Many casual UNC fans know that Bunting played in Chapel Hill during his days as a college student, but the knowing herd begins to be culled when details of his playing career as a Tar Heel become the topic of discussion. How many know that Bunting was a first-team All-ACC selection as a senior in 1971, when Carolina went 9-3, won the ACC championship and narrowly fell to Georgia in the Gator Bowl? How many remember that during his three years as a starter Carolina led the conference in scoring defense, total defense and run defense? That he was the defensive Most Valuable Player for the 1971 ACC Champion Tar Heels, once tallying 20 tackles in a single game against mighty Notre Dame?
Who knows that Bunting got married soon after arriving in Chapel Hill and that his first child (a daughter, Kimberly) was born while he was still donning the blue and white on Saturdays? While the John Bunting who took the field in Kenan and Veterans Stadiums, roamed the coaches boxes and sidelines of the NFL and bears the mantle of leader of the North Carolina football program is well known, the college student who formed the core of the public figure is not.
Bunting arrived in Chapel Hill in 1968 from Silverbrook High School in Silver Spring, Md. He had turned down an offer from the hometown Terps in favor of the Tar Heels because of a lasting impression made upon him by the visiting UNC basketball team and a relationship developed with Bill Dooley assistant John Atherton. And once he arrived on campus it became quickly apparent that he would be a force to be reckoned with on the field—as his starting role the next season can attest. It was off the field, however, that the first major event of his playing career in Chapel Hill took place. This is the way Bunting described the event to a group of gathered players at a Bill Dooley-era reunion, as relayed to Inside Carolina by his friend and teammate Ike Olgesby:
"I went into Bill Dooley's office to let him know that I thought that my wife was pregnant," Bunting said. "Coach Dooley looked at me said, ‘John, you are a worrier. It will turn out fine.' I responded, ‘Thanks, Coach, I'm glad that you think of me as a warrior…' 'Not a warrior, John, a worrier,' Dooley said. ‘It will turn out ok.'"
It did indeed turn out fine for Bunting, as he now has two grown children, Kimberly (the object of his initial worry) and five years later a son, Brooks. With his marriage and the arrival of his first child, Bunting's social life took a path which now seems unusual. He lived in married housing, was rarely out late on Franklin Street and at the fraternity houses, and lived the life of a young husband and father.
"I remember John as a fantastic husband and father, and after a period of time I think some of us came to view him as a bit of a father figure ourselves," said Mike Mansfield, a fellow linebacker at Carolina. "The way he approached the game specifically and life in general reflected a level of maturity that you rarely see in much older men, much less college students. It showed in his performances on the field, but that wasn't the most important thing. The important thing was that it showed what type of person he really was."
However, there were occasions when he was able to shed the fatherly responsibilities and relax with his teammates. The 1970 trip to the Peach Bowl afforded the Carolina players their first exposure to the bowl game atmosphere, and Atlanta was a far cry from the daily routine of Chapel Hill and the Triangle. The distance and the celebratory atmosphere allowed for a bit of ‘distraction,' according to Olgesby.
"Back then, when we hadn't gone to a bowl game for quite a while and were a long ways from the big city, it was such a huge deal for us to go to Atlanta for the Peach Bowl," Olgesby said. "John was always such a dedicated person, such a focused individual, that it was great to get out with him and cut loose a bit. John has a very wry sense of humor, and we all just had a great time on that trip."
Bunting also participated in other sporting opportunities available in Chapel Hill, including basketball. Believe it or not, he was at one time known as quite the dunker.
"We used to play basketball, and John could really get up in the air and dunk it on the people guarding him. You wouldn't believe it," said Eugene Brown with a chuckle, a defensive end who often lined up in front of Bunting in Dooley's scheme. "Wait, did I forget to mention that was on an 8-foot goal?"
‘Cutting loose,' as Olgesby so succinctly put it, was the exception to the rule for Bunting. however. When discussing his college years, one of the primary aspects of his personality and practices that drew mention time and again from his teammates was his dedication to the study of the game of football, both on and off the field. At a time when film study was still in its infancy and most players had to be dragged kicking and screaming in front of the review screen, Bunting developed an early affinity for intense study of the opposing team that continues to this day. Indeed, he didn't just study his position; he was known for analyzing the entire offense of the opposing team before stepping onto the field.
"John was such a student of the game, he took his film study extremely seriously, far more so than the rest of us did," said Ricky Packard, a classmate and fellow linebacker on the resurgent defenses keyed by Bunting. "He would go into the film room and examine the entire offense of the other team, the way they called their plays in certain situations, everything. He would know their entire scheme, and while it may not show up in a spectacular play, you could be sure that he would get to spots that his physical gifts could not have gotten him to alone. It made a difference, there is no doubt."
Bunting's encyclopedic understanding of the way that the game of football worked didn't just manifest itself when the ball was in play. As a junior and a senior he called the defensive plays and assignments, and his presence in the huddle and his certain knowledge of what each player on the field was supposed to be doing had an impact upon his teammates.
"When John would give the signals in the huddle that he had gotten from the sidelines, you knew that he knew not only what he was supposed to do but what you were supposed to do," Packard said. "He got your attention, standing there in front the huddle like he did, and you knew that you better get it right. His eyes were so intense, you couldn't help but do all you could to match that."
"Intense" was the single word most commonly uttered in reference to Bunting by his teammates—"intense" or "intensity" was brought up within the first minute of the conversation by every single teammate except one. Closely following were ‘determination,' ‘focus,' ‘drive' and ‘toughness.'
"John Bunting was one of the toughest human beings I have ever been exposed to, ever seen in my life," said Mike Lemmons, a linebacker who came to Chapel Hill a year after Bunting arrived. "He was so intense; he would lay a huge hit and pop right back up and head for the huddle. He was so focused on the next play that it was almost like he didn't even feel what had just happened to him. It was amazing."
That internal drive was further fueled by the death of Bill Arnold during a fall practice in which the offensive lineman collapsed from heat stroke. His tragic passing created a furor on campus in 1971, with everyone from the Chancellor through the professorial ranks using it as a wedge to scrutinize the football program. Bunting and quarterback Paul Miller turned the tide of negativity, however, into something positive.
"It was a time of great upheaval on campus and in the country, and Bill's passing really put a lot of stress on the program and on Coach Dooley's staff," Mansfield said. "Without the way that John Bunting and Paul Miller stepped up and used that as a tool to force us to realize that we had to get serious, we had to make it all work because it meant something, things could really have gotten divisive and just spiraled. He and Paul Miller just stepped up and took on that leadership role that he hasn't let go throughout his life, all the way through today."
Just as that crucible bonded Bunting's teams together, Bunting seeks to utilize the bond that he and all Carolina players have through their common experiences. The program today regularly integrates former players into the practices and processes of the everyday operation of the Tar Heels.
"Whenever I get a chance to put a former player in front of the team, I like to do that. I love having them at practice. They are welcome to use our facilities," Bunting said of the broader UNC football community. "I like having them around because they paid their dues out there on the football field, the same field that I paid my dues, and sweat, and bled on. I want them around our players now so that they can have a perspective on what it took to win back then and what it takes to win now."
While knowledge of the day-to-day details of Bunting's life as a student in Chapel Hill may be limited to his family and his teammates, there is one thing that no one from Bunting himself through the most far-flung member of the Carolina football family ever doubts: John Bunting has indeed paid his dues.
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