Oct. 17 2014 12:00 AM

JUNIOR TROJAN EVA DUNBAR FOLLOWS BROTHERS’ FOOTSTEPS TO FILL HER OWN BOOTS

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Number 77 is a commanding figure in the middle of the East Lansing Eighth Grade Junior Trojan lineup.

As a nose tackle 77 is immovable; as a left guard such a threat the defense usually sends a double team.


This football player has been in training since the fourth grade and is now poised for a high school career that could be unheralded in power, speed, smarts and sex.


Yes, sex.


Number 77 is a girl.


“I hear it all the time, ‘Dude, you just got nailed by a chick,’” says Eva Dunbar, 13. “And I’m like, ‘Yep, yep, that just happened.’”


See Pinterest My name is Eva Dunbar


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Eva (pronounced Ay-vah) doesn’t want to play it safe. She wants to play football. She tackles, blocks and sacks. She plays on both sides of the ball only coming off the field at times to guzzle a sports drink and then the helmet goes back on with her signature ponytail dangling behind her.


Eva’s taller than most at 5-foot-11. Her wingspan is 6 foot.


Her positions on the field require heft (what lady wants her weight in the paper?) as well as strength. She explodes off the line with speed and power. She’s commanding when all suited up, her figure filling the uniform in undeniable female form.


Her eyes shine an intensity that only softens when she takes her helmet off.


“Good job Eva,” some of her teammates shout during a sweltering Indian Summer game against Holt.


There have been other female linemen, like Monique Howard in 2011 on the Pershing High School team near Detroit. But Eva is the only lineman in mid-Michigan. She’s a rare breed for sure.


Eva’s not in it for the novelty. She’s got a passion and skill that are undeniable. Her team spirit is unwavering. The camaraderie with her teammates is loyal and unshakeable.

ALL IN THE FAMILY

You could call football a Dunbar birthright.


Eva’s father, Sam Dunbar, played left guard for the Capital City Stealth, a semi-pro team, three years ago until he broke an ankle.


Ethan Dunbar, 19, the eldest brother, played left guard for East Lansing High School. Evan Dunbar, 18, played outside linebacker and fullback. Emma, who turns 15 on Thursday, and Eva played with their brothers and father in the backyard.


Of the sisters, only Eva took up the sport.


“I don’t remember a day when she didn’t want to do football because she grew up playing football with her brothers,” says her mother, Kathie Dunbar, an at-large Lansing councilwoman. It never fazed Kathie or Sam that Eva would want to play football. All the kids played lots of sports from T-ball to soccer to basketball land track.


But football was special. “Fourth grade came along and she said she wanted to play,” Sam says. “Her brothers told her there’s no place to hide and they’re not going to care if you’re a girl. but she’s always had this attitude like, ‘I’m not going to let anybody push me around.’”


And football is family, everyone gathered together on Sundays to see Eva play. Even Emma is available to lend a hand. Braiding your hair in full shoulder pads is hard. Mom and grandma are in the stands cheering her on and listening to what spectators say when they realize that 77 is a girl.

PANCAKES AND TRUCKS

The terms pancake and truck come out when describing Eva’s power. Her mother recalls one of her first hits, “She pancaked him.”


Her first nickname was “The Trucker” after her father said she had “trucked” an opponent.


So how good is she?


“She is one tough cookie,” eighth grade coach Kevin Mayes says.


Stats aren’t kept in the youth sports level. They don’t give out MVP awards. They don’t even like to have news reports on scores.


But her father has memorized some of Eva’s key numbers, one sack and six tackles against Holt a few weeks ago.


“Eva does make a huge difference for us on both the offense and defensive line,” Mayes says. “I can think of a game last year where we had a team that was running the ball right down the middle and our solution was to put Eva at nose, which is right smack in the middle of that defensive line. And that along with changing some linebackers behind them, we went from down 23-0 to we lost the game 23-20 and that comeback was an option for us because of her and two other gentlemen who suddenly switched positions and we were able to compete.”


Most people have never seen a girl play on either the defensive or offensive line.


“Girls tend to play either kicker, which is protected special teams or quarterback and you have a whole line in front of you to protect you against the hit,” Kathie Dunbar says. “But she’s the hit. She’s the truck. Just by the position she plays she’s redefining what a girl means in football.”


Eva says most just call her Dunbar now, although sometimes the announcers erroneously call her Evan thinking the roster must have a typo.


She’s a little conflicted about how hard she hits and whether that’s a good or a bad thing.


“I hate hurting people,” she says.


A few years ago Eva put a hit on a quarterback that made him leave the game. After the game the coach emailed her coach. The quarterback had broken ribs.


“I was like dangit,” Eva says. “I hate hurting people in football. That’s like the one thing I don’t like about it. I like hitting people and I like the contact. But the hurting? I don’t like it. I don’t like being hurt and I don’t like hurting other people.”

ONE AND DONE

At 5-foot-11-inches tall, it’s easy for some to forget this is eighth grade youth football. But under the helmet are the undeniable soft eyes and cute dimple of a 13-year-old girl who still loves swingsets and hanging out at the park with friends, listening to Ed Sheeran and watching the “Princess Bride.”


She’s Kathie and Sam’s little girl. Aren’t they worried she’ll get hurt?


“The only thing I’m worried about her breaking is his her head,” says her father.


Two years ago Evan Dunbar took a hit in practice that changed the whole family. It was hiss fourth concussion and left lasting impact. He couldn’t do simple math for a few days and he couldn’t remember Eva’s name.


“Him not remembering me at all was the worst,” Eva says.


Ethan watched his younger brother struggle and it shook him. He confessed to his parents he knew he’d been hit hard before and saw stars but stayed in the game because he didn’t want to look weak.


Evan’s injury ended his career. He said he’d never play a sport again where he might hit his head. The Michigan State freshman scored 35 on the ACT after lots of rehab and intense study.


Ethan hung it up on his own after watching Evan.


And the youngest Dunbar?


“She took more of a hit in basketball than she has in football,” says her mom. “She landed on her head on the floor in basketball (last season) .... She literally thought she was at the cottage looking up at the sky and she was on the floor of the gym.

FOOTBALL DOESN’T DEFINE ME

Football takes up a lot of Eva’s time; eight hours of practice a week plus games which can take two hours to play not counting travel. But it’s not everything.


She plays basketball and she throws shot put (31.7 feet is her personal record). She hangs out with girlfriends, some are cheerleaders.


She likes math and wants to be a nurse.


“Is that bad?” she asks me. “Is that too girlie?”


“It seems like a really fun job except for the colonoscopies and stuff,” she adds.


A conversation with Eva rolls easily from the silly to the profound.


Eva wants to keep playing past the ninth grade, leading to varsity. “It’s very unlikely to get that far but if I can I definitely want to,” she says. “Another thing I’m scared of is I don’t want to end up being all muscle-y and manly because all the guys on the varsity team look like that. I want to keep a good balance between not too much and way too much.”


Under it all is a young lady growing into and discovering herself. All her likes end up in the same pool – Flixter, Beats headphones, hipster-y music.


Her favorite food? “Chocolate-covered strawberries,” she says without a pause. “That’s the one thing that comes to mind when people say their favorite food. I haven’t had one in a year but man do I love them.”


She can come off the field after slamming into players on the line, grass in her facemask, bruises on her legs and arms and ask her sister to braid her hair.


“I think it’s great that she defies the stereotypes on all fronts,” says her mother. “There are people who would make assumptions about her gender, about her sexuality and about her femininity as it relates to football, like she would be the tool belt wearing butch because she likes football. She likes heels. She likes skirts.”


After the Holt game the team huddled on the steamy 80-degree field to hear some final words from Mayes. He congratulated them on the picks. He apologies for keeping too many of the O-line on defense making them overly tired. He warned them that the next week would be hard against Lansing Catholic.


They all stand and sing the East Lansing fight song, “We’re East Lansing.”


As they break up and head toward awaiting family members, two little girls in pink run up to Eva and grab her arm and wave at her as they go by. She doesn’t have a free hand – her cleats are in one, her shoulder pads in the other.


“I’m normal,” Eva says. “The whole football thing doesn’t define me as a person, it’s a thing I do. It’s a hobby. It’s a love. A passion. And that itself does not make me who I am but it helps. I don’t want to be known as the girl who plays football, I want to be known as Eva.”



 Culture change


Taking the impact out of concussions in youth sports


Eva
Dunbar isn't at any greater risk for concussion or brain injury because
she plays football, according to Tracey Covassin, an associate
professor of athletic training at Michigan State University.


“She’s probably going to have the same risk playing football that she would playing soccer,” she says.


Covassin
is helping conduct a pilot program of SMART Teams which provides
computer-based baseline cognitive testing for youth sports players and
other safety measures like an athletic trainer on the side lines and
education for parents. The baseline is referred to after a suspected
concussion to see the cognitive impact of the injury.


The
national program includes teams in Texas, Oklahoma, Tennessee, South
Carolina and Arizona. Locally Covassin included the East Lansing Junior
Trojan football team.


“There’s
a lot of attention at the high school and college level but not a lot
at the youth sport level,” says Covassin, education director and
director of the sport related research lab at MSU. “We’re trying to
promote youth safety.”


Covassin
said some can have one con cussion and have to be pulled from contact
sports for life. Others can have three or four and have no issues.


“I’m
on a split 50/50, that says football is still good and not good,” says
Covassin. “I think football builds positive youth development. They stay
active and healthy.”


Covassin
has provided baseline testing for East Lansing, Holt, Haslett and all
three Lansing high schools for a few years. This is the first time she’s
working with youth sports.


Covassin
did a study a few years ago, however, that showed that females and
youths bear more brain damage than males and high school and college
athletes. So care should be taken to minimize injury and recognize the
signs of a concussion so the athlete is removed from game play.


Covassin said she is familiar with the Dunbar family from doing baselines for the high school athletes and now the youth team.


Eva says she plans to abide by a family rule, “one and done.” If she gets one concussion she’s hanging up her helmet.


Covassin said she’s glad the family has talked about it.


“One
and done is not a bad thing, especially being a female,” Covassin
says. “We haven’t had research that proves a genetic predisposition for
it, but we do know if they’ve had one it can run in the family. So
that’s a good rule to have.”


Eva
walks a delicate emotional line playing a position that delivers hard
impact in a sport that glorifies the “bone-crushing hit.”


“I’ve
probably given a few concussions which I’m not proud of because that
is a really crappy part of football but it’s kinda unpreventable.”


Covassin says the way to reduce the concussions is not less football or less contact.


“We need to change the culture,” she says. “That’s what we’re lacking in and we can’t seem to do.”


Athletes need to be taught not to play through the pain or play injured, she said.


“You have parents out there who don’t care if their kid has a concussion,” Covassin says. “You have only one brain.”


-Belinda Thurston