TCU lineman defied the odds, worked his way back from academic exile

Most of the time, a coach will never see the kid again.

When players such as TCU offensive lineman James Dunbar leave the program for academic reasons, as he did before the 2012 season, coach Gary Patterson usually thinks they’re gone for good.

Typically, the student-athlete is in such a struggle to get his young life together that it takes more than a semester or two before he gets a handle academically. By then, it’s often too late for athletics or he’s lost interest and moved on.

For Dunbar, even at his darkest hour when he was forced to leave TCU after becoming academically ineligible, he knew he wanted to make it back to the team he loved.

The fact that he is playing, let alone has started all six games for TCU (3-3, 1-2 in the Big 12) in 2013, is a blessing. And truth be told, it has been a blessing for the Horned Frogs, too, who are dealing with a thin offensive line.

Dunbar, who will start for the fourth consecutive game at left tackle Saturday against No. 21 Oklahoma State (4-1, 1-1), was a rising star a few years ago. But academic issues prevented him from playing early in 2011. Every time he thought he had solved his academic issues, the same struggles — and the same immaturity — would derail his athletic career again.

When he went back home to New Boston in 2012, he wasn’t sure if he’d ever wear the purple and white again.

“That particular thing was hard for me,” said Dunbar, a senior who attended Maud High School, in a tiny town 13 miles southwest of Texarkana. “I was out in East Texas just doing my own thing. I didn’t know if I’d come back to TCU.”

Dunbar was an all-around athlete in high school, also lettering in basketball and track and field. He was a first-team all-district running back and defensive end and appeared to be one of those diamonds in the rough for TCU when he redshirted as a freshman in 2009.

He played in all 13 games in 2010, including the Rose Bowl. But before the 2011 opener at Baylor, academic issues kept him off the field for the first half of the season. He eventually played in five of the Frogs’ last seven games that season.

“You try to tell them, and you try to tell them, and you try to tell them,” Patterson said, expressing the exasperation coaches feel when they see a talented athlete learn the hard way, “but some guys have to hit rock bottom before they realize what they’re missing. It’s been that way forever. Some people don’t care, and they just move on.”

But Dunbar regrouped and enrolled in an online class last fall. He touched base a few times with Patterson, who told him “what I needed to do and what I needed to show him to come back.” He kept himself in shape by staying on a strict workout regimen each week.

He re-enrolled at his own expense in January at a cost of approximately $21,000, because no scholarships were available and because he needed to prove to his coaches that he had his act together.

“I needed it,” he said. “I learned accountability. You have to be accountable to yourself and you have to hold other people accountable. It was a maturation period for sure. I’m blessed to be in the position I am today. I’m just glad to be back.”

Dunbar said he went through spring practice with a walk-on player’s attitude, trying to prove he was back and fully engaged. “I just tried to keep showing him. Enough of the talk. Actions speak louder than words.”

Dunbar finally earned a scholarship in August after pushing left tackle Aviante Collins during camp.

“We couldn’t get him back on scholarship until the next calendar year, not knowing or thinking he was going to do what he did,” Patterson said. “Ninety-nine percent of the time once that happens, they never come back. I think he realized this was the best route. There’s just the one out of 10 cases you’re glad you saved him.”

Dunbar is on track to graduate in May. By then, he could see another dream come true if he’s selected in April’s NFL Draft. Patterson says teams like his size (6-foot-6, 320 pounds) and speed.

“There’s a lot of them looking at him,” he said. “He was a fullback in high school. They like all that stuff.”

For now, Dunbar is just enjoying his final six or seven games at TCU.

“I’m just glad to be here. I’m embracing it all. I don’t take anything for granted,” he said. “I’m just blessed at the opportunity that was given to me to come back and to play for Coach P and Coach [Eddie] Williamson and the whole coaching staff. It’s a humbling experience.”

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