• September 17, 2014

Gunning for Success: Former Heights RB finding victory off the field

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Posted: Sunday, July 31, 2011 12:00 pm

By Angel Verdejo

Killeen Daily Herald

Not everyone is Tommie Harris. High school phenom and college All-American. Blue-chip recruit and Sports Illustrated coverboy. First-round draft pick and NFL All-Pro.

Orlando Gunn isn't Tommie Harris. And neither are plenty of the local athletes that roam stadiums, gyms and fields.

"Not everybody is going to make it," said Gunn, a former running back at Harker Heights and walk-on at LSU. "So have that plan B, C and D ready to put in motion."

Like Harris, countless area athletes earn scholarships and chances to continue their athletic careers.

But unlike the former Ellison all-state defensive tackle, the path of most doesn't continue into professional sports.

There are some. Four former football stars signed with NFL teams days ago as undrafted free agents. Should they stick with their teams into the season, they'll join a group that's already in the NFL - Harris, Charles Tillman (Copperas Cove), Roy Miller (Shoemaker), Dominique Zeigler (Heights), Juaquin Iglesias (Killeen) and Keith Null (Lampasas).

And despite what looks like a large contingent from a relatively small area, the preps-to-pros route isn't that common.

"Those are the exceptions to the rule," said former Heights football coach Ross Rogers, who's seen three of his former players - including Zeigler - play in the NFL.

For most coaches, it isn't just about the superstars. It's about helping their players - all of them - succeed in whatever it is they do.

"That's really what we're all about in this business," said Cove football coach Jack Welch. "When they get to do what they want to do, it makes you proud. In anything - football is great, but I've had kids that they got accepted into a university that they wanted to get in for a certain program.

"Of course those things don't make the headlines of a newspaper, but as a coach, I'm just as proud."

Reality check

Gunn started asking questions his sophomore year at LSU.

At a school that draws some of the top prep talent in the country, most of Gunn's teammates had NFL ambitions.

The NFL "fever" even caught Gunn, a 5-foot-8, 180-pound reserve who spent most of his time with the Tigers watching the games instead of playing in them.

"You think, 'If the guy in front of you can go, why can't you?'" he said.

But that wasn't the reality.

A top-level college football program typically gives out 25 scholarships per year. At the other end, LSU has seen between 5-7 players selected in the NFL draft every year since 2006.

"What happened to this guy, who was a starter?" Gunn said. "What happened to this guy, who was one of the best players on our team? If they're not on somebody's NFL roster, then where are they?

"You don't hear about them. You don't see them anymore. So that kind of turned on a switch for me."

Gunn admits he was initially disappointed with this reality.

He participated in LSU's 2010 Pro Day, but was largely overshadowed by more-heralded teammates.

"It's like having your dream stripped away from you beyond measures that you really can't control," he said.

But Gunn wasn't just football. While in school, Gunn became known for his community service in Baton Rouge, La. He was also a part of LSU's Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC), the athletes' governing body.

Graduating was important to him. Gunn went to class and did his work, taking advantage of all resources given to him as a student-athlete.

"I realized that not everyone on the field is making all the money," he said. "There's a lot of people in business suits off the field that's making money as well."

That determination and work ethic - Gunn is weeks away from starting in a graduate program at the University of Central Florida - that got him this far in the first place.

Changing perception

Gunn has never been the biggest guy on the field.

Or the fastest, or the strongest. So when he told people he planned on heading to LSU and playing football for the Tigers, there were plenty of doubters.

Gunn played just one varsity season at Heights, making the move to fullback to see more playing time. LSU was already a top program and a year away from winning their second national championship in five seasons.

"I remember one coach in particular saying, 'You'll never make it. Or even if you do go, you'll never see the field,'" Gunn said. "Or even some of my own friends were like, 'Yeah right - you play at LSU? Right, and my dad's Deion Sanders.'

"Even people I went to church with. It was really tough, and that was some of the honesty I had to try to sift through. But that's also some of the motivation that I had as well."

So Gunn kept at it - a trait Rogers remembers well in his former player.

"He never believed he couldn't do anything," Rogers said. "He just had the total belief in what he could do, he wasn't going to give up and he was going to give you everything he had every single play."

With an already-demanding class schedule and extra-curricular activities as well, Gunn got his chance. He helped Heights reach the playoffs for the fifth team in six years. In the postseason, the 6-4 Knights took 10-0 Lufkin - a perennial contender at the time - to overtime.

That grit continued in college, where Gunn started as a regular student before eventually landing his spot with the Tigers, who won the national title in his first year on the team.

Gunn graduated in May 2010 and followed that with an internship with the NCAA at its national office.

Now this fall, Gunn will be in Central Florida's DeVos Sport Business Management Program, whose director, Richard Lapchick, is the founder and director of The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport.

As part of his orientation, Gunn will leave in a few weeks and provide community service and support in New Orleans.

He doesn't exactly know where he'll end up, but said giving back and being in the public's eye are keys to his future. Gunn was doing both just this weekend, assisting at a football camp on Saturday.

"It's having the courage to dream," Gunn said, "having the focus to turn that dream into a vision and maintaining the passion that fuels that vision into becoming a reality that is key."

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