Now in his final semester at SIU, senior distance runner Daniel Dunbar has had a tumultuous run.
During his career as a Saluki, Dunbar went from walk-on, to nearly off the team, to an all-conference performer.
Dunbar has earned all-Missouri Valley Conference honors three times, though his running career almost never began.
Now in his last indoor track season, Dunbar said SIU and Illinois State were the only division one schools to even consider him.
Dunbar’s O’Fallon High School coach Jon Burnett said an injury during Dunbar’s junior season prevented him from reaching his full potential as a senior. Although Burnett said Dunbar’s senior season was solid, he wasn’t producing the All-State times universities look for.
Dunbar said he chose SIU because of his relationship with distance coach Matt Sparks. Sparks saw Dunbar’s potential in high school and said that was why he encouraged him to come to the university.
“The thing I always look for is progression throughout high school, and Dan continually got better from his freshman year to his senior year,” Sparks said.
Despite the potential Sparks saw in Dunbar, Dunbar said he needed to mature as an athlete.
During winter break of his freshman year, the runner said he started to slack in his training, a behavior Sparks said is common for first-year students.
“Often times when athletes go home for break, they go back to some of the habits they had in high school, and the habits they had are not conducive to college running,” Sparks said.
Dunbar said the lack of training was a setback, and his time grew progressively worse as the cross-country season continued. After the end of cross-country season, Dunbar approached Sparks and expressed his disappointment with himself for his performance.
Still without a scholarship, Dunbar said he began to immerse himself in training under the tutelage of Sparks.
“I did everything coach Sparks told me to — every morning run, every push-up, every sit-up,” Dunbar said. “Everything I could possibly do, I did.”
As he headed into his first indoor/outdoor track season in 2008, Dunbar said he continued to doubt his progress and reached the point when he worried about not making the team.
“I didn’t really see the results right away. I wasn’t really getting any better,” Dunbar said. “I was better than where I was in high school, but for a D-1 program I was getting to the borderline where if I don’t improve, why does he need a walk-on around?”
Although Sparks considered not running Dunbar during the conference meet, there weren’t too many options for the 10k and he didn’t have a choice. He said allowing Dunbar to compete gave the team a chance to earn more points.
The week before the meet, Dunbar had his best workout of the season, he said.
During the later part of his freshman season, the confidence he gained propelled him to eventually place third at regionals. For a walk-on freshman, Dunbar said he was surprised by his placement.
“It’s a 25-lap race so you want to zone out ideally,” Dunbar said. “A couple times I looked at the clock I said to myself, ‘I think I’m running pretty fast.’”
Dunbar was indeed running fast, and his time of 30:25.89 was enough to qualify him for the 2008 Junior National tournament. Dunbar won the tournament and qualified to represent the United States at the World Junior Championships in Bydgoszcz, Poland, wrapping up a successful freshman year.
Dunbar described his experience at the World Junior Championships as incredible, and said it was a chance for him to race against some of the fastest athletes in the world. When he returned from the championships, he said he also received a track scholarship.
After he received his scholarship and completed his sophomore cross-country season with a 25th place finish in regionals, Dunbar said he decided to take the indoor/outdoor season off.
But he had not returned to his slacker ways of the past. Dunbar was fulfilling his duties for another passion, the Air National Guard.
Dunbar said his duties in the National Guard cause him to miss a meet during every season and sometimes about a week of school.
Between his track scholarship and benefits from the National Guard, Dunbar is able to go to school for free, a goal he said he set for himself. But Dunbar did not join the National Guard simply for the benefits; he said it’s in his blood to serve his country.
“My dad was a member of the Air National Guard for 35 years, and I grew up in a military community,” Dunbar said. “A lot of my friends were telling me about these great benefits. I wanted to go school for free, so between athletics and the Guard, they take care of me.”
Dunbar works as a systems administrator for the Air National Guard.
On top of his duties with the National Guard, Dunbar is also president of the Student Athletic Advisory Committee, and said he is currently trying to become a Air National Guard pilot, as he has already earned his private pilot license.
Dunbar said the ability to juggle all of his responsibilities comes not only from his military background, but his competitiveness. When he gets stressed, he said he is driven by his willingness to succeed.
Burnett said he witnessed Dunbar’s drive before the runner even reached SIU.
The coach said Dunbar is seen as a role model in his hometown and sets a positive example for all the runners who come after him.
“Dan was one of the kids we built our program around when he was in high school, and he’s still a legend at our school,” Burnett said. “Whenever he comes back around and visits, the guys take notice.”
Dunbar was able to shine in high school, and Sparks said regardless of his achievements, Dunbar’s leadership will leave a lasting image on his legacy as a Saluki.
“He’s a great role model, not only for the walk-ons but for anybody who’s a part of our track and cross country team,” Sparks said.