Achieving Gridiron Goals

Written by: 
Meredith Moriak Wright
Photography by: 
Michael Clements

Craig Robertson ('10, '14 M.S.) is chasing a championship ring. The National Football League linebacker who played four seasons with the Cleveland Browns is now entering his second season with the New Orleans Saints.

"I knew that in choosing the Saints we would have a chance to win games," says Robertson, who remains the second all-time leading tackler in UNT history.

UNT has produced more than 100 NFL players over the years, including Abner Haynes, "Mean" Joe Greene, Ron Shanklin and Charles "Chuck" Beatty ('76). More than 30 of those players were undrafted free agents like Robertson, Lance Dunbar, Jamize Olawale ('17) and Zach Orr ('13), who all worked hard to be recognized in the NFL.

Each alum's determined path was different, but all agree the work truly begins once a player makes the 53-man roster, because then the goal is to remain on
the team.

"Playing in the NFL is so special and I treat it like gold," says Robertson, a 2016 UNT Athletic Hall of Fame inductee. "Each day, I do everything I can to stay here."

Service and excellence

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Robertson earned his bachelor's degree in recreation and leisure studies. When he didn't get drafted as hoped, he shifted his focus to his job as a health and wellness coach at Verizon's corporate office and a master's degree.

"I'm big on athletics, but I'm even bigger on academics. You can do a lot in sports, but your brain is a beautiful thing if you use it for what it's made for," says Robertson, who earned a master's in recreation, event and sport management.

As a UNT undergraduate, he met his wife, Brittani Nichols Robertson ('11), who was a kinesiology student. And in addition to playing football, he was a member of Omega Psi Phi fraternity, where he says his brothers were like family.

"The relationships I formed were something special," he says. "They helped me stay humble."

In late 2011, Robertson received a phone call from a scout with the Cleveland Browns, interested in flying him up for a few workouts. He thought it was a joke and hung up.

"My agent called, told me the mistake I'd made and convinced the guy to call me back," Robertson says. He was signed to Cleveland's practice squad and made the active roster in 2012.

"I had accepted it wasn't in the cards for me and was preparing to move to Australia to play football when Cleveland called and changed my life," says Robertson.

In 2014, he was the Browns' nominee for the NFL Walter Payton Man of the Year award, in recognition of his community service and playing excellence.

Positive attitude

When Hurricane Katrina forced Lance Dunbar and his family out of New Orleans in August 2005, football remained the constant. His family settled in Haltom City, and his Haltom High School football coach, Clayton George ('94), returned to UNT in 2007 as wide receivers coach.

"I became real close with Coach George and he helped me flourish -- in football and in becoming a man," Dunbar says. "Coming to UNT felt right. It was close enough to my mom and sisters that I didn't have to worry about leaving them alone, and I knew I could make it anywhere if I did well in college."

Dunbar left an unmistakable mark on UNT as the all-time leading rusher, the only running back in school history with back-to-back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons, and the player with the most career touchdowns -- 49.

"UNT allowed me to do great things," says Dunbar, a 2016 inductee to the UNT Athletic Hall of Fame. "Being able to come to UNT and break records means everything to me."

Dunbar's dreams of playing in the NFL were realized in 2012 when the Dallas Cowboys signed him as a special teams player and running back. He earned a prominent role but had to fight his way back from season-ending knee injuries in 2013 and 2015.

This spring, Dunbar signed a one-year contract with the Los Angeles Rams.

"It's going to be a different experience, since I'm a Southern boy," he says. "I plan to go out there with a clear mind, clear head and positive attitude. I'll take advantage of every opportunity."

Hard work

Playing in the NFL was Jamize Olawale's dream when he transferred to UNT in 2010 from El Camino College in California. As a junior receiver, he hoped for two stellar seasons and a compelling highlight reel to draw the attention of NFL scouts. However, Olawale accumulated fewer than 100 receiving yards at UNT.

"Even when I wasn't playing or didn't know my future in football, I had goals and I kept working. I tried not to be discouraged and to keep grinding and keep praying," says Olawale, who participated in the 2012 Dallas Cowboys rookie mini-camp and spent that fall on the team's practice squad as a fullback. In December 2012, the misfortune of injured Oakland Raiders fullbacks gave Olawale the big break he was looking for.

Landing on an NFL roster taught him that every dream is achievable.

"Growing up, you look at a professional athlete and think it's unattainable, but if you're willing to work hard for it, you can achieve anything," Olawale says. "I'm now in the locker room and playing in the same league with those I watched growing up."

Since joining the Raiders, Olawale has grown with the team just as its record and reputation has -- advancing from 4-12 in 2012 to the playoffs in 2016.

"We work hard, believe we can beat anybody and compete every day at practice," Olawale says. "The team understands that nothing is given to us and everything we want, we have to earn."

During the 2017 off-season, Olawale and his wife, Brittany ('17), returned to UNT to finish up degrees in sociology and emergency administration and planning.

"It was a priority for us to complete our educations and lead by example," says the father of three children.

Olawale credits his strong faith for opening the doors and his hard work for landing and remaining in the NFL.

"Nothing is guaranteed," he says. "Every year I go with the mentality of having to work for what I have."

Overcoming adversity

Football quickly shifted to a full-time job for linebacker Zach Orr ('13) when he secured a spot on the Baltimore Ravens' roster in 2014.

"I would get to practice at 7 a.m. for a full day studying film and working out, before I left at 7 p.m.," Orr says. "It was a lot more mental than I thought it would be. Going against the best football players in the world, you have to be locked in mentally."

Orr, UNT's most effective linebacker from 2010 to 2013, was a Ravens starter last season, tied for ninth-most tackles in the league and named second-team All-Pro.

"Becoming a starter was the best thing to happen to me in my NFL career and I cherished each and every moment," he says.

Unfortunately, Orr's time in the NFL came to an end in January at age 24, when a CT scan uncovered a congenital spine and neck condition that would put him at an increased risk for paralysis or death if he continued to play football.

"When I first found out the news, it was shocking," Orr said when announcing his retirement. "I was sad, disappointed and upset because football is something I've done my whole life, but I am happy that I was able to walk away from the game in good health."

Orr is back in Texas establishing the Orr's Family Kids and Youth Foundation, a nonprofit that is focused on inspiring youth to achieve their full potential and instilling confidence in them.

"I know what an important role my parents, coaches and teachers played when I was a kid. It meant the world to me whenever someone took the time to encourage me," Orr says. "Not every kid is fortunate to have an older brother, mother and father like I did, so I want to be that big brother or father figure to kids in need."

He aspires to return to the game of football, likely in a coaching role, and considers his years at UNT the best of his life -- even better than the NFL.

"I grew from a teenage boy into a young man. I learned to be independent and figure things out for myself," Orr says. "Without UNT, I wouldn't have had a chance to make it in the NFL."