My dad used to say this all the time, but it was Tony Dungy who showed me firsthand the importance of people helping one another along the way to achieving their own success. It's not so much giving back (although that's important, too) as giving someone a leg up. Success is so much more meaningful when you realize you've used it to help someone else achieve success, too.
Tony and I met when we were both playing college all-star games back in 1976. Back then, you'd play in the Hula Bowl, and then the same teams would go to the Japan Bowl. We all traveled together for two weeks, and for some reason, Tony and I just hit it off. We weren't big going-out guys, so we hung out a lot together and started talking. Tony was intriguing to me because he was a quarterback, a black quarterback, and there weren't many back then. We talked a lot about race and sports, but mainly we talked about our desires and dreams to make a life in professional football.
It's a good thing we hit it off, because I unwittingly ruined his chances to be the hero of the Japan Bowl. We played on opposite teams, and Tony was leading his team down the field in the final minutes and would have won the game, except he threw a pass at our 15-yard line that got tipped, and I ended up intercepting it, and we won. He told me afterward, 'I could have been MVP and you, my new friend, go out and intercept that pass.' He jokes that he's been mad at me ever since.
We both ended up undrafted rookie defensive backs (he knew he'd have to move positions to play at the next level), and we stayed in touch. After we finished playing, we ended up on the same staff in Kansas City. I had gotten an internship with the Chiefs in 1989 while I was coaching defensive backs at San Jose State. The internship was part of the NFL's minority intern program, and it helped create a lot of jobs for young minority coaches. I thought it was a great opportunity, so I joined the Chiefs' staff, where Tony was coaching the defensive backs. When he left in 1992 to be Dennis Green's defensive coordinator with the Vikings, I got his job with the Chiefs. And when Tony got the Tampa Bay job, I found my phone ringing and his voice on the other end of the line saying, 'Herm, I don't want to put any pressure on you, but I really need you.'
That's all I needed to hear. I knew Tony would teach me the things I needed to know to become a head coach myself; I just didn't know how much he would teach me and how much he would help me.
One of the first things he put me in charge of was the discipline. When a guy got into trouble, I was the guy who laid down the law about how guys were to conduct themselves. Tony knew it was the hardest thing to learn on your way to becoming a head coach and something I needed do firsthand. He said one of the reasons he did that for me was that Dennis Green had done it for him. Denny spent extra time with Tony just about every day helping him get ready. Tony said he wanted to pass it on to me, and there was nobody happier than Tony when I finally got my shot with the Jets.
It's something I am passing on, too, to my assistants who have head-coaching aspirations. Giving somebody a leg up isn't climbing the ladder for them. It's passing knowledge to them that they can use to get to where you are and beyond. It's seeing someone walk in the door who reminds you of you when you were just starting out.
I have a friend who is a reporter who makes a point of visiting the school newspaper at every college campus she goes to. She takes time to get to know some of the staff members and often maintains the relationship. She told me she does it because she remembers how much it meant to her when someone else did that back when she was starting out.
'I see myself in those kids' eyes,' she told me. 'They have that same eagerness, that same wide-eyed expression, and the hunger to learn everything they can about what it is I do and how I got there.'
She gives them her contact numbers and tries to guide them in the right direction. 'So many of them tell me I'm much more down-to-earth than they thought I'd be,' she said. 'It's because I treat them as equals in the profession, even though they've barely begun. I don't look down on them or tower above. I just figure out how I can help them accomplish their goals.'
Not everyone is like that. Jobs are hard to find these days. A lot of people would be threatened by the eagerness of some college kid who would give his left arm to get your job. Jealousy is rampant in any workforce. It turns rational, caring people into caricatures. They become what they never think is possible, spending their time trying to bring someone else down in the eyes of others and becoming blinded to what they, themselves, have achieved.
In 2002 Tony and I made history as the first black head coaches to face each other in the NFL playoffs. We both had believed that if we worked hard and did the right things, someone would give us the opportunity. I knew Tony was thankful for his opportunity, and I was thankful for mine. It was a step in the right direction toward what the National Football League is trying to adopt. Tony never saw helping me as a threat to the success he had found. Or, if he did, he never told me that or acted that way. And there was no reason for him to be threatened or jealous-he was already so accomplished and secure in his own abilities. Even when Tampa Bay fired him, he was confident that something else would come along. And, thankfully, it did quickly.
Before the Colts scooped him up, though, I found myself with Tony and Dennis Green, who had just left the Vikings, at a housing project in Washington, D.C., to help celebrate Martin Luther King Day. It dawned on me that I was the only one of the three of us who had a job, which made me the only black coach in the NFL at the time. It felt strange standing next to the two men who were most responsible for helping me get ready for the Jets job. It wasn't long after, though, that Indianapolis hired Tony and Denny became the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals. Good things come around to people who help one another.
I have another friend who related to me a story with a similar message. It seems that some time ago, she showed great kindness to a man who was working on a project on which she had done extensive research. She had never met the man, but when he called, she opened up her files to him and brainstormed with him for weeks about how he could go about developing his project. She didn't hear from him again for 10 years, and when she saw him, she couldn't quite place him.
'He looked familiar, but I didn't remember how I knew him,' she said.
But he did. And he then introduced himself as her new boss and gave her an immediate promotion.