Conor Orr: Jets D-line coach Karl Dunbar once sacked criminals as a cop
Jets D-line coach Karl Dunbar once sacked criminals as a cop
More than 20 police officers showed up at Karl Dunbar’s summer wedding in Louisiana in 1991, but not because he was the favorite son in his hometown of Opelousas.
A hit had been taken out on his life — ordered by a drug dealer who had landed in prison because of Dunbar’s work on an undercover narcotics unit. Then a rookie defensive tackle for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Dunbar had joined the local police force to keep his adrenaline spiked during a dull winter and spring.
At the time, crack cocaine and other illegal drugs were in feverish demand in Opelousas, according to current Police Chief Perry Gallow. Not even Dunbar, the local football star who had gone on to play at LSU and then was drafted into the NFL, was thought to be above its grip.
The routine was simple. He would approach the dealer and tell them he had some teammates coming down to visit. They all wanted to smoke and drink, and he needed some product.
“They thought that football players were guys who smoked a lot of drugs and had a lot of money,” Dunbar, now the Jets defensive line coach, said in between meetings last week. “I gave him the money, and I took the stuff. He bought into the whole thing.”
His friends on the force will always remember how cool he was during those moments, and how smooth the transactions came despite the fact that Dunbar was hiding a secret that could get him killed. He became a full-time officer after his NFL career ended in 1995 but is thankful those days are over.
However, he knows that there’s something valuable about what he learned during that time: responsibility to your brother, the value of a well-coordinated plan, and the importance of staying agile. He knows that it translated to his next career as a football coach.
As he returns to Pittsburgh tomorrow, the place where he was drafted and lived in a momentary sanctuary from the death threat, Dunbar travels with a group of young defensive linemen whom the Jets hope will grow under his guidance. None of them knew that their coach once had been a linchpin in an anti-drug strike-force operation, but they are all sure they’ve never had a teacher like Dunbar before.
“To me, when you go through a situation in your head and the things you’ve been through in your mind come to fruition, why should you be nervous?” Dunbar said. “You’ve already been there.”
THE IMPORTANCE OF AGILITY
Dunbar stuck out in the Opelousas Police Department for a few reasons, but mostly because he was 6-foot-4, 275 pounds and had better closing speed than anyone else in the department.
When he joined full time in 1995 after playing for three NFL teams and spending two seasons in Europe, he became part of a strike force that the dealers referred to as “the jump-out boys,” police officers who would hide in garbage trucks and street sweepers before popping out and swarming unsuspecting offenders.
Gallow, who was a part of a few missions with Dunbar, remembers one in particular. The dealer was much smaller — the size of a running back — and as he bolted away from the officers toward Ina Claire Drive, Dunbar went chasing — a Kodiak bear with a badge and a handgun charging down the street.
“I think the guy was as amazed as we were that he was caught by Karl,” Gallow said. “We gave the criminal a hard time for that. We said, ‘This guy is 6-4 almost 300 pounds and you’ll let this guy catch you?’ ”
Dunbar always teaches his linemen to be quicker than their opponents, too. He mentored rookies Tommie Harris and Tank Johnson as the Chicago Bears’ defensive line coach in 2004, then moved to LSU for a year and helped build the nation’s seventh-stingiest rush defense. Dunbar returned to the NFL in 2006 and found a home — and tremendous success — with the Minnesota Vikings. Minnesota ranked first against the run for three consecutive seasons (2006-08) and was never lower than 11th during his six-year tenure, and last year the Vikings led the NFL with 50 sacks.
This past offseason, when Rex Ryan was searching for a new defensive line coach, Dunbar came to mind. Ryan, who had coached Dunbar during his final NFL season with the Arizona Cardinals, was particularly blown away by the sack totals and rankings against the rush that the Vikings had posted under Dunbar. Moreover, Dunbar seemed to understand Ryan’s and coordinator Mike Pettine’s core beliefs about defense better than anyone.
“The (Vikings) didn’t load up to defend the run, yet they were always among the league leaders in defending the run, which was an impressive thing,” Pettine said. “He’s always had sack production, but it never came at the expense of defending the run.”
THE ADVANTAGE OF ANTICIPATION
The “jump-out boys” were a success, Gallow said, because of the planning.
Before setting their sights on a corner dealer, every possible scenario was mapped out and accounted for; each escape route was blocked. Some missions were better with an officer on a bicycle; others more likely to succeed with reserves hiding in a nearby Dumpster.
“Once we would recon the area, we would use it against them,” Gallow said. “We came from the areas they were going to run.”
Similarly, Dunbar uses defensive line meetings to show his players an unending string of blocks and protections offensive linemen might try.
The goal is to lock down every contingency. No matter how an offense shifts or shows protections, there is always a way to turn, jab, rush or twist that will negate the scheme and give them an opportunity to disrupt the play.
“When you’re stuck in a position during a game and you see a specific block, you already know how to react to it,” defensive lineman Marcus Dixon said. “It’s like muscle memory: We do it so much during drills, when we do it on the field, you don’t have to think about it. It just happens.”
THE VALUE OF BROTHERHOOD
One of Dunbar’s police responsibilities was the “safety” during missions when officers would kick down the doors in a drug dealer’s home and begin a search for narcotics.
Dunbar’s job was to secure the perimeter, making sure no one would step foot in the house to harm the police and interrupt the hunt.
They were his brothers inside, his friends and mentors, and he would do anything he could to protect them.
“It’s the same thing as a coach; you’re in the people business,” Dunbar said. “You gotta bring people together and make them a family. We’re only as strong as our weakest link.”
Damon Harrison has heard Dunbar preach those family values each week. The defensive linemen play video games together, watch film together and grab tables every week at Ruth’s Chris. Ask any of them about the details, though, and they will stonewall so as to not break their bond.
“There’s just these little things he does,” Harrison said. “I could tell you what it is, but it’s a sacred thing between us. It’s brotherhood. If you feel like you’re related to them, you can trust that guy. You have no problem on Sunday having their backs.”
After a shootout in Opelousas back in 1996, Dunbar’s wife, Pamela, demanded he leave the police department. Dunbar wasn’t within the range of any bullets, but privately, she worried what might happen next. Coupled with the wedding — the hit a very real threat that created constant fear — it all became too much.
Perhaps it was a fateful move. It was one that prompted him to begin coaching at the local high school later that year.
Perhaps she knew there were lessons Karl had learned that he needed to share.