The only thing that mattered to Tony Dungy when he received Zack Bolno’s e-mail was that he had to meet with a member of the family.
Not family by blood, but family by association, the type of kinship the Indianapolis Colts’ coach has developed everywhere he has been.
It didn’t matter to Dungy that he and Bolno no longer worked together as they had in Tampa, Fla., where Dungy was the Buccaneers’ coach and Bolno was in the team’s media relations department.
Tampa Bay fired Dungy in the offseason before the team won Super Bowl XXXVII, and Dungy had a new life and an undefeated team (then 12-0) in Indianapolis and all the pressure that goes with that.
But Bolno, the Washington Wizards’ director of public relations, has exchanged e-mails with Dungy for years, and Dungy wanted to talk with him, to exchange a warm hug with an old friend, and tell him again how proud he was of his career ascension.
After all, once one works with Dungy — who underwent the ultimate parental nightmare yesterday of burying his eldest child, 18-year-old James, who died last week — they are, well, family.
So there was Dungy, in the Wizards’ hotel lobby in Indianapolis earlier this month, yucking it up with Bolno and then, later, with Wizards coach Eddie Jordan and assistants Phil Hubbard, Mike O’Koren and Tom Young.
“It was exciting to just sit there and exchange ideas and have a good time with a guy who was highly successful,” Jordan said. “Here was a guy coping with the pressure that comes with having an undefeated football team late in the season, yet he wanted to sit down and just talk to us about what was going on with the team and our lives.”
Dungy had visited with Bolno and the Wizards’ staff before. Last season, when Antawn Jamison hit the game-winning shot against the Pacers in Indianapolis, Dungy was there.
Both meetings rekindled old memories. Dungy has known Hubbard for years. Once a defensive back in San Francisco, Dungy was a teammate of Thomas Seabron — Hubbard’s best friend. Dungy also was a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers team that won Super Bowl XIII; the Steelers are Young’s favorite team.
All professional coaches are kindred spirits, nomadic workaholics married as much to their career as they are to their spouse. And yesterday, they all grieved with Dungy.
“Puts everything into perspective quickly,” Jordan said. “When I first heard the news I couldn’t grasp the tragedy. It makes you look at your kids and just say, ‘I’m blessed.’ Here’s a guy sitting on top of the coaching world, a guy who is such a good person that everyone looks up to because of the kind of person he is first. To have something like this happen, you just can’t describe it.”
A father of five, Dungy always has fostered an familial mentality, one as inclusive to the million-dollar players as those working in the training camp cafeteria.
In Tampa, where he coached the Bucs from 1996 to 2001 and led them to the playoffs four times in six seasons, Dungy started a Friday barbecue, inviting everyone in the organization, Bolno said.
“He wanted everyone to feel important and he did a wonderful job of that,” he said. “It was always about building a family.”
Dungy’s never-waning desire to build meaningful relationships among the people in his life is reflected in an interesting scenario that plays out on the road with the Wizards, no matter what time zone they are in.
There is often a former Dungy player in attendance — in the stands and later in the bowels of the stadium — and they usually are there sharing a laugh with Bolno, signing autographs upon request.
Stop in Miami, and there’s Warren Sapp, the boisterous defensive tackle who won a Super Bowl and earned defensive player of the year honors in Tampa Bay. In Orlando, there’s Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber waiting outside the Wizards locker room. And most recently in Denver, John Lynch — a Dungy favorite now headed for the playoffs with the Broncos — was there to watch the Wizards knock off the Nuggets.
“Those are guys Tony touched in a special way, and they’ll tell you that,” said Bolno, who stays in touch with all of them. “That’s just what was important to Coach, getting people to respect and care for each other.”
That’s why when Bolno got the news of James Dungy’s death Thursday via a phone call from Nelson Luis — the Houston Rockets’ director of media relations who worked with Dungy in Tampa Bay and was a mentor of Bolno — he knew he would have to take the 5:30 a.m. flight out of BWI into Tampa yesterday.
“I grew up around James, and I watched him grow up,” said Bolno, who worked in Tampa from 1998 to 2003. “I remember watching him pushing the equipment cart through the locker room. He was a great kid, but he never bragged about being the head football coach’s son.”
Everyone who knows Tony Dungy has something good to say about him. But the most telling comment might have come from Irene Tabb, Bolno’s deceased grandmother, not long after Bolno began working for the Bucs while in his early 20s.
Though she wasn’t much of a football fan, Tabb watched a postgame interview with Dungy and became smitten.
Bolno remembered: “She told me later on, ‘I’m not just going to root for them because you work for them. I’m going to root for them because your coach is a gentleman.”