Super Bowl: Dungy's hometown: Jackson, Mich.

Published 12:00 am Sunday, January 28, 2007

By Larry Lage

Associated Press

JACKSON, Mich. — Tony Dungy was back in his hometown, attending a ceremony to name Frost School’s library after his mother, a former teacher.

A black plaque with silver lettering read: “Cleo May Dungy Library. In honor of her many years of dedicated service to Jackson Public Schools. Dedicated, May 2001.”

One problem — Dungy’s mother’s name is spelled Cleomae.

Tony Dungy didn’t point out the mistake, a decision befitting a man whose reputation as a gentleman rivals his acclaim as a coach.

“He probably didn’t say anything because he’s so nice,” gushed Frost School sixth-grade teacher Mary Anne Gough, who’s known of Dungy since they were in middle school nearly four decades ago.

In Jackson, about 75 miles west of Detroit, the mere mention of the Indianapolis Colts coach makes people smile.

“This is great for our city, because we’re losing jobs and people every day,” said Jackson High School athletic director Russell Davis, who played football against, with and for Dungy. “Tony’s story is really giving us a shot in the arm that we desperately need.”

Sunday night, the 51-year-old Dungy will lead his Colts onto the field at Dolphin Stadium in Miami to battle the Chicago Bears in the Super Bowl, where he and Bears coach Lovie Smith will make history as the first black head coaches at the title game.

“Tony Dungy is the talk of the town,” mayor Jerry Ludwig said. “He’s all people are talking about — no matter where you go. It doesn’t matter if you’re old or young, it’s exciting for all of us.”

Dungy’s hometown needs a pick-me-up story. Jackson — like the entire state of Michigan — is hurting because of a sagging economy that keeps taking hits from the Big Three’s automobile woes.

Michigan’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate was 7.1 percent in December, second highest in the nation behind Mississippi and well above the national average of 4.5 percent. The rate was only slightly better in Jackson County, in part because of the state-funded prisons and prison hospital, as well as Consumers Energy.

Dungy’s story and the spotlight it has put on Jackson — which touts itself as the birthplace of the Republican Party — won’t pay the bills, but it gives many of the 35,000 residents a reason to be proud of their town.

The city council even declared Jan. 29 through Feb. 4 “Tony Dungy Week.”

In a quiet downtown, Dungy’s image loomed on a billboard not far from Jackson Coney Island, where hot dogs smothered with dense chili, onions and mustard have been served for almost a century.

It’s easy to imagine Dungy eating a coney dog after playing with friends at the Martin Luther King Community Center, where a room is now named after him, before returning to his modest home at Robinson and Merriman in a middle-class neighborhood on the east side of town.

“He was friends with everybody,” said Peter May, who has known Dungy since the seventh grade and will be one of his personal guests at the Super Bowl. “He didn’t have an enemy. He’s got that ‘it’ that special people have.”

“I don’t think he has a skeleton in his closet,” said Sherrilyn Sims, Dungy’s older sister, who still lives in Jackson.

There’s no dirt on Dungy?

“Well, we had our brawls over toys, and he got spankings like the rest of the kids,” Sims said. “He wasn’t a complete angel when he was little.”

He was a complete athlete, talented on the football field, basketball court and track. When Dungy was 14, he earned a spot in Sports Illustrated’s ‘Faces in the Crowd,’ before he even was in high school at Jackson Parkside.

Dungy returned the love last summer when he went to a Jackson Community College Jackson dinner and auction to raise funds for the Dr. Wilbur Dungy Endowed Chair, honoring his father. He brought along two former assistants — Bears coach Smith and Detroit Lions coach Rod Marinelli — then made time the next day for kids at a football camp.

In June, Dungy is expected back in Jackson for the camp.

“It may sound Cinderella-ish, but Tony Dungy is only too good to be true if you don’t know him,” Russell said. “In Jackson, we’re lucky enough to say we know him.”