INDIANAPOLIS - Tony Dungy is ready to get back to football. After spending a week mourning the death of his 18-year-old son, James, Dungy's surprise arrival Thursday at the Indianapolis Colts' practice complex triggered a swell of emotions.
"I wanted to get back as soon as possible, but I also wanted to make sure my wife and kids were OK," Dungy said after running his first practice since the tragedy.
"We talked about it and we decided it was the right time," he said. "If you're going to have faith, you have to live by it."
For the Colts and the Dungy family, it has been a draining week in which football was overshadowed by life and death.
Dungy left the team Dec. 22 after his oldest son was found unresponsive in his Tampa-area apartment. A preliminary autopsy ruled the death an apparent suicide.
Team president Bill Polian and team owner Jim Irsay urged Dungy to stay with his family for as long as he needed while assistant head coach Jim Caldwell filled in. On Tuesday about 200 Colts players, coaches and team officials flew to Tampa for James Dungy's funeral, the team's first meeting with their coach since the tragedy.
Before Wednesday's practice, most players said they were still uncertain when Dungy would return.
On Thursday, he was back.
Dungy says he thinks the team will be ready despite his absence.
"I think it uplifts everybody's spirits," defensive tackle Larry Tripplett said. "It's a tough situation, what he's having to deal with. But however long it took him to get the grieving process going, it was up to him. If something like that happened to me, I don't know what I would have done."
Few thought Dungy would return so soon. The Colts (13-2) have lost two straight but have little to play for this week after locking up the AFC South title, a first-round playoff bye and home-field advantage through the playoffs.
But after a trip to the Tampa zoo and a family meeting, Dungy decided it was time to start working again. Dungy and his other teenage son, Eric, departed for Indy on Wednesday night.
Dungy also ran Thursday's team meetings and said he intends to coach Sunday's regular-season finale against Arizona.
"It's really been good, it's so much like a family because you're around these guys so much," Dungy said of his team. "My wife told them `I don't want you to feel bad around us, if you want to talk about James, I think that would be helpful.'"
The impact of Dungy's return was noticeable instantly.
A locker room that was in near silence one week earlier was reinvigorated. At practice, the Colts had an extra bounce in their step. Afterward, Polian and Dungy found something to laugh about in their post-practice meeting.
And Polian thought football would help Dungy heal, too.
"I think it will be good for him," Polian said. "I'm certainly no psychologist, but I think that being around people who care about you and who you care about has to have some positive effect."
In the training room, players received hugs from their coach. At breakfast, players said they were shocked to hear the sound of Dungy's voice. And then Caldwell hastily called a team meeting. Dungy spoke briefly about how much he appreciated their support. He later thanked the public for its support.
Dungy spent much of the day catching up on football.
He acknowledged a handful of regular starters would sit out this week, and even said he had to slow down the Colts' regular routine because he wasn't as familiar with Arizona's schemes as the players or assistant coaches who had been working on the game plan since Monday.
But there was no sign of weariness on Dungy's face - or in his actions.
"It's been a tough couple of days and it's been tough being away," he said. "But it's been made easier by all the support everyone has shown for me and my family and I want to thank them for that."
Before leaving, Dungy reiterated the message he gave during a 25-minute eulogy Tuesday, asking players to meet their responsibility of being role models and urging parents to hug their children at every opportunity.
Then, Dungy tried to find some solace in the work that will carry some painful reminders of his deceased son, who frequently spent game days on the sideline.
"The game, I think, from talking to people who have gone through this kind of thing before, will be easy but I've never gone through this path," he said. "For me, I have some very good memories that bring hurt. When you do things that were very special and joyful, that's hard. But every day gets a little easier."