Originally created 09/03/04

Robert Dunn gets another chance on, off field



Laney High school senior Robert Dunn appeared in the Aug. 20 edition of The Augusta Chronicle as one of the Dream 16 football players of the area. The name Robert Willie Dunn appeared in The Chronicle's Metro section that day. Richmond County sheriff's deputies arrested a man they said burglarized the Goody Two Shoes store in mid-June who was also part of a theft at CompUSA.

Same kid. Great day. Worst day. All captured in print.

Dunn made the Dream 16 because of a three-year track record of big play after big play.

"Robert just always seems to be in the right place at the right time for us," Laney quarterback Dominique Walker said after a season-opening win at Butler.

It's hard to shield the irony.

Dunn set the wrong sort of record this summer. He had a prior charge from a June case and pleaded out in a pre-trial motion under first offender status. He was detained for discharging a firearm in a McDonald's drive-thru.

"None of this sounds like the Robert we all knew," Laney coach Eric Parker said. "It was like this young man completely lost his mind over the summer."

Dunn was questioned at school on Aug. 17 in connection to another shoplifting investigation. The 18-year-old receiver was implicated in that case.

He spent the night in jail and was released on Thursday, Aug. 19. He went to school Friday and played a crucial role that night against Butler. He scored the game-tying touchdown in the final minutes despite little sleep or food to draw upon.

"It really made me look at my life and think," Dunn said. "One night I am incarcerated. The next night I score the game-winning touchdown. That week will make me think twice about everything I will do for the rest of my life."

The rules

A Richmond County student can get out of incarceration and play football.

Rule 32 of the county's Code of Student Conduct describes policy to remove a student from school after a serious violation of the law only when necessary to protect other students. It targets sex offenders or those dealing narcotics.

Richmond County School Board President Jeff Padgett underscores the need for "due process to take place when it comes to the student in question."

Some feel athletics are not part of due process.

"It makes you wonder where our priorities are," Richmond County School Board member Kenneth Echols said. "It seems we might be more concerned with winning games than raising our young men to do the right thing. I'm not saying that happened here. I just have some concerns with this. I can't really condone it."

Several questions are raised by Dunn's ordeal, such as: How is Dunn in jail one day and on the field the next? What are the priorities of the Laney team?

Those questions kept Parker up well into the night that week.

"There's the argument whether Robert was directly involved or not," Parker said. "But according to the law he is just as guilty as anyone else if he was a part of it."

Dunn admmited it was a poor choice. A friend offered him $20 if he'd pick him up late one night at the movies. That friend had stolen goods. It lead to a terrible mark on his record.

The call

Dunn will play with a tracking collar on his ankle. He is not the first Richmond County football player to wear one. Nor is he the only player on the Laney team with a record.

"I don't think people realize when you sign your name on the dotted line as a coach, a teacher or an administrator at Laney there's a lot of small print not even on the contract," Parker said.

A Laney educator, more than most, assumes a role in character development. A football coach has a deeper commitment. Parker's perspective is that he has 50 sons.

This was a son that had zero strikes with Parker across three seasons on the Laney team.

"I viewed this as one of my own blood making a mistake," Parker said. "If one of my own makes a mistake, do I turn my back?"

Ultimately, it came down to what was in the best interests of Dunn.

"The judge basically decided that Robert needed to be in school and gave us all the charge of making sure he was involved in everything positive that we could put him in," Parker said.

Coaches in Aiken, Columbia and Richmond counties were asked how they'd handle this case. Randy Hill at Lakeside would remove that player from his team. The Panthers have a code of conduct for all athletes. But Hill understood what fits for Lakeside might not work at Laney.

"I don't know Coach's Parker locker room or his ties to his players," Hill said. "I only know Coach Parker is going to do what's best for those young men and not just his won-loss record."

Jamie Echols at Richmond Academy wondered if he could have kept Dunn on his team. But he feared the consequences.

"Football is the greatest sport because of the lessons learned from it," Echols said. "The only way we can positively impact those who need it is to be around them. You can't teach right and wrong to a kid you cut loose."

Washington County coach Rick Tomberlin had another point.

"Guess what happens with almost every young man we declare ineligible from extra-curricular activity," Tomberlin said. "They go further down in their spiral. Now, that charge is more serious than grades and if it's drugs or violent crime that's different. But it's a tough call to take something positive from a kid in trouble. Things rarely get better."

Parker wonders if this gives his program a "black eye." But Richmond Academy coach Jamie Echols feels the short-term is no way to judge this call.

"I wonder what those who are criticizing this would say if it works," he said. "What if he rights his life, gets to college and becomes a model citizen? How can anybody criticize this then?

The life

Dunn was raised by a single mother, Sherryl, in the absence of a father figure. She did not return several phone messages at her home seeking comment.

He grew up in inner city Augusta surrounded by terrible influences. Laney's locker room might have been a better place to rest his head at night. He knows the drug dealers around his neighborhood but never touched their products.

The only alcohol he has tasted is two wine coolers at a birthday party. Dunn said he has seen no need since for alcohol in his life.

"The conditions I live in are no excuse," Dunn said. "You can grow up living in a trash can and do the right things. Or you can make bad decisions living in a castle.

"Right is right. Wrong is wrong. I made bad decisions and ran with the wrong crowd. I now have to face the consequences of that."

Dunn reeled off four roofs he's lived under of late. He's come closer to living on the streets than he's ever likely to admit.

"I felt like I was alone," Dunn said. "I was just out there."

Portions of the above fits the profile of a young man with a rap sheet. A two-minute conversation with Dunn does not. It is a contrast of equal parts sadness and hope.

Dunn wrote a scary story in a literature class that earned a 110 percent grade. It took less than 15 minutes. The events described might make Stephen King's cut list.

"I hope Robert can get himself through this," Parker said. "The boy has too much potential to let this consume him to the point where he fails."

Dunn has had the same girlfriend for the last four years. His latest progress report carried all A's and one B.

"I'd like to get into writing one day or making maybe try to become an attorney," Dunn said. "Everybody says I'm good at arguing. I just want to still have the chance to do that."

A local self-made businessman named Clinton Brown also wants that for Dunn.

He has a history of working with young men of promise of this area. Current NFL products Kendrell Bell and Deon Grant received a share of his support, whether in a mentor role or a new pair of shoes or a shirt.

Bell even called Dunn to lend support. The young man found out he wasn't so alone.

"I saw what Robert had and I saw it slipping because he was living from spot to spot with no real guidance," Brown said. "Nobody else was stepping up so I did."

Brown put his money where his heart was leading him. He offered his house up for the $30,000 bond or Dunn might still be in jail. He is now in Brown's custody.

"I decided to invest in him," Brown said. "Somebody had to. This kid just needs a foundation and a male figure in his life to jump on him when he needs it.

"It's what I had growing up. Robert really needed it. I'm helping out a person here. Not a football player."

Dunn hopes it can work.

"I've never had a father figure," Dunn said. "I grew up on street smarts. I've got a good man to learn from now in Mr. Brown. He's one of the most real people you'll ever meet. He'll keep me in line."

The future

Several colleges were considering Dunn for a scholarship. The odds of an offer have tumbled.

"The thing I kept coming back to was where this leads him if football is taken away," Parker said. "This boy is at a crossroads. He is about to fail or succeed. The next five months of Robert's life could very well seal his fate."

Dunn refuses to let anyone tell him his future hinges on football.

"The road I am on now is way bigger than football," Dunn said. "With or without football, I will graduate and go on to college."

Dunn has a fine of $1,029 to pay plus a monthly $29 payment to the probation system for three years.

He has an 8 p.m. curfew. If he's out past that time, he better be playing football.

He could still face legal problems, even if he does no wrong. Another mistake means jail.

"If trouble comes around now I'm going the other way 130 miles an hour," Dunn said.

Believe that.

"I've risked it all," he said. "I'm not going to profess I am a Christian now but I will try to get closer to God.

"There's a lot of chances I've been given I can't explain. God had a hand in that."

He understands that is the last of those chances.

"I've got a passion welling up in me to do right," he said. "I've done enough wrong. My life now is to just keep doing the right thing."

Reach Jeff Sentell at (706) 823-3425 or jeff.sentell@augustachronicle.com.

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