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.

Brett Favre of the Green Bay Packers lost his father, Irvin Favre, who had coached and inspired his son to become a quarterback, to a sudden heart-attack on December 22. 2003. The Packers played the next day in a nationally televised game against the Oakland Raiders, and Favre, while his father lay unburied before his funeral, decided to proceed with the game. He had a spectacular night and won the admiration of America for playing and succeeding in such trying circumstances.

I could not join in the praise, and as I watched that memorable game, I sat with my laptop and wrote an article. I extended my heartfelt sympathy to Favre for his personal tragedy and acknowledged that he is respected throughout America as a consummate gentleman, an honorable athlete, and a devoted family man. Yet, without passing judgment on the man personally, I argued that football should not supercede a father's burial. All of us have professional obligations, but these must bow to the responsibilities we have under the fifth commandment--the obligation to honor our parents. We especially owe respect to our parents at their deaths, because the respect we accord them at that moment can never be repaid, and in that sense, it is the highest honor of all. The burial of a parent must certainly supercede something trivial like playing a football game.

America sides with Favre

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  • And make no mistake about it: Whatever influence the NFL carries in American culture and life, it is still a game, and as such it is trivial compared to the truly serious aspects of life. That's why the NFL immediately cancelled all its games on the Sunday following 9/11, and in doing so, displayed a tacit understanding that playing football while America was in mourning was highly inappropriate.

    I also pointed out in my column that Favre, who loved his father very much and was an extremely devoted son, needed time to absorb the terrible blow and grieve appropriately so that he could heal appropriately. One of the reasons we mourn is to give ourselves an opportunity to vent our grief rather than storing it up and having it consume us, like a cancer, from the inside. While I cannot claim to know Brett Favre personally, it really seems that he has not been the same man since his father's passing, and certainly, he is not the same quarterback. Of course, none of us can say that there is any direct link between not taking time to mourn properly and losing one's way after the loss of a parent. But what we can say is that grieving is not a human luxury, but a necessity.

    After I published my article, hundreds of people wrote to me from all over the country saying that Brett Favre did honor his father by playing football that day, because his father would have wanted him to play that important game. I responded by saying that I had great respect for Favre, and that I was in no way criticizing him as a person, but that I was taking issue with his actions, which were perhaps understandable given the confusion he must have felt in losing his father so suddenly.

    Parents can tell us to do many things, but one thing they cannot do is to tell us not to respect them. The commandment to honor our parents comes from
    G-d, not from our parents, and therefore, even if a father would tell us to skip his funeral and play a game instead, we should not abide by his wish.

    Our humanity is demonstrated not only in how we love but especially in how we grieve; not only how we celebrate, but in how we mourn; not only in how we accept victory, but in how we deal with catastrophic defeat. Tony Dungy has done a great service not only to his beloved son's memory, but to all of America, by teaching us that however important sports may be--and around the world sports are treated with nearly the same veneration as religion--games become utterly insignificant in the face of the most important things in life.

    Likewise, when Favre decided to play that Monday Night game in Oakland, his wife, Deanna, flew out to be at his side, because his emotional state required her presence to make him strong. Brett Favre is a great quarterback. But in seeing him walk off the field that night with his arm around his wife, and in seeing him as a great husband, I then knew that he was also a great man. He may have made a wrong moral decision during the tumultuous days after his father's death, but two years later, I can say that I still respect Brett Favre just as I respect Tony Dungy.

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