Super Bowl winning coach Tony Dungy and his wife Lauren believe that anyone can find a meaningful purpose and make a difference in other people’s lives through God’s direction.
It may seem like that’s something easy for Dungy to proclaim. After all, he had great success as head coach for the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Indianapolis Colts, went on to a prolific career in broadcasting, and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He and his wife stress, though, that all Christians have a life purpose, whether their sphere of influence is large or small. The Dungys share their wisdom on the topic in the just-released (ITALIC BOOK TITLE) Uncommon Influence: Saying Yes to a Purposeful Life (Tyndale House Publishers), a book that presents practical and spiritual tactics to create lasting change in a Christian’s life, career, ministry, and family.
Living a Life of Purpose. Most people, according to Dungy, don’t think they make a real difference in life. “People think, ‘I could never have an impact on people,’ but we began to think about other people who’ve had an impact on our lives and it made us realize that they may have never known what they did for us,” he said. “We had this idea to inspire people to think about what they can do.” The couple wrote the book, which they describe as one with a “mixed voice” based on their different experiences and expertise, with several goals in mind including:
- To demonstrate the importance of saying yes when God places opportunities in your path.
- To provide counsel on being available to the possibilities that come from God (which leads to fulfillment and contentment).
- To share stories of their path of service, specifically in the areas of adoption and foster care.
- To teach that the only way to know a life of true fulfillment is to give that life away.
“We wanted to share our life experiences from the more than 40 years we’ve been married,” Lauren Dungy said. “We share about our experiences with kids, fostering, and adoption and how we’ve used that platform. And then we stress that everyone has a platform. Some are small and some are large, but you have to use it to glorify God.” She stressed that a Christian’s platform “doesn’t have to be in front of 50,000 people or on television.” It can be in a community or in a family. Part of their knowledge, she added, comes from guiding people to find out how to discover what their platform may be–since many people are starting at ground zero. Prayer, she said, is integral. “You have to pray about it, and wait to hear from God,” she said. “We prayed and communicated with God about our desires, and we heard the answer that this is where God wanted us.”
Additionally, Dungy said, those who want to find their areas of influence should consider where their interests, talents, and passions lie. “What do you enjoy? What is your passion?” he advised people to ask themselves. “God gives us the desire of our heart, but we need to know what that looks like.”
In writing the book, they each focused on topics and experiences they had special knowledge of; they each point to favorite chapters. Lauren points to her chapter on prayer, which recounts her understanding of prayer from an early age. “That chapter’s powerful to me because I learned at an early that praying for wisdom and direction are so important,” she said, “My mother was injured in a terrible grease fire when I was young, and I learned from that how simple prayers can help in even terrifying experiences.” Tony points to his chapter on “going against the grain,” which he said can be especially powerful for Christian men. “Society tells us what masculinity is all about,” he said, “but you must be yourself and not follow the crowd. As a Christian we have to go against the grain of what our culture may tell us to do.”
A Shared Faith and Passion. Tony and Lauren both came to faith at an early age and were already believing Christians when they married. At the time, Tony coached for the Pittsburgh Steelers and Lauren was a teacher. They quickly realized that their platform was more than they’d imagined. “I had 30 players, she had 30 students, so we had a built-in influence,” he said. “And as we grew in our experiences with the Lord, we began a beautiful, lifelong journey that included experiences with children, foster children, and adoption,” she added. “We know that nothing is a coincidence and that God brought us to this place.”
Today Lauren uses her teaching background in her work as an early childhood educational specialist and vice president of the Dungy Family Foundation. Tony became the Buccaneers’ coach in 1996 and led the team to four playoff appearances in six seasons, then served as head coach for Indianapolis for seven seasons (making the playoffs each year and winning the Super Bowl in 2006); he was the first black coach to win the NFL championship. He retired after the 2008 season, served as an analyst for NBC’s “Football Night in America,” and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2016.
As each of their careers changed, the couple prayed about where their focus needed to be. “We were looking at our lives. I’d retired from the NFL, was working some in television,” Dungy recalled. “We asked ourselves: What is our purpose now? What can I do in my community to make a difference?” Lauren said that it’s important for Christians to realize that platforms and opportunities can change over a lifetime, depending on what stage of your journey you’re in. “We have different seasons of life, and our platforms can change. And you can have more than one,” she said. “Tony retired, I stopped teaching, and we believe our influence is with children.”
The Dungys have 11 children (three living biological children, seven adopted children, and their oldest son who committed suicide in 2005); they also currently have five foster children. They originally learned about the fostering opportunity from their church and have fostered children since the beginning of their marriage. It’s an experience, they both agreed, that can truly change a child’s life. “We look at these children and we don’t know where they came from or what their background is. We don’t know what their fear is,” Dungy said. “But in ten minutes they expect you to help them, and you realize that you can help them.”
The fostering experience–and the years of parenting their own sons and daughters–has taught the Dungys a variety of lessons about what children want and need. “All children want love,” Lauren Dungy said. “They want to be poured into and listened to. They want to be given the gift of time. And you have to be intentional about it. You have to ask yourself: Did I give them the time they needed? Did I support them? Did I listen to them?” Ultimately, she said, much of their efforts came down to prayer. “All children need to be prayed over and prayed with so that they can have their own faith and develop their own relationship with God,” she said.
Sharing Their Faith. The Dungys’ faith has become well known and documented over the years, as they have both been comfortable in sharing their convictions with the public. Their Dungy Family Foundation is designed to “meet the physical, educational, and spiritual needs of their community,” and they both serve in various Christian ministries and at their Tampa Bay area church.
Their testimony, though, is something they say they’ve grown into–as it’s become easier to share their faith as the years have gone by. Dungy said that he can speak from a faith standpoint when it comes to sharing his opinions–whether it’s while doing football analysis or speaking to a large audience–and Lauren stresses that a Christian testimony should be natural. “We can incorporate our faith into everyday life,” Lauren Dungy stated. “We don’t become a Christian once the TV turns off or we come home from work. We want to live our lives, and for our faith to be integral in every part of it. It needs to become natural.”
Ultimately, that witness intertwines with a Christian’s platform or sphere of influence to make a real and tangible difference in others’ lives. “We may not even realize what a difference we can make,” Dungy said, “but as Christians, we must say yes to the opportunities God puts in front of us.”
Cheryl Wray is a freelance writer based in Hueytown, Alabama, where she often writes on sports-related topics. She’s also the coordinator of the Southern Christian Writers Conference.