For Tony Dungy, reaching the Hall of Fame started with a nervous NFL debut


Head coach Tony Dungy of the Indianapolis Colts celebrates after defeating the Chicago Bears 29-17 in Super Bowl XLI on February 4, 2007 at Dolphin Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – The reality of the individual achievement, being a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 2016, has come at Tony Dungy in rhythmic waves.

First, there was the official notification Feb. 6 in San Francisco.

Next, being introduced with the other honorees the following day at Super Bowl 50.

That was an especially poignant moment. Standing with Dungy on the sideline at Levi’s Stadium was Marvin Harrison, the Indianapolis Colts’ record-setting receiver and a Class of 2016 colleague.

“For Marvin and I to be there on the sideline watching Peyton (Manning) in his last game, it was pretty unique,’’ Dungy said in an exclusive interview with Indy Sports Central.

Then posing for his bronze bust that will forever be on display in Canton.

Then touring the Hall of Fame in March and actually seeing where that bust will reside.

While reality undoubtedly has settled in, the magnitude of the moment probably won’t hit Dungy until he stands behind the podium during the Aug. 6 enshrinement ceremony at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton. He will be presented for induction by former Steelers teammate and long-time friend Donnie Shell.

“It probably will be that night when you realize individually that you’re going in,’’ Dungy said. “They took us by the Hall in March and showed us the space where all of our busts are going and the 2016 Class will be housed, and it’s still kind of hard to believe that you’re going to be in there.’’

The end of this particular, spectacular journey had a nervous beginning.

For perspective, Dungy remembers the first two years of his three-year NFL playing career. He allows his mind to drift back to 1977 and the first time he stepped in the defensive huddle with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

“Coming into the National Football League, (the Hall of Fame was) not something that crossed my mind,’’ he said. “I remember the first time I got in the huddle with the Steelers and Dwight White asking me what my name was and who I was and am I still on the team.’’

Dungy laughed at the memory. Long and hard.

“I certainly didn’t think at that point I’d be going to the Hall of Fame,’’ he said.

Yet here he is. And it’s worth noting Dungy is just the 24th coach to be enshrined. He had a 148-79 overall record (.652) in a 13-year career that began in Tampa in 1996 and ended in Indianapolis after the ’08 season.

He became the first African-American head coach to win a Super Bowl (with the Colts in ’06), is the winningest coach in Colts’ history (92-33) and is the only coach in NFL history to lead his team to the playoffs in 10 consecutive seasons.

Obviously, the winning was critical. The NFL is a bottom-line venture. But so was the manner with which it was achieved.

“I wanted to win as much as possible,’’ Dungy said, “but I wanted to do what my coaches had done for me, what coach (Chuck) Noll did, and that was make a difference in people’s lives, make a difference in the city that I worked in.

“That’s what you’re hoping for. You want to do that. If that happened, then I would be satisfied. The Hall of Fame is just icing on the cake.’’

Obtaining the NFL’s highest individual honor, Dungy insisted, is a byproduct of having associated with – and learned under – so many influential people: the Rooney family and Noll in Pittsburgh; Bill Walsh and Eddie DeBartolo Jr. (another Class of 2016 inductee) in San Francisco; Lamar Hunt in Kansas City; Dennis Green in Minnesota.

And Jim Irsay and Bill Polian with the Colts.

The foundational message: Do things the right way and treat people right, and good things are going to happen.

Dungy found himself unemployed when his Tampa Bay Buccaneers suffered a second consecutive first-round playoff loss at Philadelphia after the 2001 season.

“I didn’t know where I was headed,’’ he said. “I didn’t know what was going to happen.’’

Then, Irsay called. He had just fired Jim Mora, and was looking for a new face and a new direction.

Irsay’s pitch: “Hey, I want to put things in place like you guys had in Pittsburgh. We don’t have a 30-, 40-, 50-year history where people grew up watching the Colts play with their dads and their granddads. We’ve got to connect to the community and I think you can help us do that. We want to win, but we want to build this connection with the city of Indianapolis and with the whole state.’’

Shortly thereafter, Dungy was on board and the most influential portion of what would be a Hall of Fame resume began to fatten.

“That was so intriguing,’’ he said of Irsay’s discussion. “I wanted to be part of that. As soon as Jim talked about his vision that not only included winning but it included making the franchise what it is today.

“That was all I needed to hear.’’

From 2002 through ’08, the Colts were one of the NFL’s flagship franchises. They won at least 10 games each year and at least 12 in the final six. The ’09 Colts under successor Jim Caldwell went 14-2 – that set an NFL record with seven straight seasons with at least 12 wins – and reached the Super Bowl.

Yes, there were elite players.

But no one should dismiss the ability of Dungy and Polian, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 2014, to work in unison even though each had disparate personalities.

“I think we were kind of a perfect match,’’ Dungy said. “Bill was a tremendous listener. We would talk things out. We wouldn’t always agree, but at the end of the day we’d come out with a strategy.

“It was a great time, a wonderful time. Anything that I needed that I felt was going to make the team better, Bill would go out of his way to get that for us.’’

As Dungy reflected on the high points of an NFL career that spanned more than three decades as a player and coach, he also took time to remember the trying times. In December 2005, his son James passed away in Tampa.

“We lost a son in 2005 and I remember 2006 and Reggie Wayne losing his brother in an auto accident and finding out in the locker room after we beat Jacksonville,’’ he said. “Things like that bring you closer to together. We had a lot of that. Gary Brackett, people going through some very, very difficult things with family.

“But as a band of brothers, I think we stuck together and that’s what made it so special.’’

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