Friday, September 9, 2016

Raymond's John Bunting, NFL linebacker, Hall of Famer - By Walter Lunt

Long time Raymond summer resident John Bunting was honored recently in North Carolina with his induction into the Greater Wilmington Sports Hall of Fame. Bunting joins the likes of Willie Stargell, Roman Gabriel, Trott Nixon, Bob Boyd and dozens of other luminaries from the world of sports.

In his video tribute a rock song playing beneath the narration and pictures of his lengthy and storied career helped buoy the message The World is Going to Know Your Name.

Bunting settled into a chair next to a picnic table at his Raymond summer home on Thomas Pond and started talking football. Over the two-hour session he shared stories, observations and opinions from his nearly 4-decade career as a National Football League player and coach.

The former linebacker for the Philadelphia Eagles reflected on his early life in the fifties and sixties fishing, catching frogs and skiing on the pond he and wife, Dawn refer to as their get-away sanctuary.

There was only one rule. We could play in and around the pond all day, but when the porch bell rang we had to return to camp to eat. I've had a wonderful life,” he continued,and Thomas Pond was a big part of it."

"The first sports model in my life was my older brother, Jim,” said Bunting. " He was my inspiration growing up- a very good football player and a great wrestler. I went to every one of his (wrestling) matches in high school. I remember how he took this guy, who was undefeated, and beat him in double overtime. He became county champion. It took my breath away and probably made me cry. That's how passionate I was about my older brother."

Bunting said he has similar feelings toward his younger brother, Paul, who was also a strong athlete, as starting point guard for a winning team in a NCAA Final Four, Division II championship game.
"My brothers taught me discipline, passion and (how to be) a dignified athlete, how to play for the game, not just for myself," Bunting said.
Following strong years playing high school football in Maryland, Bunting received a scholarship to play for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

"I played for 3 years. Freshmen were not allowed to play varsity. Unfortunately, they changed that rule. Never should have. Let kids be kids for one more year in transition. They think they are the greatest players since Swiss cheese," he said, "and (as a coach) they are so hard to rehab."

Following the University of North Carolina, Bunting was drafted in the 10th round by the Philadelphia Eagles where he became a linebacker.

"In those days (1970- 71) we were the laughing stock of the league (not having a playoff berth since 1960), but a lot of great things happened."

There, Bunting would meet one of the most influential people of his major league sports career, Dick Vermeil. He credits the Eagle coach's passion for the game and for the way he treated his people, and for "winning the right way," and added, "like my brother winning through the dignity of the game."

“One of my greatest memories with the team is beating Dallas 20-7 in the 1981 NFC championship game," he said.

Bunting's time with the Eagles ended with the 1982 players' strike. The two sides faced off over free agency for players at the conclusion of their contracts, elimination or modification of so-called astro-turf, freedom to consult independent medical care and profit sharing with NFL properties. While the players made progress with these and other issues throughout the eighties, it was probably Bunting's involvement as a union representative that hastened the end of his career as an NFL player.

Coinciding with these events, however was the formation of a new "companion" football league that was not in competition with the NFL. The United States Football League was an eclectic mix of NFL veterans and promising young talent. The idea was to draft players within separate regions of the country to play spring games, thus extending the season for a growing fan base. On the advice of Carl Peterson, formerly from the front office of the Eagles, Stars coach Jim Moora recruited Bunting.

"He was a former Marine and bada--!" Bunting confided. "But I had a ball. We were drawing crowds of 35 and 45,000 and in '83 we made it into the championship game."

In 1984, despite a compromised Achilles heel, Bunting played out the championship game. The Stars won but at great cost to Bunting.

"At first, they just shot it up with cortisone. They could never do that today."

His playing days were over.

Bunting became the Stars linebacker coach. The team went on to another championship victory in 1985.

The following year, the USFL New Jersey Generals owner/president Donald Trump convinced the league to initiate antitrust action against the NFL in an effort to force playoff games between the two leagues. The court battle and confusion over stadium use resulted in the USFL folding in 1986.
“That's why I have little use for Donald Trump," Bunting said with a tinge of bitterness in his voice.
Never one to linger at the goal line, Bunting branched out, and for the next two years divided his time between defensive coaching at Brown University in Providence and broadcasting. He produced pre- and post-game shows for KYW sports radio in Philadelphia and performed color commentary for Temple University games.

By 1987 Bunting had found another dream job, as well as the love of his life. Glassboro State College in New Jersey needed a head football coach to fix a failing program. The position came with no strings attached, that is, no teaching responsibilities. Another member of the physical education department, the women's basketball and softball coach, had an issue with that and wasn't afraid to voice disapproval. To say the least it was a prickly beginning. Nevertheless, John and Dawn Bunting married four years later. It was the union of two linebackers. In her pre-college days Dawn had played with the San Diego Lobos in the Women’s Professional Football League.

Regarding this Glassboro experience, John said, “We took a program that was really broken and made it into a good one. We won conference championships two years in a row (and all the while) Dawn’s teams were highly successful as well.” 

By the early nineties it was back to the NFL. Carl Peterson had called yet again. Bunting joined the Kansas City Chiefs and remained for four years as linebacker coach.

“I was having a great time. And there was only one guy in the world who could pull me away, the one guy who most impacted my life, my friend and mentor Dick Vermeil. Now associated with the St. Louis Rams, Vermeil needed a co-defensive coordinator as he tried to build up a program that was weak both offensively and defensively. 

United once again with Vermeil, and faced with a huge challenge Bunting and a “great staff” went to work incorporating the core beliefs that has stood the test of time since his teen years: Solid “common sense” training, smart recruiting, discipline, developing that deep dedication toward accomplishing something important and doing it as a team. 

“It’s called passion,” Bunting repeated. A word he used frequently. 

And, indeed it all came together. By the 1999 season the Rams were winning, right into Super Bowl 34. The final play of that January 2000 game would be one of the most memorable in history.

As die-hard fans remember, the NFC St. Louis Rams were up against the AFC Tennessee Titans. The first half was mostly a defensive battle. By the end of the fourth quarter St. Louis held a 23 -16 lead. The ball was on the Rams 10-yard line with just 6 seconds left in the game. The Titans had used their final timeout. In the play, Rams linebacker Mike Jones was to be lured away from Titan receiver Kevin Dyson, but as the pass went to Dyson, Jones quickly changed direction and in what became known as simply The Tackle Jones wrapped his arms around Dyson's legs. The two went into a rolling motion with Dyson's outstretched arms reaching for the goal line, coming up short by just inches.
As he watched the play, Bunting crossed his arms over the front of his chest... and stopped breathing. Then, they waited for the call.

The game official stepped forward and turned on his mic. The crowd fell quiet. He announced,The receiver is short of the goal line. The game is over."

"Those were the greatest words I ever heard in my life," said Bunting. It was the greatest pinnacle of a 40 year career.

After the parades and accolades back in St. Louis, Bunting was fired. How could that be? We asked. How could it be when it was your defenseman who clinched a Super Bowl victory?

"It's a long and complicated story," said Bunting. “Let's just say it was about front office alliances and broken promises. It happened. Time to move on."

The next move was back to his future, an opportunity to return to where it all started, his alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where for six years he would "coach out" his football days until retirement.

“We won a significant number of games, but just as important these guys knew how to play together with dignity, discipline, and yes, passion."

Now retired, Bunting insists he's not finished. His current mission is mentoring NFL draftees and other young players, in addition to speaking engagements. "It's time to give back."

We quizzed Bunting about certain issues that dominate sports news in 2016. This John Bunting...

On the 2016 NFL season:
“The Patriots will be successful regardless of whether Brady misses the first four games. They have tradition and a smart coach. I think Jacksonville will be better. I expect Indianapolis to improve due to defensive changes."

On Tom Brady and Deflategate:
"It's a poor joke and a black eye on the NFL. Ownership around the league has it in for the Patriots. I think they're jealous and they've pressured the commissioner (Roger Goodell) to penalize New England for past issues. How sad that there's been less suspension time for players involved in domestic violence than with Brady and his freakin' ball."

On head trauma and concussions:
“It’s safer than it's ever been considering new protocol and the way they practice. They've got people watching on the sidelines and in the boxes. For high school and youth sports I'd want certified trainers right there."

On Colin Kaepernick and the emergence of politics in sports:
Disturbing on several levels. This is team sport. To win, to be successful, it's hard when your mind is someplace else.

On the benefit youth participation in sports:
“It promotes general overall well being. Building relationships and overcoming adversity. It's just a game, but if one can apply some of the lessons learned to other things in your life you can become a stronger person and a better citizen."

We end our conversation and attention turns once again to the lake. Dawn comments,There's something so tranquil about water- you feel at peace."
John nods in agreement and picks up a metal chair. “You live in a cage when you're a coach. It's wonderful here. Clears your head."

Later he will take the chair 3 feet into the pond to sit in chest high water.My body is broken and beaten up," he said, referring to the multiple injuries ranging from broken fingers to ACL reconstruction on a knee, sustained over more than 10 years of professional play.
The water will feel good but he won't stay there long. Because, as he said, he's still not finished.

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