Inside Carlos Dunlap's bittersweet journey to 100 sacks

KANSAS CITY CHIEFS left defensive end Carlos Dunlap lined up for a third-down play in the first quarter of a recent game against the Jacksonville Jaguars on Nov. 13.

This play was different from any other in Dunlap's 13-season career. It completed a quest that began when he arrived in the NFL in 2010, and fulfill a promise he made to his father early in his career.

Dunlap beat right tackle Jawaan Taylor around the corner, and by the time he arrived at quarterback Trevor Lawrence, teammate Chris Jones was also there. Jones and Dunlap each got credit for a half-sack, which was all Dunlap needed to get him to 100 for his career, something only 40 other NFL players have accomplished.

He celebrated with a somersault, something of a signature move for him. He then returned to the sideline, where congratulatory hugs and head taps awaited from many of his teammates.

The celebration later continued at a Kansas City restaurant with a group of family and friends that included his mother, Diane Jackson.

Still, there was an emptiness in the festivities for Dunlap. His father, Carlos Sr., was not there. He died in January after being hit by a car.

"I feel lighter,'' Dunlap said. "It's a huge weight lifted. It's bittersweet in the fashion how it happened. But we want to enjoy it. It's something to be celebrated. My dad would be happy for me. My family is happy for me. There are a lot of feelings.

"There are a lot of reputable guys who don't have 100 sacks. A hundred to me is a real milestone . . . puts me in that elite category, which I set out to do from the day I came into this league.''

AFTER SIGNING WITH the Chiefs over the summer, Dunlap's arrival at training camp was delayed by a couple of days. He had an important stop to make first.

He went to his father's gravesite in his hometown of Charleston, South Carolina. Once there, he told his dad he would soon embark on a mission to fulfill the dreams for his football career they once shared, which included getting his 100th career sack, winning a playoff game, which he's never done, and being a Super Bowl champion.

"His dad was so important for him in getting to the NFL,'' said Jackson. "He would come to every game, high school, college and pro.

"Once the season started, he wasn't going to be able to come to Charleston, so he went to talk to his dad then. He told him, 'I'm with a new team now. I want to make you proud. I'm going to make it to 100 and we're going to make it to the playoffs.' It was his way of talking to his dad and saying, 'Here we go. I know you're not here physically with me, but I know spiritually you're here with me.' I think Carlos feels that at every game.''

The two were so close that in 2019, when Carlos played for the Cincinnati Bengals, he ran onto the field alongside his father before a game during player introductions.

Dunlap said he wouldn't have reached the NFL without the help of his father. Jackson initially wouldn't allow Dunlap to play football, and it wasn't until he was in middle school that he, with the help of Carlos Sr., talked her into letting him play.

Until then, soccer and basketball were his sports.

"My dad since I started playing any sport was at every game, every practice'' Dunlap said. "He was my coach in youth league for basketball. When I was younger and I had a rough day and the coach would tell me to leave, I left and dad grabbed me and took me there and made me do whatever I had to do to get back on the team.

"Clearly it paid off, because I'm blessed to be here today.''

The two talked often when he was drafted by the Bengals in 2010 about what Dunlap was capable of achieving. They set 100 sacks as a goal once he started to pile them up after a few seasons with the Bengals.

Dunlap spent the first 10-plus seasons with Cincinnati before being traded in 2020 to the Seattle Seahawks.

Jackson attends most of Dunlap's games as well. She took pride in her son's achievement but was also respectful of the role Carlos Sr. played in it.

"I told Carlos before it happened, 'Ninety-nine can be for me. Let 100 be for dad.' And it all worked out,'' she said. "I was in awe. I was just so proud of him. Now he could say, 'I made my dad proud.' It worked out because he hit 100 even by getting a half-sack. This was perfect. This was how it was supposed to happen.''

DUNLAP IS IN historical company. Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald -- a three-time Defensive Player of the Year -- is a few spots ahead of him on the all-time sack list at 103. Former Chiefs defensive end Neil Smith finished his 13-year career at 104.5. Pro Football Hall of Famer Charles Haley is in a group of players immediately ahead of Dunlap at 100.5.

"That's a lot of prestige in that group,'' Jones said. "The closer he got, the harder it gets. I'm glad he got his 100th sack here, with the Chiefs. We got to share it with him.

"Now it's about continuing to build his legacy, whether that's 110, 105, a Super Bowl ring.''

Dunlap signed with the Chiefs because he was looking for a place where he could achieve his remaining career goals. He was 0-5 with the Bengals and 0-1 with the Seahawks in the playoffs.

He entered the season with 96 sacks and is playing for a team that features a top pass-rusher in Jones, and other complementary pass-rushing parts like Frank Clark. The Chiefs are fourth in the league in sacks with 32.

Dunlap's most notable features in his pass rush are his size at 6-foot-6 and his long arms. He benefits from both as he attempts to get to the opposing quarterback.

"He has a real sense of staying alive on his rush," Chiefs defensive line coach Joe Cullen said. "Sometimes it's not about beating a blocker 1-on-1, just blowing right by him. You've got to fight through the down . . . and just stay alive, working his hands, knowing when to counter back inside. You never see him just get blocked and stop. He's always working to get to the quarterback. Sometimes he doesn't always beat the guy clean, but he impacts it.

"That's something from afar I always admired about Carlos.''

Dunlap will play his first game against the Bengals on Sunday when the Chiefs visit Cincinnati. His former teammates recall his consistency. Dunlap in his first 12 NFL seasons finished with fewer than six sacks just once, and with four this season is on pace to pass that mark again.

"He just has an incredible amount of consistency in his production and how healthy he stayed,'' Bengals defensive end Sam Hubbard said. "It's an amazing accomplishment. It's not by accident. ... I'm happy to see his success continue. I know he's going to keep going for more.''

Dunlap's next personal milestone is to climb as high on the sack list as possible. With four over the Chiefs' final six games, for instance, Dunlap would end the season at 104, which would be 34th all time.

For the moment, he's content knowing he reached the goal he set with his late father.

"I don't want to speak for him but he would definitely be proud,'' Dunlap said. "He would take ownership in that 100. He would probably get on the phone and start bragging to all his friends.''

-- ESPN's Ben Baby contributed to this report