Palmetto's Dunn Thriving Despite Adversity
Tough Circumstances Shapes Senior Linebacker
One of the rewards of working and writing for SFHSSports.com is meeting and getting a chance to be around the kids we cover.
There is a spirit about them. An energy. Something, that makes this almost forty-year old father of two boys, smile.
That’s exactly how I felt after spending almost an hour and half at Miami Palmetto Senior High School talking with senior football player Wendell Dunn.
I hope this story best relates to you the time I spent with Wendell.
There are plenty of stories about kids who have overcome. And yes, this is one of those stories.
What impressed me more about Wendell is not only what he has overcome but where he has arrived and how looks at this destination.
I thought it would be best to tell Wendell’s story in segments.
Dunn’s life is not a simple linear path; but one with lots of curves and even imperfections. He has had to experience more than most and yet, when it is all said and done, he is as mature and humble and happy as anyone I have encountered.
I was and still am in awe. And I think you will be too.
THE BIG BROTHER
“I have a gift of knowing right from wrong. I don’t recall ever knowing doing something wrong and thinking it was right.”
Before high school, Dunn lived with his mom and four brothers. His mom was hardly home. He doesn’t have a memory of his father. He was murdered when Dunn was a year old.
Dunn grew up in Perrine, Florida – in a neighborhood that Dunn described as a “hustle.”
I don’t know the exact details of hustling and I didn’t ask. I just took Dunn’s word for it when he said: “hustling is something you wouldn’t want to do.”
Dunn did things he knew was wrong and did things he didn’t “want” to do. But he did these things for one simple reason.
“I made sure they had protection,” said Dunn. “All they had was me, so I had to support them,” Dunn said.
This led Dunn to join a gang. He did it solely for the reason of keeping his family safe. It also forced Dunn to have to fight in front of his brothers. Again, for their protection, but something he “never wanted them to see.”
He also signed his brothers up for football. In fact, his little brothers started playing football before he did.
“I wanted to make sure they had something positive,” Dunn recalled.
“I think I am a good people reader”
Wendell Dunn never judges the people he meets by appearance.
Because of this, when Dunn met Sheph Leonard in the 8th grade, Dunn liked his “vibe” and felt like it was “something he wanted” for himself.
At the time, Leonard was mentoring under Pastor Jeff Borton at the Palmetto Bay Campus of the Christ Fellowship.
Dunn came to meet Leonard thanks to a friend – Quez.
Quez and Dunn weren’t the best behaved students in class. One day, Quez wrote a note to his teacher apologizing to her for his antics in class. His teacher happened to be Pastor Borton’s wife. They both took an interest in Quez and asked that he come to the church one day and sit and talk with Leonard.
Quez agreed. He also asked if it was OK to bring his friend.
His friend, Wendell Dunn.
Later that year, Dunn gave his life to Christ.
He currently sings, well, raps, at church services on the weekend and spends lots of time talking with young kids who are a part of the church community.
“It’s crazy hard to be in high school and always do the right thing”
That’s what happens when you decide to be the leader.
Dunn is the leader of the Palmetto football team.
“I love it,” boasts Dunn. “Those boys need me.”
So does his coach, Matt Dixon.
Dixon has only coached Dunn this one season, but is very aware how lucky he is to have a player as talented as Dunn in his locker room.
“He has his priorities straight,” Dixon said. “He knows what he wants in life and he is standing up for what this program needs to be become.”
Changing the culture, which Dixon is trying to do, isn’t easy. But he is the coach. He is the authority figure.
Having a player try to change the culture is even harder.
For the player, he is just one of the guys, a peer.
Dunn has been forced to make tough decisions this season.
Dunn, as the leader of the Panther Pack, a committee of players that Dixon seeks advice from, was forced to kick a starter off the team after he got into an argument with a coach after a game.
“Wendell stood up for the program,” Dixon noted. “To have a kid like Wendell back your program is huge.”
“You would be hard pressed to find a kid as talented and as humble as he is,” added Pastor Borton. “He is teachable and responsible. He has no attitude of expectation or entitlement.”
Dunn stands 6-foot-4 and weighs 200 pounds.
He runs a 4.7 in the 40 yard dash.
He has played on the varsity team at Palmetto since he was a freshman.
Dunn has played wide receiver, linebacker and safety, but projects as a linebacker in college.
He has offers from schools such as Wake Forest, UCF, West Virginia and Connecticut. Dunn has taken an official visit to Wake Forest, and still plans to visit UCF, West Virginia and UConn at the end of the season.
Dunn has always been a tremendous athlete, bigger than all the other kids. He succeeded with his natural athleticism.
This year, under Dixon, Dunn started to study the game.
“Film time is where I learn the most. Film is where it counts,” Dunn said. “I watch film now and understand what I am watching.”
“Now people can watch me on film and see all the good things I am doing. People can say I am doing my job,” Dunn says with great pride.
An example Dunn gives: in the past when he saw a team line up in the I-formation and they snapped the ball, as the fullback came at him, he would try to run around him and go make the tackle.
Thanks to the more productive film study, Dunn now realizes that the old the way he did it leaves a huge hole for the running back to run through.
Now, Dunn knows it is in the best interest of the team, and the defense, to take on the fullback and let the inside linebacker make the tackle.
It is that knowledge, combined with his talent, that has drawn high major D-1 schools to offer Dunn.
Dixon says Dunn has great speed to the ball and is great against the run.
“Side to side, he is one the of best in Miami-Dade County,” Dixon said. “I haven’t seen them all, but he’s up there. When he sees it, he goes.”
“Staying in that house was holding me back and all that stuff on my mind was killing me”
Dunn lived with his mom until the 9th grade, until he moved with one of his brothers to live with his aunt. As noted above, it is also about this time that his buddy Quez introduced him to Leonard, which brought him closer to Pastor Borton and his wife, who was Dunn’s teacher in middle school.
Ultimately, Dunn would take a job at the church, to help support himself and his little brother. Two years later, during the summer prior to his senior year, Dunn’s aunt got sick.
Her mood changed. So did her demands on Dunn.
She wanted Dunn to pay her rent money.
Dunn was saving up money to by a car, but his aunt thought that money should go to her.
This would not end well. Or at least, that’s what Dunn was feeling.
“Things got bad with my aunt. I wasn’t focused on God,” Dunn reflected. “We got into a lot of arguments and she would threaten to kick me out.”
That day would finally come.
It was the summer before Dunn’s senior year. Dunn was on a mission trip with the church in downtown Miami.
Dunn received a call.
His aunt was throwing his stuff out of the house. Dunn asked Pastor Borton to take him to his aunt's house to get his things.
“I felt like the whole world had crashed on me,” Dunn said. “What did I do to deserve this?”
Thanks to a lot of love and support from the Borton’s and from his girlfriend, Dunn averted the free fall of being abandoned.
In fact, Dunn’s life took off.
He was more present at church.
He joined the South Florida Express 7-on-7 team.
He spent more time with the Borton’s.
Jeff and Jen Borton are now mom and dad to Dunn. Actually, they are Papa Jeff and Mama Jen. That’s what Dunn calls them.
From the time Dunn met them, outside of the classroom, all they have done is support him and love him, stay after him and push him, make schoolwork a priority.
And cheer for him in the stands.
“It’s the best place I’ve been,” Dunn said.
Dunn’s life hasn’t been easy or simple.
But he will graduate this June. He will attend the college of his choice on a football scholarship. And his maturity and outlook on life is extraordinary. He does it all with a smile and with a higher purpose.
I did not walk away from this interview with the thought I was talking to just some high school kid.
I got the feeling I was talking to a peer, even though our age and experiences are quite different.
I am glad Coach Dixon told me about Wendell Dunn last spring. I am happy to have spent the time I did with him.
Beyond the games and the highlights, this is one of the reasons why what we do at SFHSSports.com is so worthwhile.
Thank you, Wendell.