As he and Assistant Coach Clyde Christensen walked off the field at Tampa’s Pepin-Rood Stadium that broiling, humid August afternoon, they were focused on their families.
|Tony Dungy, current NBC analyst and former NFL coach, formed the idea for All Pro Dad in 1996 to place a greater focus on family relationships. Dungy is shown here riding in the Hall of Fame parade in Canton, Ohio, in 2016.|
“We talked about trying to be better men, better husbands and better fathers,” he said. “We wondered what we could do to spread that word. What happened after that has been stunning.”
A year later, what happened out of that conversation was the formation of a movement known today as All Pro Dad. Dungy joined with Mike Merrill, founder and president of Family First based in Tampa, to start an organization focused on the principle of helping men lead their families and be heroes to their children.
The Florida Conference has partnered with All Pro Dad and schools in many parts of the state. One such place is the preschool at First UMC in St. Petersburg, where Associate Pastor Rev. Kevin Grills leads a group of men that meet monthly with their children for breakfast.
Grills was inspired to start the chapter at his church, partly because of his experience with Dungy.
“While I lived in Tampa, some of the men in my small group had worked at All Pro Dad and Family First,” he said. “Sometimes Tony Dungy would drop in for our devotionals, and I was just so impressed.
“My youngest is now 4 years old and in preschool. Typically, you don’t see All Pro Dad chapters in preschool; they are usually in regular public schools. But I read up on it some more and got involved.”
The children in this group range from 3 to 5 years old, so Grills helped adapt the program—less talk with the kids about responsibility, more activities with their dads.
“We do a lot of affirmation,” he said. “We have a sharing time, and we’ll say things to praise our kids in front of the other dads. It will be things like, ‘My son learned to tie his shoe this week,’ or, ‘He has been a good big brother to his little sister.’ You just see their faces light up.
“The way I figure it, it’s like deposits and withdrawals. Like when you’re fighting with your son or daughter to get in the car or brush their teeth. Those are withdrawals. We need to make more deposits.”
Is it working?
Many say, yes.
“The thing we’re hearing now is the dads saying how their kids hold them to it when it’s time for the breakfast,” Grills said. “My own son will say, ‘Hey dad, we’re having breakfast in the morning, right?’ It’s something we can do that’s intentional.
“I’ve had some dads say they’re gone a hundred days a year because they have to travel so much, but they’ll be there for this.”
Rev. Mark Charles of St. Andrew UMC in Titusville takes a more traditional approach, partnering with a local elementary school.
“Our involvement, as it is today, has come through the relationships my wife, Margaret, has built with staff and other parents at the school over the four years we have been in this community,” he said.
“She was basically going along to volunteer her presence to support the work of the group, which was being sponsored by another church in Titusville.”
When the opportunity came about 18 months ago to become the sponsoring church at the school, Charles jumped at the chance.
“I guess you could say it is a tangible example of the saying that it takes a village to raise a child. All Pro Dad is just one expression of that. I hope that we can continue to love and support the school in every way we possibly can, long into the future.”
That is exactly what Dungy and those associated with All Pro Dad have wanted. It’s all about helping children grow into responsible adults.
“The biggest thing we’re trying to do is encourage men to see their critical role of being a father,” Dungy s. “There are a lot of issues for kids to deal with today, and the father’s presence is so important.”
Dungy hasn’t coached since the 2008 season, when he retired to spend more time with prison ministry and programs like this.
“I remember meeting with a group of 30 rookies and learning that 23 of them had grown up without a father’s presence in their lives,” he said. “But what about the kids who didn’t play sports?
“What I’ve always tried to do was tell people that you didn’t have that father’s presence when you were growing up, and I’m sorry. But you’re the next generation. You have the power to change things,” Dungy said. “I always used to take my wife and kids on road trips so the players could see our family. The Lord says you have to model behavior. To me, that’s where it starts.”
These days, Dungy stays close to football by serving as an in-studio analyst for NBC Sports. That puts his face in front of millions each week.
But when he travels, he has found people mostly don’t want to talk with Tony Dungy, the coach.
“When I get stopped in airports now, a guy almost always says that his church just started an All Pro Dad chapter,” he said. “God was definitely involved in this.
“I think about a chapter starting in Missoula, Montana. People want to talk about that much more than they do the game. To see what’s happened since that day Clyde and I talked, it’s amazing. I’ve always thought this was a much bigger calling than coaching.”
--Joe Henderson is a freelance writer based in Brandon.
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