What was it like to put those experiences on paper for others to share, to read, to learn about?

T. DUNGY: It's so biblical. And a lot of things that Christ allows to happen in your life, it happens for reasons. And so we felt that sharing some of this, letting people know that our lives weren't perfect, that everything didn't go smoothly, that you do have disappointments you have to bounce back from. That could encourage other people. And to also let people know that the key to a marriage is not having two people that are exactly the same that always agree on things, that have the same type a personalities. So some of the things that they would see in their own marriage that perhaps they could read and say, hey, you know, this does work.

MARTIN: Well, you know, it's funny about that because you were, in fact, fixed up by your minister.

T. DUNGY: Yes.

MARTIN: But as you say, Lauren, when he first suggested that he wanted to introduce you to somebody who was an athlete, you were not impressed.

L. DUNGY: That is true. I'll give you a little bit background on that. I have three brothers, three jocks, and I saw enough of their performance. And I saw the parading of girls and young ladies on the phone and in and out the house. And I saw my brothers walking around and flexing their muscles and so forth. And so I thought, no, this is probably an area that I want to stay away from. So when I heard about Tony - Pittsburgh Steelers player, soon to be coach, I wasn't excited.

MARTIN: Well, that must've been - that might've been a little different for you, Coach. Was it? I mean, I'm sure that there were some other ladies vying for your attention. What caught your eye about Lauren?

T. DUNGY: There really weren't. I was a shy guy, too...

MARTIN: There really weren't, huh?

T. DUNGY: ...Coming up. And...

MARTIN: Oh, so she took pity on you.

T. DUNGY: ...Everybody said, well, football player, Steelers, Super Bowl ring - you must have plenty of girlfriends and that. And I really didn't. I was an introverted guy as a youngster. And so this pastor from Lauren's Church says, you know, I've got a girl you really need to meet. It's a huge church, and I'm very intimidated. And I don't know. And I put him off for a couple of weeks, too. But he finally got us together. And as soon as I saw her, I knew that she was definitely the one.

MARTIN: Well, you know, you sound very strong here, and, you know, I certainly appreciate that. But one of things I also appreciate about the book is you - Lauren, you are very candid about how much it hurt. It did hurt when...

L. DUNGY: Absolutely.

MARTIN: ...Your husband was fired, particularly when his successor went on to win the Super Bowl the following year with a team that he put together, we'll just say. But that people saying, oh, well, it's because you're - you know, he's too nice. You know, he couldn't get it done. It's because he was so into this whole family thing, and that, you know, that had to hurt, right?

L. DUNGY: Well, and over the years - I mean, when you're involved in such a public job and you hear the comments, you read them in the paper, it still hurt when it happened. But we were able to bounce back because we worked together and really support one another. And we were able to walk through those storms, those difficult times together.

MARTIN: To that point, though, so, Coach, I have to ask you this. You have never been shy about professing your faith. And you talked about that that you wanted to - you always wanted to win, but you wanted to win the right way. There are those who do feel that there's too much public profession of faith in sports. And they feel that it's somewhat, in a diverse country like this, that maybe it's exclusionary, that it kind of leaves some people out. And I would like to ask if you could speak on that, if you ever thought about that?

T. DUNGY: Well, I don't feel like it's exclusionary. And I always tell people this is what works for me. This is what my belief is. And Lauren and I talked about it a lot. I mean, people don't see us as just the football coach. And when we're home in our private life, that should be private. They're always asking you about the team at all hours of the day. So I kind of feel like if that's the case and you want to be with me 24/7, then you're going to hear my side of things, too. And I don't feel bad. And I don't apologize about talking about my faith. I've never felt that way, and I feel like people just have to know this is what makes me tick. And if you ask a question about what I feel about my job or what I'm doing, it's an honest answer.

MARTIN: And, Lauren, I wanted to ask you, one of the things that I appreciated about the book is how you talked about how you also tried to be a mentor and a support to the younger players. I mean, there's one player in particular who tragically - whose mother was killed, and then he took charge of and took custody of his younger siblings. And that you backed him up by going to parent-teacher conferences with him, for example, just to have another kind of set of eyes. You know, we often hear stories about young athletes messing up or just - or dissipating their talents, going broke, fathering, like, numerous children out of wedlock, you know, sort of this kind of thing. And I just kind of wondered, did you feel you had a role to play in kind of mentoring these young ladies as well?

L. DUNGY: Absolutely. I think the Lord gave me that opportunity to establish women's organizations. So that was with the players' wives and girlfriends. And we were able to get together, and we met. And we did social functions. We did fashion shows. We did events in the community. But it was also a time for us to get together. We had Bible studies. And we were able to really just bond and hear each other's hearts. And I tried to use that time to build relationships and to encourage them 'cause I knew what they were going through. I had walked the walk that they were experiencing. So it was a great time just to mentor the young ladies and the girlfriends.

T. DUNGY: And we really did that together, Michel. I always felt part of my job was to help our players grow as men, too. I didn't want to just be the coach who helped them be better football players. So we did. We had team Bible studies. We had family Bible studies. I always felt like I could talk to the guys about what...

L. DUNGY: Right.

T. DUNGY: ...Was going on off the field as well. And wanted them to be secure 20 years from now, not just play five years for men and make a lot of money but to grow as a person.

MARTIN: Coach, I'm curious, though, what is your take on the whole - I mean, one of the points that you made in the book - both of you made in the book is that because you were living life fully and you were experiencing all that life has to offer, sometimes, you know, football is very demanding. But sometimes, when you lost something or lost a game, other things in your life put it in perspective. You know, you said that, oh, you know, people want, particularly in the NFL, they want people to win. But you say repeatedly throughout the book, it wasn't the be-all and the end-all. I mean, how do you want people to interpret that?

T. DUNGY: I always felt that I could do my job and give everything that I could to our organization, but it wasn't going to be the most important thing in my life. And I was going to convey that to our players. And we wanted to win and do everything we could just as much as everyone else. But we had players who lost siblings and lost parents during the course of the year. And we'd talk about that that life is certainly much more important and relationships are much more important than winning or losing a game.

The year we went to the Super Bowl, Reggie Wayne, one of our players, caught the winning touchdown pass in the game. And we come in the locker room to get a note that he had just gotten a phone call that his brother was killed in a traffic accident while the game was going on. And those kind of incidents put life in perspective. And that was the lessons that we wanted to teach people. Football is great. Enjoy it. It's a well-paying job. You can get a lot of camaraderie from it, a lot of good things. But it's not the most important thing in life.

MARTIN: We don't really hear too many other coaches saying that. And I just - and I wonder why that is.

T. DUNGY: Well, I think people are afraid to say that because if you don't win, then it's always pointed out, well, it's not that important to you or you're not taking it seriously enough. We want somebody who's going to give it all. But I don't think Lauren and I ever looked at it that way. And we looked at it as God had put us in that position to use the platform, and we were going to do that.

MARTIN: Just one more question, maybe, Lauren, you'll take this one. Is there something that after this long journey you wish you had known when you were starting out that you would like to pass on as a word of wisdom?

L. DUNGY: Just a word of wisdom that I learned early on, that our marriage, our journey, takes commitment. It takes communication. So I'm really excited that we're really communicating with each other, and we are able to, you know, make that effort on a daily basis.

MARTIN: Tony Dungy, what about you? Final thought from you?

T. DUNGY: Just really, really excited and blessed about this platform that we have gotten from the Lord. When I started playing and coaching, you feel like, well, there's going to be certain things that you're going to be able to get to do on the football field, and never dreamed I'd have a platform or a venue in the world of writing. To share this with other people and say this is what the Lord has shown us about marriage, we think it can help other people. That's one of the gratifying things that, you know, we're excited about.

MARTIN: As long as you keep those separate writing rooms.

T. DUNGY: Yes. Yes.

MARTIN: I've heard about your office. See, I read the book. I heard about your messy office.

T. DUNGY: Well, yes. That's one place I knew I could have privacy. If I went in there, Lauren wouldn't come because it was too junky.

L. DUNGY: I wouldn't be able to find you.

MARTIN: Tony and Lauren Dungy are the authors of the new book "Uncommon Marriage: Learning About Lasting Love and Overcoming Life's Obstacles Together." They were kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York. Tony and Lauren Dungy, thank you so much for speaking with us.

L. DUNGY: Thank you, Michel.

T. DUNGY: Thanks, Michel.

L. DUNGY: Our pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.