Growing up, Karl Dunbar had a choice to make. He could either give you a pass … or a butt-whooping.
“When I was in high school and my first couple of years in college you could talk about my mom, my dad,” recalled Dunbar, the Minnesota Vikings defensive line coach, “but if you said anything about my skin we had to fight.”
Dunbar remembers his skin started to alter when he was a young boy in the seventh grade. White patches developed on his right hand, another appeared over his left eye.
"When I was younger I used to wonder how I would look if I didn’t have it," he said.
Add football and basketball to the mix and every scrape and scratch left new unavoidable, milky white spots on his brown skin. He kept getting more.
“Self-esteem was never an issue for me," said Dunbar, who played three NFL seasons at defensive end after being selected second-team All-SEC as a senior at Louisiana State. "Hey, I think I have a nice smile, I’m warm, I’m charming, people tell me that all the time. I never felt not loved. My parents loved me. They always told me I was beautiful.
“The thing that made me fight was that I didn’t want anybody talking about me.”
Mr. Fisher, a caring school employee at Plaisance High in Opelousas, LA – now an elementary school – eventually drove a young Dunbar to New Orleans to see a dermatologist.
The diagnosis was vitiligo, an incurable skin disease that causes a loss of pigmentation. It afflicts anywhere from 2 to 4 million people of all races and genders.
At one point Dunbar took medication and used a special makeup to cover the white patches, but that attempt proved impractical for a high school athlete playing sports in the sweltering Louisiana heat. So he quit using the cosmetic cover-up — right around the same time he stopped with the “why me?” attitude.
“My senior year in high school I was becoming popular because I was a pretty good football player and basketball player,’’ Dunbar said. "And then I got to college (at LSU) and became a starter. I was playing good football and they didn’t want to know about skin, they just wanted to know about how I was going to play that weekend."
“That wasn’t the question anymore. That success on the field helped me have success socially.”
That trend continues in Minneapolis, where Dunbar is a respected defensive line coach who’s often out and about in the community, working with the Salvation Army, speaking at schools, attending his kids’ sporting events.
Someone almost always asks, excitedly; “Are you coach Dunbar, who coaches for the Vikings!?” He laughs as he tells me this.
“People ask me about (his skin condition) and I’ve got no problem talking about it. It’s vitiligo. It’s nothing contagious. It’s just a skin pigmentation disorder,” he said. "I hate the stares from older people. Kids, I don’t mind because they’ve never seen it before."
Visually, Dunbar keeps changing. For years his hands, knees and elbows have been almost completely white as a result of his college and three-year pro football career where constant collisions resulted in constant pigment cell destruction.
“Using your hands, falling on your knees, on your elbows. It’s just the boney areas where my bones get rubbed,’’ Dunbar said.
Then two years ago Dunbar was diagnosed with sleep apnea. The diagnosis meant wearing a breathing mask at night that’s attached to a cumbersome contraption called a CPAP machine. The mask covers and subsequently pushes on his nose and mouth, stressing his already delicate skin.
Dunbar’s once mostly brown face bears a circle of white in the middle of it now, a result of his use of the CPAP machine. He pulls up a picture on his office computer from 2006 as proof the white oval that’s encroached on a large section of his face didn’t exist five years ago.
But ask anyone who knows or works with him and they’ll tell you there’s so much more to Karl Dunbar than the different hues of his skin.
Defensive end Jared Allen, the current NFL sacks leader, is funny in a no-filter kind of way. So he just says stuff about Dunbar his friend like, “he just wants to be white anyway,” while praising Dunbar the man and what he’s done for the consistently stellar defensive line.
I open the inevitable can of worms by asking Allen if he thinks Dunbar’s appearance will hinder his career opportunities?
Allen’s whole face changes. “Why would it?”
It most likely will impact his chances at some jobs, and a realistic Dunbar — who dreams of being a defensive coordinator or a head coach in the NFL or the major college level — knows it.
“There’s not a whole bunch of us doing this,’’ he said. "When I say ‘us’, I say people with vitiligo. And I just hope that everything that I do, I get judged by what I do — not on how I look.”
He’s got the resume for advancement, having put together a unit that’s had 12 All-Pros while leading the NFL in sacks in 2009 and boasting the league’s best rushing defense three straight seasons (’06-’08). All of this has led to not one single interview request for a defensive coordinator post in college or at the pro level he so desires.
His friend, Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin, tells him to interview when and where he can, while his agent sometimes nudges for a road less appealing.
“Go to a smaller school, mid-major, show people what you can do, they know who you are, go produce a good product,” said Tomlin. In fact, Tomlin told him to "wear it like a badge of honor."
Said Dunbar, “I know I can do it if given the chance, but right now I’m happy with being one of those 32 guys who coaches a good front in this league.”
Dunbar can’t pinpoint the time when he was free and clear, just absolutely done with most of the sensitivities about his vitiligo.
“Guess it never changes for good,’’ Dunbar said. "You mature, and I accept who I am. I know God loves me. I have a beautiful wife, three kids, I know they love me. When people see me, it’s an outward appearance, it’s not who I am."
“I’m just like a leopard or a tiger, I have my spots and I’ll be happy with them.”