Carlos Dunlap rebuilding 'tarnished' image

Carlos Dunlap

Anger and gratitude slugged it out between Carlos Dunlap Sr.'s burning ears all the way through the ACE Basin and down I-95.

"My son is 6-6, but I wanted to wring his neck," he said. "But as I got closer to Gainesville (Fla.), I thought about how fortunate I really was. My son hadn't died. I did not have to walk into a hospital to tell someone I had never met before, 'I'm sorry about what happened.' I didn't find my son in a wheelchair."

Maybe you can relate.

Except for the part where millions of dollars are at stake.

This 20-year-old son, Fort Dorchester High School graduate Carlos Dunlap, weighs 290 pounds. A junior defensive end at Florida, he is unanimously regarded as one of the top pass rushers in college football.

But a DUI arrest in Gainesville in the wee hours of Dec. 1 kept Dunlap out of the Southeastern Conference Championship Game, an unusually hyped mega- showdown with Alabama, and might cost seven figures in NFL bonus money.

ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. dropped Dunlap 14 spots in the first-round of his "Big Board."

Kiper, of course, is assuming Dunlap doesn't stun everyone and return to Florida for his senior season.

"It's a possibility," said Carlos Dunlap Sr., a North Charleston bail bondsman. "It's a 50-50 chance that he will come back. If it was my decision right now, I would say come back. Because we are a very prideful family. We have a tarnished name, somewhat in the eyes of so-called fans. But I really feel there is a distinct possibility he will come back because he feels like he owes his university something."

Redemption plan

Gainesville police arrested Dunlap at 3:25 a.m. near the Florida campus after he "appeared to be asleep," the police report said, at the wheel of a 2000 Chrysler stopped at an intersection. Dunlap has entered a plea of not guilty and the Florida state attorney's office is reviewing the case.

With Dunlap, Florida defeated Alabama in the 2008 SEC title game. The Gators reached the BCS Championship Game and Dunlap was named Defensive Most Valuable Player as Florida beat Oklahoma.

Without Dunlap, No. 1 Florida suffered a lopsided upset loss to Alabama earlier this month.

It might be the thought of coming back that counts. Dunlap has been cleared to play for Florida in its Sugar Bowl game against Cincinnati in New Orleans on Jan. 1. A stellar approach followed by good citizenship through the NFL draft process would probably get Dunlap back into the top 10 list of projected prospects.

Carlos Dunlap, his father and mother, Goodwin Elementary School principal Diane Brown Ross, plan to sit down and evaluate the draft question sometime after the Sugar Bowl.

"It (the DUI arrest) could cost him," Dunlap Sr. said. "But I don't think it can, because this is just an isolated one-time thing. Yes, if he had a track record that looked like a repeat offender, it probably could have cost him. But there are ways you can always redeem yourself. This is not Carlos' senior year. Carlos has another year to go in school. If he decides to come back to school, he can redeem himself and show the kind of character he has.

"But when you look at a 20-year-old child who has never been in trouble, if this is the only thing Carlos has to deal with in life then he is truly blessed."

'One-time thing'

The proud father beams when talking about the way his articulate son has handled college class work; Dunlap made the SEC's Freshman Academic Honor Roll.

"Out of all the awards he's won at Florida he said, 'Dad, this is the most important,' " Dunlap Sr. said.

The Dunlaps will not discuss specifics of the DUI case.

Florida coach Urban Meyer doesn't want Dunlap discussing much at all these days.

"But I know this is just a one-time thing," Dunlap Sr. said. "This is an isolated incident. This is something that, if we could sit down and talk about it, you would shake your head in dismay as to how this happened. Nothing of this nature will ever happen again.

"I am very surprised that this actually happened. Carlos has been the backbone of my family when it comes to doing the right thing. I was very shocked. But Carlos can use this in talking to kids about doing what's right. He always has been humble and he is very humble right now. He has shown so much remorse. Sometimes the Lord has a calling on your life and you don't know why. But things happen for a reason."

Reach Gene Sapakoff at gsapakoff@postandcourier.com or (843) 937-5593.