Here's rooting for Dungy's and Manning's Colts


Published: Wednesday, January 17, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 17, 2007 at 1:34 a.m.
If you're not sweet on three-time Super Bowl champion New England, will you join me in a passionate Sunday pull for Indianapolis to win the AFC, delivering two highly admirable, oft-tormented Colts to Super Bowl XLI?
Peyton Manning and Tony Dungy.
With bloody regularity, Indy has excelled in NFL regular seasons and then goes splat in playoffs. Erased after the 2002 season by the Jets (41-0), finished for '03 by the Patriots (24-14), bounced again by New England (20-3) for '04, the Colts absorbed their latest January licking 12 months ago against Pittsburgh (21-18).
Enough!
It has been my blessing as a journalist to know 45 years of famous coaches, among them Shula-Bryant-Gibbs-Spurrier-Landry-Paterno-Walsh-Bowden-Lombardi. Solid fellows all but none a better human being than Dungy.
I love the guy.
Tony's Bucs earned a 1999 NFC championship shot, but Tampa Bay lost 11-6 at St. Louis. Philadelphia KO'd Dungy 21-3 the next postseason, then the Eagles did it again (31-9) in January 2002. He was fired. Sadly, the optimum good guy, at 51, is a recognized master at handling adversity with a heroic touch.
He deserves much more.
Dungy is an every-year winner as Indy's coach but not yet a champion. His records for five seasons: 10-6, 12-4, 12-4, 14-2 and now 14-4. Again, the Colts are in the AFC finals, taking a gritty leap last weekend in Baltimore with a 15-6 upset of the defensively dynamic Ravens.
In this month's playoff beatings of Kansas City and Baltimore, Manning has not been his hot-stats self, throwing for one touchdown and five interceptions. Uncharacteristically, Indy is riding an imposing defense.
For 13 years, America has watched Archie's kid and Eli's brother do lavish quarterback work, at the University of Tennessee and now Indianapolis. Always adroitly prepared, Peyton plays with relentless intensity and is prone to throw bushels of TD passes With wretched consistency, Manning has been sad after games that were supremely important to him. Four times, Peyton went against the most loathed of Vols rivals, Steve Spurrier and his Florida Gators, and not once did Manning celebrate. As a freshman, he was a relief pitcher, coming in for Todd Helton, as UT lost. Three more years, Peyton seemed likely to take a bite out of the Gators but never did, going 0-4.
September after September, the collegian from New Orleans wound up at postgame interview lecterns, dissecting failures against Florida. Always superbly dressed with necktie, speaking patiently and eloquently about what went wrong.
Manning and the Vols did rebound beautifully in 1997, his senior year, going 11-2 and winning the Southeastern Conference. Ironically, UT was 13-0 the next season, winning a national championship with Tee Martin at quarterback.
Manning has habitually concluded his NFL seasons with similar downtrodden calm, dealing with disturbing and recurring shortfall, trying to assess why the magic keeps drying up early.
So now, will Manning and Dungy at last make it? Again, it'll be difficult. These are Pats, not patsies. Tom Brady is 12-1 in postseason QB work, so Peyton must prove he can survive against the Michigan dude who has become the Joe Montana of his time.
There is another angle at work - a double chance to break the Super Bowl coaching color line. Never has an African-American head coach made it. Art Shell (Oakland Raiders) and Denny Green (Minnesota Vikings) rose to conference championship opportunities but were eliminated.
Not only is Dungy getting another Super Bowl chance, his former Tampa Bay assistant - Lovie Smith, a 48-year-old black Texan from Big Sandy - is Chicago's coach in the NFC Championship Game. No matter who survives Sunday at Soldier Field, it's a whopper story as either Lovie's Bears go to the Super Bowl or those frisky Saints who have given battered, stumbling New Orleans reasons to smile.
Don't misunderstand. While it would be good to have your company in cheering for the Manning/Dungy Colts, it's still up to them to produce. Bill Belichick will use every Patriot brain cell and smidgen of coaching energy to keep the Colts from experiencing the high of an NFL Sunday in Miami.
My relationship with Manning isn't close. We've had good conversations but my deal is more an appreciation of a dedicated athlete who tries everything he knows to be the best. A dandy college quarterback, now certain to be voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, at 30 he keeps straining to make a Super Bowl.
With Dungy, it's personal.
Tony is total class. A devoutly religious person with enormous family values. A quiet, reserved talent in a sport overloaded with showoffs. What a Dungy wince it must've been when, after being purged by Tampa Bay after 2001, observing from afar the ensuing season when Jon Gruden coached Tony's old troops to a Super Bowl championship.
Never has my admiration for T.D. been higher than at the lowest point of his life, after son Jamie, not quite 19, depressed by personal problems, committed suicide 13 months ago.
I attended the funeral in Tampa. A chartered DC-10 brought the entire Colts team and coaching staff along with front office personnel. Dungy spoke for 20 minutes, standing above his son's casket. It brought me to tears. Tony was a rock.
I want that bloke in the Super Bowl.
Contact columnist Hubert Mizell at mizell3@cox.net.

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