Works in Progress: Dustin DeNeal: Facing Challenges Head-on
by Jim Amidon '87
March 25, 2004
Dustin DeNeal was getting ready for the final football practice of his life on the eve of the 110th Monon Bell Classic. But instead of bolting out the door with his Phi Delta Theta teammates to head for practice, DeNeal stood in the entryway of the house answering questions asked by state and local narcotics detectives.
The undercover cops had intercepted a package of cocaine and posed as deliverymen. As DeNeal would later find out, a former Phi Delt brother who dropped out of Wabash last year but returned for the Bell game, had allegedly shipped himself a party package, care of 114 West College Street.
DeNeal didn’t panic. The Little Giant back-up quarterback took responsibility for the house, dealt honestly with the detectives, Dean of Students Tom Bambrey, and angry alumni, then helped his Little Giant teammates dismantle DePauw 37–20.
"I like to be the guy who is looked to as a responsible person and who will help them out," he says a month after the events that further helped shape the Wabash senior who possesses a remarkable combination of intellectual drive, leadership, and humility.
But even before the start of his senior year, DeNeal knew he’d be facing serious challenges that would sometimes demand a smooth touch, and other times require a firm hand.
"I was pretty judgmental coming out of high school," the Muncie, Indiana native recalls. "I’m much more accepting now. The liberal arts have helped me to see the other sides of an argument. And that’s where I’ve really grown the most."
Serving as president of the Phi Delt house was one of those "smooth touch" moments. As treasurer a year earlier, he had seen his fraternity fall farther behind in its payments to the College and deeper in debt. Before the start of his senior year, DeNeal approached Wabash officials about handing over the collection of fees to the College’s business office—a politically sensitive proposal, especially for the independent Phi Delts.
"After a really tough year, the guys in the house realized that we needed a change," he says. "When you are such a tight-knit house, it’s really hard to keep pressing guys to pay their bills, especially when you know some of the hardships they are facing." Now Wabash collects the fees and sends the Phi Delts a check to pay for food and hire a cook. "There’s really no difference in the way we conduct our affairs."
With the house’s finances squared away, DeNeal, who for three years served as All-American Jake Knott’s backup as quarterback for the Wabash football team, could finally concentrate on football. He worked hard over the summer, learning Wabash’s intricate system while getting stronger by working in the weight room. But when the Little Giants opened the year at Kalamazoo, DeNeal found himself on the third string and struggling to find a fit.
"I respected Coach Creighton’s decision, but I didn’t agree with it," he says. "What I questioned was my role: How I could still be a leader on the team when I wasn’t going to be on the field? And it was the other seniors on the team who helped me see my role, guys like Adan Garcia, Chris Morris, Alex Barefoot, and Val Benoit. A lot of the seniors went through the same thing I did, so we looked for ways that we could contribute together, which made it better."
For DeNeal, it felt like deju vu. In high school he was told he was the front-runner for the starting quarterback position, but never got the chance to start a game.
The Little Giants finished the year with a strong 7–3 record and a Monon Bell victory. The loudest cheers from the sideline came late in the year when DeNeal threw his first career touchdown pass on Senior Day against Hiram. The team roared again when DeNeal led the offense down the field on a scoring drive in the DePauw game. It was "validation," he says, obviously still stinging from being relegated to third string in his senior season.
"I felt I was in position to be the starting quarterback, but I still had one of the greatest times of my life."
There’s ego and confidence driving this sandy blond-haired English/ Classics double major, who will likely be the valedictorian of the Class of 2004 with his 3.94 GPA. The competitiveness comes from two sources—his twin brother, Darin, and his sister, Ashley, a Division I volleyball player.
"When you are a twin," he says, "you are naturally competitive. My brother is much smarter than I am and he picks things up very easily. I was determined to keep up with him, even though that meant I had to work that much harder." Darin graduated third in his high school class; Dustin was fifth. "My sister is probably 10 times more athletic than me and has charisma that I don’t have. To keep up with them, my niche was always working just a little bit harder."
His parents, both teachers, pushed him to be his best. He refers to his work ethic as an "obligation" and says he owes it to his parents to succeed.
Wabash has provided him ample opportunities to do just that. He’s tutored Latin students for three years, has been a tour guide and summer intern for the Admissions Office, and helps improve other students’ writing skills as a tutor in the Writing Center. He’s also traveled the world through Wabash’s immersion learning courses.
"I tell prospective students that I’ve been to four different countries in two years, all on the College’s tab," he says with a smile. John Fischer H’70 and Tobey Herzog, two of DeNeal’s favorite professors, led him on class trips to Rome and London, respect-ively. He also toured Austria and Germany last summer with the football team.
Perhaps it was his collective experiences at Wabash that prepared him to deal with the drug bust prior to the Monon Bell game.
"I feel for the guy, who obviously has a drug problem, but I’m angry that he implicated our house," DeNeal says. "Phi Delt is really about brotherhood; we have the closest bond on campus. You go through a lot of team-building activities and your pledge brothers always have your back. That this guy ignored all of that and put us all in jeopardy flies in the face of everything we are as a fraternity."
As president, DeNeal’s first action was to notify the international fraternity and have the brother deaffiliated. At one of several chapter meetings, he laid down the law with regard to drugs in the house, articulating a zero tolerance policy, and developed a plan to move the house forward.
"I’m a pretty naïve person and look for the good in all people," he says. "But this taught me about the need for complete information. And, honestly, I think it will be harder to trust people in the future."
Where the future will take DeNeal is at this point uncertain. He’ll end up in law school after applying to Harvard, Columbia, NYU, Vanderbilt, Notre Dame, and Indiana.
"What I tell prospective students when I give tours is this: ‘The reason I chose Wabash over Harvard four years ago was the unbelievable alumni loyalty and support Wabash men show for the school.’ Alumni like Brad Benbo ’83, Scott Smaltstig ’88, and King Lumpkin basically camped out in my yard until I committed to Wabash. I figured if these guys all had the best experiences of their lives at Wabash, it must be a great place.
"And it really is. Coming to Wabash is the best decision of my life."