James Lawton in Vancouver: Haunting reminder of cruel results when a sport becomes all work and no play

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The Independent Online

On the first day of this new year a celebrated old gridiron coach who had just announced he was heading off into retirement was asked what he was possibly going to do with the rest of his life. Dick Vermeil, 69, of the Kansas City Chiefs, paused for a second, and then said something that for at least one of his NFL counterparts was utterly haunting.

Had they heard it, it might also just have sparked a moment of reflection in two of the leading knights of English football: Sir Bobby Robson and Sir Alex Ferguson.

Vermeil said: "Well, I've got 11 grandchildren so I guess I still have quite bit of coaching to do." A little late, some might have thought, for such philosophical distancing from the obsessional tides of a sport which was handed its workaday mantra by the ultimately hard-driving Vince Lombardi more than half a century ago - at least those who remember Vermeil weeping publicly over the vicissitudes of his job when he was leading the Philadelphia Eagles back in the Eighties.

Lombardi declared to his players, notoriously or gloriously depending on your viewpoint: "Winning isn't the important thing, it's the only thing", and one of his team reflected many years later: "To be fair, he never played favourites ... he treated us all like dogs."

Such macho attitudes in professional sport have rarely been under such a high-powered microscope as in the last few days here in North America because if Vermeil is exiting the stage Tony Dungy, the brilliant coach of Indianapolis Colts, has decided to remain at the centre of it, despite a crushing personal tragedy that suddenly makes the second of his season's ambitions - the chance of a perfect, historic 16-0 season ended a few weeks ago - to win the Super Bowl in Detroit next month seem like the pursuit of one of the more overrated baubles on the periphery of real life.

Dungy returned to duty this last weekend to lead his Colts to victory over the Arizona Cardinals and complete a dazzling regular season record of 14-2. After hugging his players and assistant coaches, and thanking the public for their support, Dungy said: "It was the right time to come back. I talked about it with my wife, and we went through the grieving process and now we're starting with the healing process."

Dungy is a man of immense dignity and style, one of the few black gridiron men to battle through generations of prejudice to the head coach's job, but even he now implicitly concedes that somewhere along the line his adult sense of priorities may have been compromised.

He, too, may have been critically ensnared by the demands of a job which has made heroes out of workaholic monsters who have been known to rise bug-eyed from their office couches after watching hours of game film deep into the night.

The Colts coach was conspicuously set apart from that particular school of driven ambition, but he too put in an extraordinary number of hours at the football factory.

Inevitably, he must now speculate on whether some of those hours could have been redirected. He wouldn't be human if he didn't do that because what Dungy is grieving is the loss of his 18-year-old son, James, who was found dead in his apartment in Tampa, Florida. The presumption is that he took his own life.

In a remarkable reaction to the tragedy, top gridiron analyst Peter King wrote in Sports Illustrated: "Imagine what Tony Dungy is thinking now. Why wasn't I there for my son more? That's what I would be thinking if one of my children died the way James Dungy apparently did. First, I have to say what I've said this season, and in prior seasons, about Tony Dungy. He is the most human, family-orientated, real person among NFL coaches I've met in 21 years covering the league. I can't think of a better role model in the NFL. I mean his own players go to him for fathering."

King concedes the demands on any coach are immense and adds: "We talk about what a badge of honour it is and how laudable it is that a guy is willing to work so hard and leave no stone unturned in order to try to win. No more. I'll never do it again. If I hear a guy is sleeping in the office four nights a week, I'll never say to him: 'Boy, you're really working hard to get this thing turned around'. Instead, I'll just think: 'Your poor family. How do they cope when you never come home at night? Don't you feel like you're screwing them?'

"If the death of James Dungy does one thing, I hope it sets off an alarm in the heads of the 540 or so NFL coaches, particularly the other 31 head coaches. I hope the alarm says, 'Go home. Be a person'."

King's sentiments are warm and fine and very human, but you don't have to borrow your instincts from Vince Lombardi to suspect that in a few weeks time, when the play-off games reach their climax, they will be assigned to an already large pile of platitudes.

Professional sport is cruel and relentless and, as we see so frequently on either side of the Atlantic, it can make a parody of the best of a man. Privately, there is no doubt that Robson and Ferguson can be warm and amusing individuals with more than their fair share of the perspectives of that elusive real life, but give them a scent of the action, ask them to define themselves, and it will not be on a walk with the grandchildren.

That is a reality that fortunately in their cases has not been touched by the kind of tragedy that is now consuming Tony Dungy, but such devastation is not unknown in the family lives of some of our leading football men.

One, of great achievement - and personal warmth - lost a son in heart-rending circumstances, and when it happened heaven knows how many of his colleagues whispered the silent prayer of thanks that there they might have gone but for the grace of God.

Tony Dungy's march to the Super Bowl will be suffused by concern and great sentiment these next few weeks, but none of it will detach us from the truth that head coaches of gridiron teams, any more than managers of Premiership clubs, do not get paid millions of dollars, or pounds, for being exemplary family men who are always around for the birthdays and the graduations of their sons and daughters. This isn't, regrettable as it may be, quite how it works.

If they are lucky they have wives who understand the peculiarly intense nature of their callings - and if they are smart, they remember that they cannot always hide behind the screen of what can sometimes appear to be a manic work ethic.

Even the ultra-obsessive Bill Shankly, who, no doubt apocryphally, is said to have once declared that football wasn't a matter of life and death, it was more important than that, usually remembered his wife's wedding anniversary, an achievement that admittedly was deeply flawed on one occasion when by way of celebration he took her to a reserve match at Accrington Stanley.

The joke is not meant to trivialise the tragedy of young James Dungy ... or glorify attitudes that may, in the context of his death, seem grotesquely short of the adult. They are merely to say that the business of coaching a football club, along with many other occupations, will never be conducive to a well-ordered family life. The trick will always be a balancing act and it is idle to pretend otherwise.

One of the images of coaching which lingers down the years was supplied by John Madden, the all-conquering leader of the Oakland Raiders who became America's most popular football broadcaster.

Madden directed the television cameras away from the winning coach - who had been joined by the club owner and his family and was being soaked by his players in the ritual of triumph, as Dick Vermeil was at the weekend after a dramatic win over the Cincinatti Bengals in his last stint on the touchline - and to the other side of the field. There, the losing coach stood quite alone.

He was out of the play-offs and maybe a job. The mortgage, the college fees for his children, the medical plans, the skiing holidays, were all in jeopardy and Madden declared: "There, that's the coaching job, that's the whole ball of wax. Everybody wants to be around you when you win. But lose, and, boy, you are on your own."

However well-meaning the reaction, the haunting death of James Dungy is not going to change much of that.