Tony Dungy’s life lesson about the Tuskegee Airmen and the meaning of humility

Veterans Day became real for me in May 2012. Before, Veterans Day was just another day off, a holiday I resisted because it seemed to celebrate war.

Not that I didn’t have respect for those who served. I did. My father served in the Navy. Each of my uncles were Army officers, my father-in-law was a lieutenant, my cousin spent his entire career in the Air Force.

Still, it wasn’t until 2012 that I developed a reverence for and realized my family’s deep military roots and faith in this country’s potential.

My father died in April 2012 at age 94. Shortly afterward, I came across his father’s enlistment record and honorable discharge papers. William H. Rhoden was a first sergeant in the 370th Infantry of the U.S. Army, one of the more than 380,000 Black soldiers who served in the Army during World War I. The Illinois-based 370th Infantry Regiment was one of a handful of African American regiments that served in World War I and was the only regiment commanded entirely by Black officers.

My grandfather first enlisted on Nov. 4, 1895. He subsequently reenlisted five times before being honorably discharged at the conclusion of the war in 1918. My recurring thought was that my grandfather and all of the other African Americans who enlisted had no reason to serve a country that did not serve them, that treated African Americans horribly. Many Black soldiers returning from the war were subjected to violence, some were lynched, all were relegated to the same Jim Crow morass that they left.

For the last two weeks, I have been collaborating on a Veterans Day video tribute with Tony Dungy and Jonathan Scott. Dungy is a Hall of Fame and Super Bowl-winning head coach and Scott is a senior at Hampton University, a Rhoden Fellow with The Undefeated and an Navy veteran.

During one conversation with Dungy, I discussed the discovery of my grandfather’s papers. Dungy said he had a similar eye-opening surprise about his father, Wilbur Dungy. Dungy’s dad received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Michigan, and his doctorate in zoology from Michigan State University.

But it wasn’t until his father’s funeral service in 2004 that Dungy learned that Wilbur Dungy had also been a member of the Tuskegee Airmen, the nation’s first Black fighter pilots.

“He never talked about being in the Airmen,” Dungy said. “And at his funeral, one of his good friends got up and gave a presentation and talked about him. He said, ‘One of the proudest moments for us was when Will Dungy was in the Tuskegee Airmen.’ And I was like, ‘What?’ ”

Suddenly his father’s admonitions began to make more sense.

Minnesota Vikings head coach Dennis Green (left) shakes hands with Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Tony Dungy (right) at Raymond James Stadium on Nov. 2, 1998.


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