In the NFL, an All-Pro selection is one of the top honors a player can receive, more exclusive even than a Pro Bowl invitation. Each year, only 27 players out of roughly 1,600 in the league are named to the All-Pro team.
In contrast, millions of men can aspire for and achieve all-pro status as fathers, though it still takes dedication. And the potential rewards of being an All-Pro Dad can surpass anything a man can achieve on the gridiron.
A fatherhood program launched in 1997 by Mark Merrill and Tony Dungy of Family First, All-Pro Dad seeks to provide resources, ideas and encouragement to men who wish to become better fathers. Dungy was in his second year as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Head Coach at the time; the following season, his Buccaneers would move into their gleaming new home, Raymond James Stadium.
This past Saturday, that same stadium served as the home for a much-anticipated All-Pro Dad event called the Father & Kids Experience. Similar events have taken place at team stadiums or headquarters in 20 other NFL, MLB and NCAA cities, and Family First hopes to soon expand to all 32 NFL locations. As Family First's own headquarters are located in Tampa, the event at Raymond James Stadium has become an annual occurrence.
This year, it attracted close to 2,000 fathers and kids, all of whom had the opportunity to play on the stadium field and hear from Dungy and other respected speakers. This year, the former Tampa Bay coach was joined by the Buccaneers' current on-field leader, Greg Schiano, as well as the team's general manager, Mark Dominik, and players
"It's important for us as an organization to support a cause that we really believe in," said Dominik. "That's something that we see a lot [as player evaluators], the importance that a dad brings to a family, to the stability of a home. It's important for a child to have a father figure, someone to look up to, someone to learn from. This event is about doing that, and continuing to grow. I still grow every day.
"This event continues to grow, too, and it means a lot to a lot of people. I'm really proud of the Tampa Bay community for believing and understanding how important it is to be an All Pro Dad."
Having just arrived in January as the Bucs' new head coach, Schiano was thrilled that the move to the NFL and the Bay area will give him an opportunity to become involved in the All Pro Dad initiative, both this past weekend and moving forward. Like Dungy, Schiano knows that his chosen profession creates challenges in regard to serving his family, as do the occupations of many other men.
"It's important, and it's hard," he said. "In the profession that I'm in, you're away from your family a lot. So this is great for me to evaluate myself, make sure I'm doing the best job that I can as a dad. Hopefully it serves a lot of other families as well. This is a great, great cause and an opportunity for fathers and their kids to get together.
"I really believe it's one of the most important things, if not the most important thing that we have in our society, the role of the father. We can look around and see how delinquent we are as men in leading our families, and hopefully events like this can get us straightened out a little bit."
Dungy, in fact, has long stressed the central idea of the All Pro Dad initiative, and that is the critical importance of simply spending quality and quantity time with your children. That was possible for all the attendees at Saturday's event, as from 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. they were able to rotate to different interactive stations on the Raymond James Stadium field, participating in activities that promoted bonding between fathers and their children.
"Being an All Pro Dad means to take the time and the opportunity to really spend some quality time with your children, boys and girls," said Dominik, who watched in delight as his five-year-old son, Davis, enjoyed the activities on the field. "Take the time to teach them how to be a young man or a young lady, how to grow up. Really, it's more about the actual time you spend with them, giving them what they need."
Schiano, who has four children, brought twins John and Matt while their older brother, Joey, was off at his own football practice. The Schiano family makes an effort to spend time together, taking in part in such favorite activities as going to the shore to play beach football. Those are treasured times for Schiano and his children.
"It's critical in both your daughters' and your sons' lives – the role of the father is critical," he said. "They grow up and regardless of how much they act like they don't want your praise and your acceptance, they crave it and they need it. They need the discipline as well that a father can provide. I do think it's critical in the development of young ladies and young men."
Dominik and Schiano joined Dungy at Saturday's event as messengers, helping to spread the All Pro Dad message. But they also joined Dungy as dads, hoping to continue their own growth as pillars for their families.
"This day to me is about family, and reflecting on what I'm doing as a dad," said Dominik. "How can I become a better father, a better husband?"