Payson Connection Links T-Birds, Horns

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Mesa Community College will kick off the 2005 season next fall with a pair of ex-Longhorns on the Thunderbird roster.

At the helm of the birds will be former Payson High School football coach Dan Dunn. Among the T-bird players will be 2005 PHS graduate Donnie Wilbanks.

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Former Payson High School football coach Dan Dunn congratulates PHS senior Donnie Wilbanks on his decision to play football next year for Mesa Community College. Dunn is the athletic director and head football coach for the Thunderbirds.

Last week, Wilbanks inked a letter of intent with Dunn, also the MCC athletic director, to attend and play football at MCC next season.

Both are elated they soon will be on the same sidelines.

"I chose Mesa because of Coach Dunn. I've heard so many things about him," Wilbanks said. "He is a great coach and a great man."

"We are very excited to have Donnie coming here," Dunn said. "He's an excellent all-around athlete and it will be good to have that connection with Payson again and be involved in the community."

Dunn was head football coach at PHS from 1992 to 1995.

After leaving Payson, he served as offensive coordinator on two Mesa Red Mountain state championship teams before taking over the MCC program.

In state football circles, Dunn -- who in the early 1960s played for legendary coach Frank Kush at Arizona State -- is one of the most respected coaches.

In returning to MCC, Dunn has said he would like to rebuild the football program to what it was in the 1970s when he served his first coaching stint with the T-birds.

Dunn has also coached state championship teams at Gilbert High School, and began his career coaching on the Navajo reservation.

Among the Longhorns' best

During Wilbanks' four-year career at Payson High, he was one of the Longhorns' most accomplished three-sport athletes.

He admits to enjoying basketball and baseball, but claims football has long been his favorite, and he would like to continue playing quarterback at MCC.

"If I have my choice, that's where I'd play," he said.

Dunn will wait until preseason practices begin in August to assign Wilbanks a position.

"We are not exactly sure where we plan on playing him because of his athletic ability," the coach said.

As the Longhorns' signal caller, Wilbanks earned starting honors both his junior and senior season.

As a junior, he led the Longhorns to an 8-2 record in the school's first year in the 4A conference. Due to the 4A's power point ranking system, the Horns, however, did not qualify for the postseason.

For Wilbanks, the most memorable game of his varsity career was a 21-14 win over Apache Junction.

"I threw three touchdown passes to my brother (Larry)," he said.

At 6-foot, 5-inches and 170 pounds, Wilbanks has the height to find receivers over hard-charging defensive linemen. He also has the speed to turn the corner on option keepers and bootlegs.

When not calling signals, he held down the strong safety slot for the Horns.

His performance on the gridiron earned him postseason recognition his junior season. Following his senior campaign, however, he wasn't named among the region's best mostly because he injured a knee and spent the final few games watching from the sidelines.

Wilbanks says his knee is now 100 percent and he does not anticipate it will affect his play next year.

In basketball, Wilbanks was a two-year starter, playing mostly in the center and power forward positions. Although the Horns suffered through a dismal season, winning just three games, coaches tapped him to the all-region team.

The teen also earned postseason honors in baseball, playing every position on the field except first and catcher.

Although Wilbanks will graduate with plenty of sports memories and feats to buoy him, his prep career was marred by tragedy.

As a freshman football player, he and his teammates took to Longhorn field only days after the 9-11 terrorists attacks. Wilbanks said he remembered the flag hanging at half mast above Horn field and the somber moments of silence during pregame ceremonies.

Last year, Wilbanks and his teammates were rocked again when assistant coach Jack Morris suffered a stroke and died at 34 years of age.

Tragedy continued to beleaguer the players last fall when senior James Gibson's mother died suddenly.

Dealing with those crushing blows was tough on all the seniors, Wilbanks said, "but it brought us together."

At MCC, Wilbanks plans on majoring in wildlife science with hopes of someday becoming an Arizona Game and Fish officer.

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