NATICK, Mass. –- He’s always been tough on opposing defenses, but now we know that nothing can slow Brian Dunlap down.
After bursting onto the scene with an outstanding freshman season for the Natick Redhawks, Dunlap led the state in receptions (86), receiving yards (1,570), and touchdowns (21) as he helped Natick reach the MIAA Division 2A Super Bowl in his second year.
Dunlap became the first sophomore ever to earn ESPN Boston All-State honors, and seemed primed for another huge year when a Lisfranc fracture on his left foot derailed his 2013 season before it got started.
Now he’s back on the field, leading the state in receiving yards (906) once again, and relishing every moment, including a recent walkthrough in the freezing rain as Natick (7-1) prepared for a showdown at Marshfield (7-1) in the MIAA Division 2 South Semifinals.
“More than anything, I was just happy to be out there,” Dunlap said about his return to the field this fall. “I missed the games, and even the practices. Sometimes you’re so focused that you forget to take it all in, so I wanted to make sure that I really enjoyed my senior year.”
It didn’t take long for Dunlap to start enjoying himself on the field. In fact, he turned his first touch of the season into a long touchdown, and broke a 99-yard receiving touchdown at Wellesley in Natick’s third game of the season.
“That first touchdown of the year was the moment I realized I was back,” Dunlap recalled. “Then in the Wellesley game, we were backed up at the 1-yard line on a third and long and Nick [Olson] threw a great ball on a corner route. Running up the sideline past my teammates and seeing my dad in the end zone, it was one of those touchdowns that I’ll probably remember forever.”
Big Shoes to Fill
Dunlap wasn’t the only member of the Redhawks that had to make a difficult transition to start the season. Senior quarterback Nick Olson put aside his role as a full time safety to take over as the starter for graduated legend, Troy Flutie.
However, Olson had an uncommon familiarity with his primary target considering he had been playing pitch and catch with Dunlap since their days at Memorial Elementary School in Natick.
“Me and Brian grew up just a couple miles apart, and we’ve been throwing with each other for years,” Olson said. “He’d come to my house, or I’d go to his house and we’d run a couple of routes, so we definitely had a feel for each other and that made the transition pretty smooth.”
Olson and Dunlap may have blown away the competition during recess with ease, but playing at a high level for Natick head coach Mark Mortarelli would require plenty of work.
Of course, Dunlap’s no stranger to hard work, having earned acceptance to Harvard University while excelling in basketball and football at the varsity level. So it comes as little surprise that he was able to recover from his injury and develop chemistry with a new quarterback in a matter of weeks.
“It was remarkable to watch the stages that he went through,” said Mortarelli. To see him go from the wheelchair, to the cast, to the walking boot, and come back bigger, faster and stronger than he was before the injury was incredible.”
Mortarelli continued, “People think his talent is just natural, and while he is a gifted athlete, he’s also the hardest worker we’ve ever had at this program. He refuses to lose any competition, he’s a great leader, and the fact that he’s a great player is just gravy on top.”
Three weeks after Dunlap’s show stopping performance at Wellesley, the 6-foot-1, 180-pound wide receiver set a new school record when he scored his 56th career touchdown in a win over Milton. He’s scored at least two touchdowns in seven of Natick’s eight games this season, as he’s putting an emphatic stamp on one of the most illustrious careers in the history of Massachusetts high school football.
Excellence at First Sight
Very few freshmen are able to crack the varsity roster at their school, but Dunlap was so impressive that he forced his coaches’ hand.
“The very first night of [7-on-7] passing league at Xaverian, we knew that he’d be coming to camp with the varsity squad,” Mortarelli said. “He caught two or three touchdowns, and looked very comfortable out there. He was already very athletic, and physically and mentally mature enough that it was a no-brainer.”
In his first full season, Dunlap finished second in the state with 69 receptions, 1,172 receiving yards, and 14 touchdowns, so you can imagine how opposing defenses feel about his self-assertion that he’s gotten much better since then.
“My football IQ is higher. Obviously getting bigger has been helpful, but I think learning about the game and studying film has made an even bigger difference,” said Dunlap.
As defenses roll coverage his way, Dunlap’s used those football smarts to find ways to continue producing. He’s averaging 9.3 yards per carry on 31 rushes this season, and credits the coaching staff for designing deceptive plays that allow him to get open.
In Natick’s first round playoff bout with Duxbury, Dunlap carried the ball four times in the first quarter, and then proceeded to motion into the backfield before running a flat that resulted in a breathtaking 79-yard touchdown.
Nick Olson completed just four passes as Natick defeated Duxbury 48-22, and Dunlap caught all four for 157 receiving yards and three touchdowns (adding a fourth touchdown on an 88-yard kick return).
“He makes my job a breeze honestly. He knows the routes better than anyone on the team. He knows the game better than anyone, and he’s like a coach to me. He’s always teaching the other players. He’s taught me almost everything I know,” said Olson.
Dunlap’s contributions to the program seem to go beyond the field, but he’ll need to be at his best on the field if he wants to lead the Redhawks to a Division 2 Super Bowl, the one achievement that’s eluded him to this point.
Natick’s offensive players will have their work cut out for them when they face Marshfield on Friday, as the Rams are allowing just 10 points per game this season.
“They probably have the best defense we’ve seen all year, with a lot of big, strong kids,” Dunlap said. “It’s going to be a good test for us, but our team works hard every day. We have a lot of seniors, a lot of leaders, and a lot of underrated guys. I think we’re more balanced than we’ve been in the past. This is going to be a good test for us.”
Crimson Skies Ahead
Regardless of how the Redhawks’ season ends, Dunlap’s football career will continue at Harvard University next fall. The senior made his verbal commitment to the Crimson over the summer, and credits Harvard for continuing to recruit him despite his injury.
“Going to Harvard always seemed like a far fetched idea when I was little, but I went to their camp to work out the last few summers, and the relationship developed over the years. Everything sort of fell into place, and that’s why I don’t think there’s any place I’d rather be going,” said Dunlap.
Humble as ever, Dunlap was sure to credit his coaches for helping him reach a goal that he once considered to be a long shot.
“Our coaches put a lot of time in, and they really care about us not just as players, as people too. They showed a lot of character when I was injured last year, coming to visit after my surgery and checking in on me during rehab.”
Dunlap continued, “They treated me so well. They gave me one of the coaches’ hats, and treated me as a coach during my junior year. I think the whole process of being injured really shows you a lot about people, and I can’t thank them enough for everything they’ve done for me because they’re part of the reason I’m going to Harvard.”
When asked about how his star receiver would fare at the next level, Mortarelli didn’t hesitate to provide a ringing endorsement.
“I think he’s going to be lights out,” the coach said as his player’s practiced kickoffs in the rain. “He’s so mentally tough, nothing really gets him off his game. He welcomes all challenges, and he’ll respond the way he responds to anything, by taking it head on.”
In the meantime, Dunlap will take on the Rams vaunted defense, but as he’s proven time and time again, it’s going to take a lot to slow him down.