BROWNS AT COWBOYS | Noon Sunday (Channel 11)
Lance Dunbar and Craig Robertson have spent the past year establishing a tenuous grasp on gainful employment in the National Football League. It's been a circuitous journey, literally spanning the globe and filled with incredible highs and disappointing lows. The NFL, afterall, is a place where job security is frequently measured week to week.
But the most recent Mean Green exes to reach the NFL have beaten the odds and fought their way onto the field for significant playing time in their first seasons. This Sunday they will continue that quest - against one another.
For the first time in years, two former North Texas football players will be on opposite sides of the line of scrimmage in an NFL game. Dallas Cowboys' running back and special-teams player Dunbar versus Cleveland Browns' linebacker and special-teams player Robertson, at noon at Dallas Cowboys Stadium (Channel 11).
It's been awhile since two North Texas exes met in the NFL. Brian Waters, as an offensive lineman for the Kansas City Chiefs, went up against Mean Green defensive players like Brad Kassell, Cody Spencer, and Adrian Awasom a few times a decade ago, and the last Mean Green NFL reunion was between linebacker Kassell of the Jets and running back Patrick Cobbs of the Dolphins on December 2, 2007.
But Kassell and Cobbs weren't teammates at North Texas, which makes Sunday's game between Robertson's Browns and Dunbar's Cowboys something rarely seen since the 1970s - former Mean Green teammates meeting in an NFL game. It's something other NFL players take for granted.
"Some of the guys from bigger schools talk about their college days and see guys they played with in school," said Robertson, the No. 3 all-time tackler in Mean Green history. "We don't have that, so this is going to be fun. "
"We haven't talked in a while, but I've been keeping up with Craig," said Dunbar, the all-time leading rusher in Mean Green history. "I want to do something to get the upper hand on him.
"Somehow, I'll find him," he added.
"We'll see each other," Robertson concurred. "Whether it's on special teams, or him on offense and me on defense, we'll see each other on the field."
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There are few professional rollercoasters like that of an athlete. In a matter of weeks, the fortunes of Dunbar and Robertson have rolled up and down like the stock market. Both endured the disappointment of being undrafted, only to see their careers resurrected.
Robertson, who finished his college days a year before Dunbar, was preparing to embark on a football career in Australia when the NFL came calling.
"I had my ticket and was leaving December 30," said Roberson said, who got a taste of Australian Rules Football - a cross between rugby, soccer and American football - and was ready to fly half way around the world for tryouts.
"It's pretty fun," he said. "It's less physical than American football, but it looks more physical because you don't have the pads."
Those plans were scrapped when he got a call from the Browns and was signed to their practice squad at the end of the 2011 season. This summer, he went to camp and earned a roster spot.
Used primarily in nickel situations, Robertson made his NFL debut in the season-opener against Philadelphia, recording nine tackles and intercepting a Michael Vick pass. Robertson is fourth on the Browns in tackles with 50, tied for the team lead in interceptions with two, and has earned a spot on the NFL Pro Bowl ballot. Fans can vote on Pro Bowl teams at NFL.com.
"It's mind-blowing," he admitted. "I thought I'd never get the opportunity to show what I can do. It's going good. Some things I excel at, others I need to improve."
Dunbar's journey, though not so international, has been at a more breakneck pace. He went from a strong showing at the North Texas pro day last Spring to not being drafted, then signed a day later as a free agent. Dunbar missed most of the training camp due to a hamstring injury but finally got his chance in the preseason finale against Miami and rushed for 105 yards, including a sensational 58-yard touchdown run.
Yet a few days later, he was waived.
"I thought I did enough, but there was more to it," Dunbar said. "We had too many running backs, and I knew something had to happen. I was pretty upset."
But before the end of that week, he was added to the team's practice squad. He had a job.
"I was still pretty upset," he said. "But it was better than being home."
Throughout the entire process, Dunbar maintained his faith in his abilities.
"That's the attitude you have to have," he said. "I just kept my head up."
That paid off early in the season when he was called up to the active roster. Dunbar has been there ever since, and his playing time has increased. On offense, he has 15 carries for 57 yards, and on special teams has become the Cowboys' top kickoff returner. Of course, special-teams duties also require covering kicks.
"Last time I made a tackle was probably in tenth grade in New Orleans," Dunbar said. "But it stays with you, just get in there and wrap up."
Just about everything else about his new life, however, is different from the old.
"It's dramatically different, in all phases," Dunbar said of the NFL. "Preparation, how physical it is, how fast it is, how fast you have to think. And everyone holds to you to every little thing. It's a little frustrating. Everything I do, it's wrong. I have to get used to it."
It's a massive adjustment, and listening to former Mean Green stars, both sound a little dazed by the entire experience.
"It probably won't hit me until the off-season," Robertson said.
"I don't think it's hit me yet," Dunbar agreed. "I try to look at it as just football, and try to be calm."
He paused for a moment.
"But I realize I'm playing in the NFL."