Olentangy Orange football coach Zebb Schroeder first took note of Reece Dunham while watching a freshman game three years ago.

The defensive back, then a diminutive 5-foot-2 and 100 pounds, had allowed yet another taller receiver to easily reach over him for a catch.

"Then a couple of the players on our team said, 'C'mon coach, get Reece out of there and put someone bigger in,' " Schroeder said. "Now that Reece is the senior, he is a starting defensive back for us. Those two players have come and gone, and they are watching the games from the stands."

Dunham has grown to 6-0 and 155 pounds, but he said being undersized when he was younger has made him a better player. He has 20.5 tackles and two interceptions this season.

"I have played football since I was 5 when I played I-9 flag football," said Dunham, his left forearm scabbed over from turf burn. "I always have been a little older than everyone because I have a fall birthday, but I have always been one of the smallest.

"I remember when I was 5 or 6 years old, I went to an Ohio State basketball game and ran into (1995 Heisman Trophy winner) Eddie George. I asked him if he had any tips for me because I was undersized, and he told me: 'It wasn't the size of the dog in the fight, but it was the size of the fight in the dog.' I never forgot that because even though my size played a role physically, I never thought of it as weighing me down."

Schroeder said Dunham handled the situation well and was lucky enough to continue growing. "You can't sit there and tell a kid that in order to get better you have to grow," said Schroeder, whose team is 3-1 after defeating Big Walnut 34-3 on Sept. 20. "Who knows if that will happen?

"What you need to do is focus on the things you can control. This means really obsessing over the fundamentals of the position. You have to train, you have to run for the position he plays, and you have to go get the ball. That's what he has been working on for the past few years. He's had great fortune to grow into his body, and because he has taken care of the little things, he has blossomed into a very good football player."

Dunham started two games last season, finishing with 14 tackles, including two for loss, and two pass break-ups. He had one tackle in a 41-12 win over Westland, which visits Orange on Friday, Sept. 27, to wrap up non-league play.

"I think I couldn't really hit and tackle like the other people so I had to find something that would give me an edge," Dunham said. "That was the fundamentals such as knowing your read steps and just knowing your assignment instead of relying on pure strength and size. Then when the strength and size came, I was already fundamentally sound."

Growing taller was out of his control, and bulking up didn't come easy. It took a big appetite, both for success and food.

"(When I started high school) I was physically intimidated," he said. "I knew if I kept eating and working out, I could put on more weight. I ate a lot of peanut-butter sandwiches and (drank) chocolate milk before I went to bed every night. I would always bring snacks to have before and after lifting. I was constantly eating."

Dunham also has worked to get faster, and that came from joining the boys track and field program last spring. He became a hurdler and quickly emerged as one of the Pioneers' top performers, finishing fifth in the OCC-Buckeye Division meet in the 300-meter hurdles in 42.52 seconds.

"I didn't have an event I was going to do," he said. "I was doing the 100 and 200, and coach (Adam) Walters told me to go over and try hurdles. I really enjoy track because it's one-on-one individually. It got me way faster and I had a lot of fun."

Being a quick study as a hurdler has earned Dunham a few offers to compete in college. He has a 3.8 GPA and would like to major in business.

Schroeder said whatever Dunham does, he will be successful. It all comes down to commitment, just like the one he made in football.

"Reece played as a freshman and physically he was one of the smallest kids on the field, but he was a competitor and he was fundamentally driven," Schroeder said. "He had a chip on his shoulder and he knew how to tackle. Now he is playing like an all-conference corner.

"I wish Reece could talk to the younger kids about staying with the process and staying on that journey. If you commit to it, you will be a very good football player."

shennen@thisweeknews.com

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