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Dungy remembered as loyal friend and generous mentor

In addition to being loved by friends in Tampa and Indianapolis, James Dungy was active in several community service organizations and was said to have had a promising future by his teachers.+

Published December 22, 2005

TAMPA - He was Tony Dungy's son, but 18-year-old James Dungy stood out on his own, delighting friends with jokes and antics.

There he was, 6-foot-7, doing Usher's complicated hip hop moves in the middle of American history class at Gaither High School.

"Since he's so tall and so big it was hilarious to see him do it," said longtime friend Quintyn Eldridge, 18.

On Thursday, those who knew Dungy awoke to morning phone calls and news reports that he had apparently taken his own life. Through tears, they shared memories of their fun-loving teammate and friend.

Eldridge met Dungy in the seventh grade at Buchanan Middle School.

"He was the tallest kid I ever knew," Eldridge said. "That's how we started talking."

The two kept in touch, despite being separated in high school. Dungy studied at Tampa Catholic for two years and joined Eldridge at Gaither, where both played football. Dungy, a defensive end, wasn't the strongest athlete on the team, but he learned quickly and played with enthusiasm. School officials said he was a starting player for six out of 10 games.

He was just like anyone else on the squad, coach Mark Kantor said.

The teen didn't try to use his father's status and didn't appear to be suffering under the spotlight, Kantor and others said.

"He was proud to be Tony Dungy's son," Kantor said.

Being a Dungy meant fielding requests for signed jerseys and hats, but he went along with it all.

"If you asked him for something, he'd never say no," Eldridge said. "I figured he had so much, he was always willing to give it away."

Dungy worked as a bag boy at a Publix in Lutz after school. Once, he saw a man snatch a female customer's purse. He ran after the robber and tackled him.

"He was so happy about it," Eldridge said. "Me and my mom went to Publix that night and he was telling everybody about it."

In class, Dungy liked to mimic comedian Dave Chapelle.

At night, he'd party with high school teammates. Nothing too crazy, Ovie Esalomi, 18, said. They'd just go for a spin in Dungy's Durango or his mother's new Mercedes.

Dungy stood up for his beliefs, Eldridge said. He was passionate about his African-American heritage. Stories of Malcolm X and the Black Panthers fascinated him.

Kantor said Dungy did not want to leave Gaither after one year, but he did so to be closer to his father.

Dungy graduated from North Central High School in Indianapolis in the spring.

According to the Indianapolis Star, he recently went to the school to pick up his transcripts.

"He sounded excited, upbeat," North Central principal C.E. Quandt told the Star.

"It appeared to me he had a plan."

Dungy returned to Tampa to work toward an associate's degree in criminal justice technology at Hillsborough Community College. HCC spokesman John Huerta said he wasn't sure whether Dungy had begun classes.

After his return, he would drop by Gaither to watch football games with friends. "I wish there were 52 of him around," Kantor said. "Mom and Dad raised him right."

Dungy sought out Kantor at Gaither a couple of weeks ago and gave him a hug. The two chatted for about 40 minutes.

"He said he was getting a new job," Kantor said. "Everything seemed to be going fantastic."

Recently, Dungy had begun dating 18-year-old Antoinette Anderson. He had good things to say about her to his friend Eldridge.

"He said he liked her a lot," Eldridge said. "He was only going out with her for a few months. He hung out with her a lot, and he said she was a really cool girl and I should meet her."

Eldridge, like many teens, kept in touch with Dungy through messages on, an online web site where users post pictures, biographies and commentary for friends. Dungy signed on the day before he died.

In his photo, a bandana covers half his face. The web page contains pictures of marijuana leaves, guns, sexual graphics, gang signs and money. It is full of teen bravado.

A headline beside his photo blares "F--- the Police," a reference to a controversial 1988 hip-hop song by N.W.A. In Dungy's bio, he writes "Don't let my playful and comical attitude fool ya cause I'm not playin." The web site was taken down Thursday afternoon.

Eldridge said the profile doesn't do his friend justice.

"He's not the type of person to run with gangs or do stuff like that," Eldridge said. "It's just a front. People who knew him knew how great of a guy he was."

On Wednesday afternoon, Dungy spoke to 17-year-old Jamie Gonzalez, whom he met and dated for about a month while at Tampa Catholic in his sophomore year. There, he and his freshman girlfriend would hold hands in the halls. But when Dungy moved to Indianapolis, they lost touch.

Two weeks ago, he left a note on Gonzalez's MySpace page, telling her he was back in town and wanted to catch up. After trading comments for a while, he posted a message early Wednesday afternoon. It said: "can't talk to nobody n e (any) more."

The cryptic message puzzled Gonzalez, but when she contacted him, he seemed fine.

"He was talking like everything is normal," she said.

He also apologized for "everything," she said. Dungy had stopped talking to her when he moved to Indianapolis. He wanted her to know he was sorry for that. They made tentative plans to hang out.

On Wednesday night, Melisa Winning, 18, spoke to Dungy. She said he had a crush on her at Gaither. She remembered how he used to make her laugh.

With all the messages, all the plans, friends didn't see it coming.

Not the jolt of losing Dungy.

Not this way.

"Everything seemed fine," Winning said.

Dungy posted casual messages for several friends Wednesday. He invited one to a party he planned for Jan. 6, which he called "my day."

It was his birthday.

Staff writers Melanie Ave and Kevin Graham contributed to this report.

[Last modified December 22, 2005, 21:50:05]

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