By: Matthew Postins
This story originally appeared in Dallas Cowboys Star Magazine. For subscription information, please click here.
Patricia Jones says that her son,
In the family’s native New Orleans, that meant a standout career at a local high school, followed by a short drive west on I-10 around Lake Pontchartrain to Baton Rouge to play for LSU, and finally, hopefully, a contract with the New Orleans Saints.
That’s the dream anyway, but few young men are talented enough or lucky enough to make it happen.
Dunbar’s path to the NFL did take him through his local college and his local NFL team. But it was the University of North Texas and the Dallas Cowboys, not LSU and the Saints.
You see, New Orleans isn’t home to Dunbar anymore. It hasn’t been since Hurricane Katrina.
“When I was in New Orleans I was actually a starting safety and a running back,” Dunbar says. “So there’s no telling what position I would have played, what college I would have gone to, or where I would have ended up. Coming to Texas, it felt like I got a new start. I went to play at Haltom (High School) and ended up playing offense the whole time.”
Even seven years later, the mention of “Hurricane Katrina” resonates mightily with those who lived through it. The violent storm swept through the Bayou and by the time the disaster was over, the levees were broken, more than 1,000 people had died and thousands more hade fled, never to return.
“I go back to New Orleans for holidays and I have a good time,” Dunbar says. “It’s kind of how it used to be now. But I don’t like staying there more than a week. I feel like I get bored. It doesn’t seem like it’s home to me anymore. I’ve moved away for so long, most of my friends that were there have grown up and gone away.”
Opening day of football season was less than a week away when it became apparent Hurricane Katrina would hit New Orleans in August 2005. Dunbar had just played in his Jamboree game for De La Salle, the equivalent of a preseason scrimmage. De La Salle was one of the best prep schools in the city, a private school that excelled both academically and athletically. Dunbar was good enough to play varsity athletics in the eighth grade and had already put in two years on both the varsity football and basketball teams. He entered the 2005 season as a starting safety and a backup running back.
There is little doubt in Jones’ mind that had the family stayed in New Orleans, Dunbar would have found his way to a Division I school and, perhaps, the NFL.
By the Saturday before landfall, Jones knew it was time to get out of New Orleans. She packed up what she could and took the entire family to a Red Cross shelter in Hazelhurst, Miss., about two hours from New Orleans. The shelter was the family’s home for the next two weeks. From there, Jones and her family watched Katrina come and go, and watched the levees hold, then break. Because Jones heeded the warnings, her family didn’t have to live through the hell that became New Orleans in the days after Katrina. But she faced the same decision as others in the wake of the storm.
Where do we go now?
New Orleans had been home. De La Salle was a great school for a gifted athlete and smart kid like Dunbar. Plus, Jones admits, their home didn’t suffer as much damage as others in New Orleans. The family could have returned, but watching her city descend into lawlessness and despair was too much. She said she never really entertained the thought of taking her family back.
“New Orleans was pretty crazy after the storm,” Dunbar says. “There was too much happening. Everyone came to one side (of the city), the side that wasn’t flooded. It kind of got out of hand and mama didn’t want us around that environment.”
The storm provided a unique opportunity to start over. Jones could have moved the family anywhere. One day she received a phone call from one of Lance’s former youth coaches (J.R. Sheppard) in New Orleans, who was now living in Haltom City, a suburb northeast of Fort Worth. He encouraged her to move the family there.
Jones worked in a hospital system and was able to transfer from New Orleans to North Hills Hospital in North Richland Hills. So, sight unseen, Jones moved her family and some friends – 13 in all – to Haltom City that fall. Jones’ friend set up a hotel for the family near the school so Lance and his siblings could start school as soon as possible.
It didn’t take long for the family to make its final decision on where to stay.
“The kids really wanted to stay in Texas,” Jones says. “Once the kids started at Haltom, they loved it. They actually asked if we could stay. So that was really all I needed to hear.”
The hotel was a temporary residence. When the family did find its first permanent residence, its location was of little surprise to anyone who knows Lance. It was right behind Haltom High School’s practice field.
Home in Haltom City
Clayton George found himself in a unique position to relate to Dunbar when he arrived as Haltom’s head coach in the spring of 2006.
George had just spent a couple of years as the head football coach at Dallas Hillcrest, his first head-coaching job after leaving Southlake Carroll. Hillcrest became a hub for families displaced by Hurricane Katrina. He coached several players from New Orleans and heard their stories about the storm and the tragedy that came afterward.
“I still can’t imagine what they went through and what they saw,” George says. “I had heard those things before I met Lance. I kind of knew where he was coming from.”
George inherited a player with unique talent as both a rusher and a receiver. Dunbar joined Haltom midway through the 2005 season and gained 640 yards and scored four touchdowns. In his one season at Haltom, George says he did everything possible to put the ball in Dunbar’s hands. That translated into 1,100 yards rushing and 14 touchdowns, along with 750 yards receiving and two more scores in 2006.
George spent just one year at Haltom because, shortly after the end of the 2006 high school football season, he accepted a job as the wide receivers coach at the University of North Texas offered by his former Southlake boss, Todd Dodge.
But in less than 12 months, Dunbar and George had connected on a personal level. George got to know not just Dunbar but Jones and the rest of Dunbar’s extended family. George and Dunbar still talk regularly and the family invited George to their home on the final day of the NFL Draft. George was there to watch the dream come together for the player he calls his “favorite” of any player he’s coached.
Their relationship extends beyond Dunbar’s obvious talent.
“Lance is quiet and humble,” George says. “He’ll open up, but he’s reserved and quiet. He’s that way but he has a great sense of humor. He’s someone that was raised well. His character and integrity are tremendous. I sound so cliché talking about him.”
When George left for UNT, he told Dunbar he would come back for him. Dunbar finished off his career at Haltom in 2007 with a 1,200-yard season. Oklahoma State wanted him. Colorado wanted him. So did Virginia.
But Dunbar chose North Texas.
“Initially, I was going to go to Oklahoma State,” Dunbar says. “(But) I also wanted to play as a freshman. I didn’t want to sit out. I’ve always felt if you’re good enough you can make it anywhere.”
So Dunbar signed with UNT, a decision that admittedly made Jones happy. She and her husband went to every game. So did Lance’s father, Lance Dunbar Sr. Denton, Texas is a heck of a lot closer to Haltom than Stillwater, Okla. And it was proof that Texas was now home. The test? The day he signed with UNT, guess who called the Mean Green’s newest recruit?
“LSU was definitely the school I wanted to go to when I was down there,” Dunbar says. “They were one of my favorite schools growing up. I was a big LSU fan, but that all switched after I went to North Texas.”
Dunbar wanted to play right away, and he did. When he received his first start for the Mean Green, he torched Louisiana-Lafayette for 224 yards and four touchdowns.
By the time he ended his UNT career, he had torn up the Mean Green record book, which was once the sole property of Patrick Cobbs. Dunbar finished with 4,224 yards, making him the program’s all-time leading rusher. Additionally, he is now UNT’s all-time leader in touchdowns (49), all-purpose yards (5,375), 100-yard rushing games (21), points (294) and rushing touchdowns (41). He was also the only Mean Green runner to have three straight 1,000-yard seasons and became just the sixth back in FBS history to compile 4,000 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards for a career. He earned All-Sun Belt first-team honors twice and Sports Illustrated named him honorable mention All-America twice.
He ended his tenure in Denton with a crescendo. He rushed for 313 yards against Middle Tennessee in a game played in a cold, driving rain for most of the contest. That night he broke Cobbs’ career rushing mark with Cobbs in attendance.
But that wasn’t enough to entice NFL teams to draft Dunbar in April. Had one done so, he would have become just the second Mean Green player to be drafted in the last 16 years.
But had one done so, he might not have ended up in Dallas.
Dunbar did not earn an invite to the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis in February, so his one opportunity to impress NFL scouts came in March at the Mean Green’s pro day at Apogee Stadium. The Cowboys were among the teams in attendance, as was current UNT coach Dan McCarney.
“He did a great job,” McCarney says. “He opened some eyes that day that he does have quality speed and quickness and hands.”
George heard about it later from a friend, Cowboys offensive assistant Keith O’Quinn.
“He told me before Lance was picked up how well Lance stood out and how (Cowboys running backs coach) Skip (Peete) liked him,” George says. “It wasn’t that much of a surprise to me when Dallas called him. He did well in front of them.”
Draft day was quite the party at the Dunbar house, even though there was no guarantee Dunbar would be drafted. George says the house was packed with more than 60 relatives and friends, some from Haltom and others from New Orleans. Late in the draft, Dunbar received a call from the Cowboys letting him know they were interested in signing him as a free agent, if no one drafted him.
“By the time the draft ended the process was already rolling,” George says.
So does Dunbar have the goods to stick with the Cowboys? Well, George believes that if anyone can overcome the long odds that face any undrafted free agent, it’s Dunbar, who says he loves competition. McCarney compares Dunbar to a player he coached while an assistant at Iowa, Ronnie Harmon. Harmon carved out a 12-year NFL career in which he gained nearly 9,000 yards. McCarney says Dunbar has similar strength, hands and versatility.
The Cowboys are intrigued. Peete likes Dunbar’s pass receiving skills, decision-making and quick adjustment to learning NFL schemes. Dunbar spent plenty of time with the second team offense in the ramp-up to training camp.
The man Dunbar replaced in the Mean Green record book, Cobbs, was an undrafted free agent coming out of college. Before spending 2011 on New Orleans’ injured reserve list, he played five seasons as a backup running back and special teams star for several teams, including Miami, where he served as a captain in 2010.
What lies ahead for Dunbar? We’ll just have to wait and see. But his circuitous path in life and to the NFL has proven he can overcome just about anything.
“Thank God for the opportunity to be here in Texas, a football state,” Jones says. “I think it was an act of God that placed us here because we could have gone back home.”