The sun sears the sky with streaks of orange and red as it sets over the wooded hills near Payson.
Dan Dunn sits on the back porch of his cabin, staring into that brightness with a face that is half wonder, half remembrance.
"I think about the past all the time and all the things that have happened," said Dunn, 58, who opens his second tenure as Mesa Community College's football coach today in Colorado Springs, Colo. against the Air Force Academy junior varsity. "The thing about it is, I'm absolutely certain I wouldn't change any of the choices I've made or the things that I've had."
Dunn has lost much that was precious to him.
A western Pennsylvania native, he ventured out west in 1964 to play football for legendary coach Frank Kush at Arizona State. Despite majoring in physics and minoring in math, Dunn chose the coaching ranks upon graduation and started a family with ASU swimmer and national champion, Pat Fleming, whom he married in 1969.
The couple moved to Chinle that year so Dunn could coach the football team, but the imminent arrival of their first child, Shawn, and an opportunity to coach Gilbert High's team drew them back to the Valley in ’71, where they had two more children, Laura and Daniel, over the next four years.
"We had a big house with a swimming pool out on Williams Field Road when there were only 14 houses out there," said Dunn, who won three state championships at Gilbert. "We used to get up in the morning and ride our bikes together. Pat was a fitness fanatic so it became a part of our life."
A day before her eighth birthday, Laura told her mother she was going out for a ride with the family cat. She never returned and Pat later found her abandoned bike on a dirt road.
Laura Dunn was abducted and murdered — her body left in the San Tan Mountains south of Queen Creek.
Still reeling from the loss, the couple decided to try and have another girl. But Pat suffered complications during delivery of their son. Patrick, in 1984, and lapsed into a coma from which she never emerged.
"After that I just kind of bounced around for a while," said Dunn in a distant voice.
Red Mountain football coach and good friend Jim Jones remembers the strength Dunn exhibited in the face of tragedy.
"When we'd come over to his house he'd be the one trying to make everyone feel better," said Jones, who met Dunn in 1973 and coached with him for seven years at Red Mountain before Dunn left for MCC this season. "I don't know how he was able to do that. I could not have reacted the way he reacted. I know he was hurting really badly deep down, but that's Dan. He spends more time thinking about other people than he does thinking about himself."
Dunn thinks he inherited that quality from his father, who owned an appliance delivery service in Pennsylvania.
"He was always helping people out," Dunn said. "He'd deliver a freezer or some other appliance and the people wouldn't have the $5 or $7 to pay for it so he'd come home with a couple gallons of milk, a few dozen eggs and two chickens. We always had something running around our house."
Dunn has incorporated his dad's teachings into his coaching — even allowing former Red Mountain tight end Bristol Olomua (now at BYU) to live with him when Olomua transferred to Red Mountain from Ganado.
The desire to make an impact on kids' lives, Jones said, is what fuels Dunn's coaching fire.
"He really can relate to kids, but he does it in a constructive way and a calm way," Jones said. "He's going to bring unity to (MCC) and an understanding that football isn't the end of life."
Following its second losing season in the last three years and an ugly brawl with Scottsdale Community College to end the season, MCC athletic director Allen Benedict was looking for a new coach who could restore some of MCC's former glory and reputation.
Dunn's son, Patrick, will start at center for the Thunderbirds this season. In addition, Dunn had already been the head coach at MCC for one year and an assistant to Jim Ewan for another 12.
"Dan's loyal and I trust him. I think that's big with coaches today,” Benedict said, "You can't tell kids to have good character if you don't have good character, but with Dan that's never been an issue.
"I believe in what he stands for. He'll be great for the kids, the college and the community." While he has remarried and remade his life, Dunn admits he still thinks about Laura and Pat every day. But the losses have not soured him on life.
"What would that accomplish?" he said. "I don't like being around negative people and I hate when people complain. Sure, I've had some bad things happen to me but I will guarantee you I don't have to walk from here to Fiesta Mall to find someone who's had it a lot worse."
Dunn said he has learned from tragedy.
"I've heard people say this was God's will but I don't believe that. I don't think he willed this suffering," he said. "I think other people's choices influence your life in a positive or negative way. It's that simple. After that we have choices about what we want to do about it.
"I try to shut all that bad stuff out and treat every day as a new opportunity. I think it's helped me in my coaching and in my approach to life."