Sweetness And LightSweetness And Light The Score On Sports With Frank Deford

Family Tragedy and the Indianapolis Colts

Our commentator contemplates how the unexpected death of head coach Tony Dungy's teenage son, might affect the Indianapolis Colts in the NFL playoffs. Tragedy can sometimes motivate athletes, but other factors might have a larger role in determining how the Colts will finish up this season.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The New England Patriots may be the defending NFL champions, but even as they enter the playoffs revitalized, it is another team that commands attention, the Indianapolis Colts. This was true even before the Colts experienced a trauma that was bound to affect the entire team. The oldest son of coach Tony Dungy died, an apparent suicide. Commentator Frank Deford isn't convinced that this adversity will affect the Colts' chances of winning.

FRANK DEFORD:

Now nothing annoys me more than when some tragedy intrudes upon sport and then some all-knowing, somber-sounding columnist or commentator intones that this has reminded the player or the team that games are not really important, as if anybody in any occupation operates under the delusion that any bit of business ever matters more than life or death. But I do suspect that given the nature of competition, tragedy may very well have a greater influence on the outcome of a sporting event than it does in most other professions where the daily work is more level and not so concentrated. This is not to say either that a tragedy involving a player or someone close to the team must necessarily work adversely. In their emotions, athletes, no less than other humans, are an inconsistent, unpredictable breed. Most famously, for example, recall how Pete Sampras somehow actually raised his performance even as he literally played through tears, grieving over the news of his coach's stroke, as he came from two sets behind to beat Jim Courier at the Australian Open several years ago.

Then, too, since Tony Dungy is held more fondly by his players than are most coaches, it's even more difficult to tell how his grief and the team's response to that will affect the Colts during the playoffs. Remember this, though: Dungy was greatly admired at Tampa Bay, too, but it was only after he departed that the Buccaneers won the Super Bowl for a coach with a very different, less-endearing personality. Should Indianapolis draw closer to the championship, Dungy will also start to have to deal with all the talk about how he might become the first African-American football coach ever to win a national championship, professional or college. And this, too, of history: Indianapolis itself has never won a major-league sports championship. Ah, might the Hoosiers forever be cursed for stealing the beloved Colts out of Baltimore under cover of darkness?

But these current Colts are a potpourri of ploth(ph). They have already gone through the diversional duress of staying undefeated into their 14th game. Could they run the table? Then they lost a couple that didn't count and the nitpickers suggested that maybe Indianapolis had invested too much in the winning streak. Can they get back on track? Plus, the Colts' star quarterback, Peyton Manning, must do battle with the paradox that if he performs exceptionally well, because he has to for the team to win, he will be criticized for--well, for performing too well himself. Then, again, the Colts have home field advantage all the way to the championship, which is in a dome, as they are a dome team, and they appear to be the best, most well-rounded team in the league. Maybe all the other extraneous stuff counts for nothing.

MONTAGNE: The comments of Frank Deford, senior contributing writer at Sports Illustrated. He joins us each Wednesday from member station WSHU in Fairfield, Connecticut.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

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Sweetness And LightSweetness And Light The Score On Sports With Frank Deford
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