COLUMBIA, S.C. – Tony Dungy stood before more than 1,700 prisoners Tuesday, sharing a smile and message of hope that has become his life's work.
The former NFL championship coach said he recently visited an inmate in Florida that he had ministered to nearly 10 years ago. The prisoner thanked Dungy for changing his mental and spiritual outlook.
"That," Dungy said, "was a bigger thrill for me than winning the Super Bowl."
Dungy guided the Indianapolis Colts to the Super Bowl win in 2007 — the first black coach to do so — then left the league after one more season to focus on his family and mission. The football analyst spent the morning speaking to inmates at three facilities in the Broad River Correctional complex of the South Carolina Department of Corrections.
The last gathering was for about 550 minimum-security prisoners assembled on a worn-down softball field not far from the prison's entrance. A choir and band from the Central Church of God in Charlotte, N.C., played inspirational songs before Dungy's group arrived.
Dungy told the crowd he'd often come to South Carolina's capital city to search out prospects as a pro and college coach. This time, he came to let those locked up know it's not too late for positive, lasting change.
"It really doesn't matter about your past," Dungy said. "It's about your future and what you're going to do."
Dungy got involved in prison ministries while head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1996. He was nervous about meeting inmates, beset, he says, with the same misgivings many have about those behind bars.
Dungy discovered many prisoners are filled with remorse and eager to amend for mistakes. He's been actively involved ever since.
Tommy, a 39-year-old minimum security inmate serving 17 years for strongarm robbery, is a football fan who immediately signed up when Dungy's visit was announced.
The Rock Hill man, already impressed with Dungy's NFL accomplishments, left with the former coach's encouragement in mind.
"By him being the first African-American coach (to win a Super Bowl), that was uplifting," he said. "It was real nice to see him in person. I enjoyed it. I think it was a real positive influence."
The Department of Corrections did not want the prisoner's last name used.
Dungy was introduced to the crowd by Gov. Mark Sanford, whose political future and marriage were wrecked by revelations last summer he had a South American mistress. Sanford and ex-wife Jenny were divorced last month.
Sanford said he learned through his travails that all need forgiveness and to extend that forgiveness to other transgressors.
"Here's a guy with a Super Bowl ring," Sanford said, "and yet here's a guy who's here because he believes in some principles and ideals that, if instituted, will make sure that you'll never be here again."
Dungy spoke of the most high-profile prisoner he's worked with — Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick. Football helped Vick restart his life after serving an 18-month prison sentence for operating a dogfighting ring. Dungy said Vick's doing well mentally and emotionally, but will likely pay a price with the public for his crimes.
"I can't imagine the mail he's gotten because I know the mail I've gotten just for helping him," Dungy said. "That's the way the world thinks, but fortunately, that's not the way God thinks."
Dungy said his NFL coaching career is likely finished, but he feels privileged to play a role in the redemptive journey of others.
"I guess I just have a heart for young men," he said. "To just give a little bit of encouragement, that's what it's all about for me."
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