Public Grief

What we can learn from two football stars who suffered tragic family losses midseason.

Last week Tony Dungy, currently the most successful coach in the NFL, suffered the heartbreaking loss of his 18-year-old son to suicide. Dungy is known throughout the NFL as a gentleman who enjoys the respect of his fellow coaches and the reverence of his players. To show their grief at their coach's loss, all the Indianapolis Colts wore Dungy's son's initials on their helmets in last Saturday's game.

Athletes take a pledge to give all they can to their team. But they are still humans--spouses, parents, and sons or daughters--and real life doesn't wait for the football season to be over. Each athlete must make his own decision about how to handle a personal trauma that takes place during the season, whether to continue playing for the sake of the team (or even as a living memorial to the deceased) or to remain at home with his family. For professional athletes and others who live their lives in the public eye, even those moments we usually keep private become subjects of public discussion. And as role models, whether they like it or not, athletes' behavior, in times of triumph and in times of loss, on and off the field, send messages and teach lessons to their fans.


Dungy has acted during this period, which I am sure is the most difficult time he's ever faced, with grace and humanity deserving of our respect. Even as his team played the second-best team in football, the Seattle Seahawks, Dungy stayed at home to mourn his son and grieve, rather than make the mistake of demonstrating that any kind of game could be more important or supersede, even for a few hours, the loss of a child. Dungy is so devastated by the loss of his son that he has yet to announce when he will return to coaching.

The dignity that Dungy showed at his son's funeral was deeply moving. He called on his players, all of whom had flown to Tampa for the funeral, to reach out to young people. He also cautioned parents against ever taking their children for granted. "Parents, hug your kids every chance you get," he said. "Tell them you love them. You never know when it will be your last time." Here was a man who was clearly conveying that while his profession was football, his priority was family.

Another well-respected football personality went through a similarly public grieving process a couple of years ago, and it is worth revisiting that incident now.

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Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
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