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From a small town, Pees made it to the big time

From Cleveland, Ohio, head south on I-71 for 71 miles.

At that point, turn west and go another 71 miles on Route 30.

Nearly two and a half hours after you began, you'd find yourself at the junction of Route 68, just three miles north of a place called Dunkirk.

Even as small towns go, this one is tiny.

Year 2000 Census figures put Dunkirk's population at 952. By the summer of 2006, that number had mushroomed … to an estimated 957.

Nearly a half-century ago, whatever its population was got even smaller when Dean Pees left his hometown for the relative big-city environs of Bowling Green University.

He wasn't far from home – only about a half-hour due north on I-75. After graduation, he made it halfway back there, settling in another small town called Bloomdale to take a job as defensive coordinator of the Elmwood High School Royals. After two seasons, he was the head coach.

The then-20-something Pees (now New England's defensive coordinator) had inherited a team without much of a history, an identity, or, for that matter, many winning seasons.

Dwight Leeremembers. A 1969 graduate of Elmwood, he described his school's football team as "very poor."

"At one time, we held the Ohio state record for consecutive losses – 38 games in a row."

If there's anyone in this predominantly farm-based community who can tell you about Elmwood football, it's Lee. He's been keeping stats for his alma mater since Pees asked him to join the staff in 1975 – a job he holds to this day.

They were a tight-knit group, Pees and his coaches and statistician. It was customary for them to meet after games at Pees' home to bond. Soon, those social gatherings became victory celebrations as, more and more, Elmwood began winning.

"Dean actually started turning the program around. His last year here, the team went 6-4, our first winning season in a decade. The juniors on that team ended up going 8-2 the next season, their senior year, after Dean left. But it all started with Dean."

Since then, Elmwood has been very successful, making the state playoffs three times, and winning numerous league titles.

Pees did more than coach football at Elmwood. He was also the junior varsity basketball coach, a wrestling coach, and a phys-ed teacher. Tom Bentley, Elmwood alum and now the high school's principal, was once a student of Pees.

"He's one of those people," Bentley observed, "who made you would want to teach the way he taught, and be around kids the way he was around them. He's a standout among teachers I had to deal with. I don't think he treated kids any differently that did or didn't play for him. He never showed any favoritism to his football players, nor did he look down on non-football students. He was particularly classy, just a very nice individual."

When he left Elmwood, Pees didn't go far geographically. For the next four years, he was only a few minutes away, on the campus of the University of Findlay, where he coached the secondary and coordinated the defense. But he was on his way to a place where few from such humble beginnings ever end up.

Over the following decade and a half, Pees would go on to spend three-to-four-year stints as an assistant at Miami of Ohio, the Naval Academy, the University of Toledo, Notre Dame, and Michigan State.

Then, in 1998, he became a head coach again, back in Ohio at Kent State University. He was there for six seasons before the Patriots offered him their linebackers coach position in 2004. New England won its third Super Bowl that season.

Lee, for one, hasn't been surprised by his friend's ascent to football's summit.

"Not really. I always thought he'd go somewhere."

Why was that?

"I was always impressed by his organizational skills, his passion for the game of football, his knowledge, and his personality," Lee replied without hesitation. "The fact that young men responded to him and would play for him. The kids loved him here. He was a class act all the time."

A sentimental Lee then paid Pees perhaps the greatest compliment of all.

"If I'd had a kid that played football, this is the guy I would have wanted him to play for," he said, before adding with a laugh, "I always teased him, though, about how long it took him to get a head coaching job in college because of the losing records he had at Elmwood."

Busy as he is now with his NFL life, Pees still takes time to keep in touch with his old friends from his first job. Lee cited a pair of examples.

"A while back, we had an art auction at the school, to raise money for the American Cancer Society. Dean sent an autographed photo of him on sidelines in New England, and a diagram of defensive plays from Super Bowl XXXIX.

"Then, last year, I called him because we were organizing a get-together for a basketbeall team that had won a league title. He was our JV hoops coach back then, but he couldn't make it because of the Scouting Combines in Indianapolis. He was very upset that he couldn't be here."

"I think people in our community have enjoyed following his career," Bentley added. "They're just waiting to see what the next thing is for him. He's always moving up. It's fun to have contact with someone who came from the middle of nowhere and made it big."

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