- Saturday, June 07, 2008
We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed. Weare perplexed, but not driven to despair. We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God. We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed.
— 2 Corinthians 4:8-9
IT WAS TIME. I figured I had waited long enough. Darkness had fallen on that winter evening, two days after our team’s business had concluded for the season. The building was otherwise deserted as I pulled up and parked at the small wooden shack guarding the entrance to One Buccaneer Place.
One Buc, as we all called it, stood quiet. The one-story, stucco and concrete block building was located on the edge of the Tampa International Airport. The color of butter pecan ice cream, this was the original building that housed the newly formed Buccaneers in 1976. Rather than expand the building as the organization exploded in size over the years—as personnel were added for coaching, scouting, marketing, public relations, ticketing, and other functions—the Bucs had simply added a series of trailers on the other side of a small parking lot in the late 1990s. The trailers were collectively known as Two Buc.
Oscar, the guard on duty, escorted me through the locked gate on the side of the building; my security code no longer worked. Silently I gathered six years’ worth of my professional life from my office—three-ring binders with notes, play diagrams, and play-calling sheets; various books and photographs; my sons’ video games; and a couple of Buccaneers hats, although I’d never wear them again. I was lost in my memories as I placed these things rather haphazardly in cardboard boxes thoughtfully left out for me by my administrative assistant. No, I realized, Lora is somebody else’s administrative assistant now.
I stopped to contemplate a wood-framed picture in the stack. It had been taken our first year in Tampa, and we were all beaming: my daughter, Tiara; my sons, Jamie and Eric; my wife, Lauren; and me. The stadium grass behind us was a vibrant green, the shade of an Irish meadow, sliced into five-yard increments by crisp, white stripes. A teeming throng of humanity, dressed in orange and red and squinting in the unforgiving Florida sun, filled the stands in the picture’s background.
The summer of 1996 had been a long time ago.
Now, in the winter of 2002, that same Florida sky was dark. Dark, cold, and damp. The mist that had begun in the afternoon had turned to light drops. The weather mirrored my dark inner world on that night of January 14.
I finished packing the last of the items. Not that much, really. A few boxes stood by the door, ready to be carried home. Nothing else of note remained. That office of mine had been lived in pretty hard, I had to admit. Most of the homework completed by my sons Jamie and Eric over the previous six years had been done in there, and the office had seen countless games of catch, video-game competitions, and other pursuits geared around young boys.
I later learned that Rich McKay, general manager of the Bucs during my tenure as head coach, had asked the facility manager to clean and paint the office that week, noting that my replacement was “about to move into an office that two boys have been living in every day for the last six years.”
As I wrapped things up, I noticed that the light drops falling outside had turned into a heavy rain.
I should have just walked out, since by then it was getting late. Instead, I wandered out of my office and through the building, stopping in the coaches’ locker room. Standing in the middle of the room, I let my gaze sweep over the cramped, worn twelve-by-fifteen room. I looked from locker to locker, reading some names, imagining others.
Monte Kiffin. Chris Foerster. Clyde Christensen. Rod Marinelli.
We had shared this locker room and many memories, these men and I. We had spent hours, weeks, and years together. These men had walked off the frozen, concrete-hard synthetic turf in Philadelphia with me just two days earlier, their careers critically stung by the Bucs’ 31–9 loss. So much had been at stake for all of us—and the players too—yet the outcome had never really been in doubt.
It was a difficult season punctuated by a painful ending.
And now God had something different in mind for all of us.
I tried to take solace in the things we had accomplished together—three straight playoff appearances, more wins than any other staff in team history—but they seemed hollow, even within me. I stared at the lockers, the enormity of the moment suddenly overwhelming as I remembered names of guys long gone from my staff.
Lovie Smith. Herm Edwards. Mike Shula.
The prognosticators had been circling for weeks. And amid season-long rumors that a new head coach was being courted, their speculations had finally become reality. I had been fired.
Many of the assistant coaches—maybe all of them—would be let go as well. They would all come out fine. I knew that. But I also ached for the inevitable pain I knew they would face as they dealt with the uncertainty of their futures, that their children would face when they were uprooted from their schools, that their wives would face when ripped from their support systems.
Joe Barry. Mike Tomlin. Alan Williams. Jim Caldwell.
These men had just come that year. Why did they have to go? It was hard to figure. My family had come to Tampa for a reason. God had led us here, opened doors that we didn’t expect would be open, and allowed us to connect deeply with this community. But for what purpose?
Not football, apparently. I felt certain that the Buccaneers were my best, and possibly last, chance to lead an NFL team. For whatever reason, God had closed the door. For what?
Possibly some sort of ministry. I was heavily involved in the All Pro Dad organization and Abe Brown’s prison ministry, both based in Tampa, as well as our church,
Idlewild Baptist Central. Maybe God was trying to turn my focus toward those.
But did He have to close this door already?
And close it so firmly?
It really was hard to fathom. I had been faithful, hadn’t I? So faithful in the mission that surely—surely—it was going to be blessed by Him. I had come here in 1996 with dreams of creating an organization based on values and character, and my staff and I had succeeded in doing just that. But God obviously wanted something else from me now.
It wasn’t really the firing itself that was a shock but rather the thought that God was allowing this great experiment to end. Hadn’t we tried to do things right?
Oscar reappeared. It was late, approaching midnight.
I walked out, traversing a path between the squat racks, benches, and other weight-lifting machines in the weight area attached to the building. A cool mist blew in under the awning, dampening my forty-six-year-old face. This half of the weight room was outside and open on its ends and side, but at least the Glazers, the Bucs’ owners, had partially covered it with a vinyl awning. Although the weights were cooled and heated—mostly heated—according to the daily whims of the southwest Florida climate, they were usually out of direct reach of the elements.
I looked to my left, past the row of squat racks and away from the building. Through the dark and rain, I could barely make out the two shadowy practice fields. The runway lights of the airport were clearly visible just yards beyond.
Where was the burning bush? Where was that still, small voice? Or, even better, the loud, booming one.
The only voice I could hear clearly was my own, crying out in the wilderness. When will I hear Your voice, Lord?
I returned from my thoughts as Oscar quickly maneuvered between and around the weight machines to beat me to the next door. He pressed the electronic pad, releasing the magnetic lock on the chain-link gate that separated the weight area and practice fields from the waiting parking lot.
The Bay News 9 reporter had been waiting all night for this shot. For two days, news trucks had been parked along the street, on the front lawn, in the surrounding ditches— wherever they could fit close to One Buc.
I thought everyone had abandoned the vigil hours earlier, when the Buccaneers had issued a statement that there would be a press conference the following morning. But on a hunch, this reporter had doubled back in the dark and rain, and he was about to hit the jackpot.
He must have seen my head over the dark green screen of the fence; he began filming just as I carried the boxes through the gate and into the open area. He was across the street, sitting in the back of a news van on airport property, but given the narrow street and small parking area, he was no more than fifty feet away. The lens on his video camera more than compensated for that short distance as I walked directly toward him.
His nighttime footage of me would air repeatedly over the next several days. Everyone in the Tampa viewing area would have multiple opportunities to see Tony Dungy, former head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, placing boxes into his SUV in the pouring rain.
As I drove away from One Buc, I knew that my real and painful experience of being fired was an all-too-common part of the human condition in the young 21st century. I reminded myself that it was temporary. I took comfort in the knowledge that this, too, would pass. But my emotions were a mixture of peace and bewilderment with a swirl of unanswered questions.
What’s next? What could we have done differently?
I kept driving, across Columbus Drive and up Dale Mabry Highway. I went past Raymond James Stadium, where I’d experienced so many highs. Fittingly, it was now empty. As I reached Bearss Avenue, I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. I kept reminding myself that I would move on, that things would turn out all right professionally, that Lauren and the children were resilient enough to handle all of this. And it was obvious to me that God had something else for us, or He wouldn’t have closed off what we were doing with the Bucs.
When will I hear Your voice, Lord? Soon, I hope.
I knew everything would ultimately be fine, but at that moment—on that rain-swept night of January 14, 2002—my Explorer and my spirits traveled under the same dark clouds.
From Quiet Strength. Copyright © 2007 by Tony Dungy. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188.
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