- Rich Cimini, ESPN Staff Writer
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FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- When he was young, Karl Dunbar often gazed into a mirror and tried to imagine what he was supposed to look like. What he saw wasn't really him; it was what he had become.
He struggled with that through his teens, enduring countless stares, cruel nicknames, school fights and too many days in sweltering Louisiana heat when he wore long sleeves and gloves to conceal the sinister disease that was turning his black skin white.
"What you see now is the Sunday product," the New York Jets' new defensive line coach said with an easy laugh, referring to his self-confidence. "You don't see Karl Dunbar growing up as a 12-, 13-, 14-year-old kid, getting hazed by other kids because of his skin color. You don't see the Karl Dunbar who got in fights with kids because he was embarrassed."
In the seventh grade, Dunbar was diagnosed with vitiligo, a rare skin condition that robs skin of its pigmentation, resulting in irregular white patches. It affects about 1 percent of the population. The cause is unknown, and there is no cure. Obviously, the emotional effects can be severe.
Dunbar, who turns 45 on Friday, conquered the demons a long time ago. In an interview Wednesday during a break in the offseason program, he was comfortable and upbeat as he shared his experiences. He actually believes the disease, in some ways, has been a positive for him. But there were some trying moments, of course.
It began when he noticed a white patch on his right thumb and a spot over his left eye. It spread to his nose and the middle of his face, his chin and the lower part of his forehead. His hands, knees and elbows also are covered with white skin.
Dunbar was a football and basketball star in his hometown, Opelousas, La., but he wasn't immune to teasing from kids. They called him "Spotmaker." He spent more than a couple of days in the principal's office, explaining his latest altercation.
The gawking didn't stop at LSU, where a young fan -- frightened by Dunbar's appearance -- ran away from him on an autograph line.
"Yeah, he turned
around and saw me and he was like, 'Ain't no way I want an autograph from this guy,'" said Dunbar, a terrific defensive lineman at LSU before a broken foot derailed his senior year.
Dunbar credited his parents with helping him defeat the potential stigma attached to vitiligo. Whenever he got down, his father reminded him of one of the neighborhood kids in a wheelchair.
"The message was always the same: There are other people in worse shape," Clarence Dunbar, 72, said in a phone interview. "I told him he didn't have a problem; that boy in the wheelchair had the problem."
Clarence served in Vietnam for nearly a year, until he was injured in a "booby trap." He was exposed to the chemical Agent Orange and describes himself as fully disabled, battling prostate cancer. Karl was conceived soon after his father returned home, and he wonders if there's a connection between his disease and his father's exposure to chemical warfare.
A combination of genetic, immunologic and environmental factors are involved in most cases, according to the National Vitiligo Foundation website, but it still maintains there's no precise cause.
Nine years ago, Dunbar's father developed the disease, and now most of his body is covered with white patches.
"God didn't want me to have it until I could handle it," Clarence Dunbar said. "Karl was able to handle it at a younger age."
Dunbar was an eight-round draft pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1990, and he wound up playing three years in the league. He finished with the Arizona Cardinals in 1995, playing for a young, brash defensive line coach named Rex Ryan -- a connection that would serve him well 17 years later.
After a brief foray into undercover police work in Opelousas -- his wife objected to the violent nature of the job -- Dunbar found his true calling. He got into coaching, going from the local high school to three college jobs before landing in the NFL. Before the Jets, he spent six seasons with the Minnesota Vikings, molding a premier defensive line.
There were stares along the journey, of course, but no one messes with him anymore.
"I'm 6-foot-4, 350 pounds. That might be a bad piece of meat to bite on," he said, laughing.
Dunbar turned serious. When a man that big turns serious, you listen.
"God did this for a reason," he said. "There's nothing wrong with me. You can't give it to anybody, because I have three kids and they don't have it. My wife doesn't have it and we've been married for 21 years.
"It's just something I've had to deal with. A lot of times, it's an icebreaker. People come up to me and ask me about it. It's easy for me to get noticed, and it's been great."
Dunbar believes it has increased his exposure as a coach. He gets interview requests and his picture pops up on TV occasionally during games.
He's starting his own foundation with the help of Coolibar, which specializes in sun-protective clothing. In fact, Dunbar is featured on the company's website. The foundation's mission will be to help kids with low self-esteem.
Dunbar doesn't lack confidence, especially when it comes to coaching. In Minnesota, he presided over an elite front four. His ends were Jared Allen and Ray Edwards, and his tackles were Kevin Williams and Pat Williams (no relation) -- aka the Williams Wall.
The Jets employ a different scheme than the Vikings -- a 3-4 front, not a 4-3 -- but the linemen already have been impressed with Dunbar's ability to teach pass-rushing techniques and read offensive keys. Mike DeVito said Dunbar was one of the main reasons why he decided to accept a pay cut to stay with the Jets instead of being released.
Dunbar hasn't mentioned his skin condition in the meeting room, according to players, but they said it didn't need to be addressed.
"You don't notice that stuff about him," Sione Pouha said. "His personality, his enthusiasm surfaces over everything else."
Vitiligo doesn't affect Dunbar's ability to perform his job, but he has to make slight adjustments. During routine line drills on the practice field, he makes sure his back is to the sun. The players razz him about that.
With patches of light-colored skin, Dunbar must take precautions to avoid overexposure. He often wears a hat, long sleeves and gloves. One day recently, he went without gloves and noticed his hands were red and swelling. For 1 p.m. kickoffs, he loads up on sunscreen.
"When that sun is in your face, beating down on you for three hours, it can be shocking on that Monday," he said.
Dunbar doesn't mind. He has learned to live with vitiligo -- and live well. The skin condition might be spreading, but so is his positive attitude. He adheres to an old saying his grandfather once told him:
"Dance like no one's watching, sing like no one's listening and love like you've never been hurt."
Dunbar still gazes in the mirror, except now he doesn't have to imagine anymore what he's supposed to look like. It's right there, looking back.
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