Cleveland Browns guard Michael Dunn started his NFL career in Jerome M. Marco Stadium

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Photo courtesy Michael Dunn

Michael Dunn (’12) tackles his opponent. Dunn was recently signed to the Los Angeles Rams’ practice squad, and his journey in the NFL continues.

By Rafe Epstein, Walt Whitman High School

As Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield yells pre-snap audibles, guard Michael Dunn (’12) is lined up, ready to block Pro Bowl defensive linemen T.J. Watt. Dunn scans his surroundings: the bright lights, thousands of screaming fans, reporters and cameras. He soaks in the moment in awe before the play begins.

If you had told Dunn he’d be playing in the NFL playoffs when he was a kid, or even only a few months ago, he would have probably laughed at you. His journey from a Whitman Viking to a Cleveland Brown is one of perseverance, patience and hard work.

As a teenager, Dunn always had a passion for football, but never excelled at it. He started playing his freshman year to spend time with friends and have fun outside of school, he said. 

“He always had a Patriots sweatshirt on,” his best friend from high school Andrew Feder recalled. “And while football was always at the top of his mind, I don’t think at that point he had any thoughts of playing in the NFL.”

When he was younger his body wasn’t fully developed, making it difficult to play offensive line. The position relies heavily on size and strength, so younger players often struggle. 

“I don’t think there was ever a point in my life that I thought it was a realistic opportunity to be a professional football player,” Dunn said. “As a 5’10”, 180 pound JV offensive lineman, you kind of just think it’s a pipe dream.”

His position on the line and lean stature planted Dunn firmly on the bench for most of his high school career — even in his first year on the varsity squad, coaches put him on the field for just half the team’s games. It was only after four years of practices, and with graduation nearing, that he rose to a starting position. 

He made a huge jump during his senior year though, Feder said. 

“That senior year from the first scrimmage to the last snap of the season, he was just unstoppable,” he said. “He was just better than everybody on the field, either side of the ball.”

At a collegiate level, few scouts viewed Dunn as an up-and-comer; none recruited him. Dunn wound up walking onto the University of Maryland’s varsity team during his freshman year. Even in college, however, he found himself in a similar position to that of his early years at Whitman. Dunn continued to see more of the sidelines than he did the field, leading him back to a strategy which had brought him success in high school: demonstrate to the coaches why you’re valuable, and the game time will follow. 

After a year of hard work, Dunn started every game of his redshirt freshman year — a year in which athletes repeat a grade to improve their skills and mature physically. 

“I gained a newfound respect for what I needed to do in that first year,” he said. “After being redshirted, I was a much better athlete; I was stronger and was ready to go.”

His father, David Dunn, recalls his son calling him when he found out he would become a starter, and describing the experience of being named a starter.

“One day the coach pulled him into his office, and told him he was going to be the starting right guard and gave him a full scholarship on the spot,” he recalls.

For his remaining three years as a Terp, Dunn became a fixture of the team, starting for nearly the rest of his college career and earning multiple conference-wide awards including an Big Ten All-Conference honorable mention. 

After his five-year career at Maryland, Dunn declared for the 2017 NFL Draft. He went undrafted and wound up bouncing between various NFL practice squads and team rosters for a few years. In 2019, the Seattle Dragons drafted Dunn in the sixth round to play in the XFL —  a minor professional football league — during the 2020 season.

However, he was never able to find a consistent role with the Dragons, and the XFL filed for bankruptcy in April as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, causing Dunn to lose his position altogether. Unsure of his future, Dunn continued doing the only thing he could: improving his game. 

“I literally just took a bench and some dumbbells, set up in my girlfriend’s parents’ garage and was just working out over there,” he said. “Using a field nearby, I worked out by myself. It really seemed to be these workouts that pulled me over the edge to finally make a team.”

In August, the Cleveland Browns signed him. 

“I was expecting him to get signed earlier because of his outstanding performance in the XFL,” his father says. “But, at the beginning of the pandemic, no teams were showing interest. So that made it all the better when he got a call from the Browns, a team that had never shown interest in the past.”

Dunn remained on the practice squad until late December, when the Browns signed him to their active roster. And on January 10, Dunn played in his first career NFL start in the Browns’ 48–37 playoff victory against the Pittsburgh Steelers. During the game Dunn had the fourth- highest Pro Football Focus rating of all Brown’s offensive linemen, allowing only one QB hurry and zero sacks on 23 pass-block attempts. His performance helped Cleveland to its first playoff win in over two decades and knock out a serious Super Bowl champion contender in the process.

“It felt like a dream,” Dunn said. “I was almost trying not to blink because I just wanted to soak in every second of it.”

Although a calf strain kept him off the line in the following game, Dunn remained his teammates’ loudest supporter, attending film sessions and cheering them on the sidelines throughout the game. 

Dunn’s future in the NFL seems unknown, but he hopes to stay involved with the franchise and is excited to further his budding career.

For Whitman students looking to become pro-level athletes, Dunn knows it’s “not going to be easy,” he said. Although, as his own winding journey has demonstrated, dedication to the craft can transform careers. 

 “If you feel like no one’s watching you, you have to make them watch,” he said. “And whether that means you cut up your own film and individually send it to every coach, or just put in the extra minutes in the weight room, you have to keep that drive.”

This story was originally published on The Black & White on April 5, 2021.