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. Indeed, all the Indianapolis Colts wore his son’s initials on their helmets in last Saturday’s game against the Seattle Seahawks. It is worthwhile to briefly contrast how Dungy handled this terrible tragedy with how Brett Favre handled a similar tragedy two years ago.
When Brett Favre lost his father, Irvin Favre, who had coached and inspired his son to become a quarterback, to a sudden heart-attack on Dec. 22, 2003, he was due to play the very next day in a nationally televised game on Monday-night football against the Oakland Raiders. And Favre, while his father lay unburied before his funeral, decided to proceed with the game, had a spectacular night, and won the admiration of America for playing and succeeding in such trying circumstances.
As I watched that memorable game, I sat with my laptop and penned an article that brought me more criticism than almost anything else I’ve ever published. While extending my heartfelt sympathy to Favre for his personal tragedy and acknowledging that he is respected throughout America as a consummate gentleman, I criticized his actions, saying that a son playing football while his father lies unburied disrespects his father’s memory.
I did not intend to judge Favre, who is, by all accounts, a loving husband and committed family man, but rather to support and emphasize the fifth commandment: We are obligated to honor our parents, especially at the close of their lives. To honor our parents we must tend to their burial before undertaking something trivial like playing a football game. And make no mistake about it: Whatever influence the NFL carries in American culture and life, it is still a game and thus, compared to the truly serious aspects of life, it is trivial, which is why the NFL immediately cancelled all its games on the Sunday following 9-11, there being a tacit understanding that playing football while America was in mourning was highly inappropriate.
I also pointed out in my column that Favre 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.
Indeed, while I cannot claim to know Brett Favre, it really seems that he has not been the same man since his father’s passing, and certainly, he is not the same quarterback. His very public self-doubt reminds me of President Bill Clinton who, after his mother, Virginia Kelly died in 1994, also did not permit himself time to grieve, and left immediately after the funeral to Russia for a summit with Boris Yeltsin. Clinton’s presidency foundered thereafter, resulting in the Democratic Party’s disastrous defeat in the mid-term congressional elections of November 1994.
To be sure, 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 that is that grieving is not a human luxury, but a necessity.
And yet, after I published my article, hundreds of people wrote to me from all over the country saying that Brett Favre actually honored his father by playing football, because his father would have wanted him to play that Monday Night game. I responded that parents call 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 God, not from our parents, and therefore, even if a father would tell us to skip his funeral and play a game instead, we could not abide by his wish.
Contrast Favre’s actions with how Tony Dungy handled the suicide of his son. 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 son.
Indeed, 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.
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 in teaching us that however important sports may be – and around the world sports are treated with nearly the same veneration as religion – they pale into significance in the face of the most important things in life.