In the late 1990s and 2000s, Warrick Dunn was one of the better running backs in the NFL.
Before that, he had a monster college career, during which he first made his name.
But Dunn was much more than an athlete. Off the field, he made an impact through multiple initiatives, helping lots of poor and disadvantaged people.
Being a successful NFL player like Dunn is more than enough for many, but when an athlete like that goes above and beyond his craft to improve the lives of others, he becomes a beacon of hope and an inspiration to others.
Early Success And Tragedy
Warrick De’Mon Dunn was born on Jan. 5, 1975 in New Orleans, and he attended Catholic High School, a private, Catholic college prep school in Baton Rouge, La.
While there, he played both sides of the football, getting snaps at quarterback, running back and cornerback. He led Catholic High to the state 4A championship game as a sophomore, the first time it had ever made it that far.
In his senior season, Dunn was an All-America honorable mention selection by USA Today, and he had established himself as a hot college football prospect.
At home, Dunn was raised in a humble environment. His mother, Betty Smothers, raised him and his five siblings as a single mother. To make ends meet, Smothers worked two jobs almost around the clock, one as a police officer and another as a security guard.
She had been a standout athlete herself, first in high school and then at Southern University.
When Dunn was just two days shy of his 18th birthday, Smothers was attacked and killed by two men, Kevan Brumfield and Henri Broadway. Dunn had grown very close to her, and needless to say, the incident rocked his world.
“She’s always on my mind,” Dunn said months later. “I’m constantly reminded of her. All you’ve got to do is walk into my house and you see her picture. There’s not a day when I don’t look at her.”
His mother’s death forced him to essentially raise his brothers and sisters, all of whom are younger than him. He accepted this newfound responsibility.
“I never really had a childhood,” he said. “I’ve never been able to go out and just go crazy, like most kids, because I grew up staying in the house a lot, baby-sitting.”
Years later, Dunn visited Brumfield at Angola State Prison, and he told the convicted murderer that he forgave him for taking Smother’s life.
“If you didn’t do it, I don’t know why you are here today, but I know why I am here today,” Dunn told Brumfield that day. “I am here because I need to forgive somebody. I am here because it has been fourteen years and it’s time for me to move on. I was searching for answers. I’ve been going to counseling. I’ve started smiling. I’ve started laughing. I even had my first drink two years ago during a fun moment. It is time for me to forgive and move on.”
Just a month after the tragedy that took his mother, Dunn committed to playing football at Florida State University. It was an opportunity for him to have some space and become his own man.
A Star Is Born
At first, Bobby Bowden, the head coach of the Florida State Seminoles, wanted Dunn to focus on the defensive side of the ball. But the Louisiana native wanted the ball in his hands, and Bowden gave in.
“We wanted him to play defensive back and we had him slotted for a defensive back scholarship,” said Bowden. “We already had given a running back scholarship to Rock Preston. Warrick told us he wanted to run the football, so I told him, ‘We’ll give you a chance at running back, but if you don’t do as well and we need you at defensive back, will you play defensive back for us?’ ”
Bowden also decided to be a little bit of a father figure to Dunn, knowing that his new recruit needed it more than most others.
“I just wrote him that I knew of his grief and I wanted him to come to Tallahassee and be my boy, my son,” Bowden said. “He’s always been a little more special to me. I mean, all the kids are special, but I think they know I’m a little closer to him and they understand.”
Another man who helped Dunn out as a freshman was Charlie Ward, the Seminoles starting quarterback who was about to win the Heisman Award. Ward also played basketball at Florida State and would go on to play in the NBA the next season for the New York Knicks.
But in the fall of 1993, Ward was Dunn’s roommate, The two grew close, as Ward would even allow Dunn to come home with him to Thomasville, Ga.
Warrick Dunn and Charlie Ward, stars of the Florida State Seminoles football team in the 1990's. #WarrickDunn #CharlieWard #FloridaState #Seminoles #FSU #football pic.twitter.com/6D22PtdcAR
— The Thrill of Victory (@ThrillVictory) July 14, 2020
With Preston injured, Dunn shared snaps at running back that season with senior Sean Jackson. The freshman recorded 511 rushing yards and four touchdowns.
But his success wasn’t just limited to carrying the football. He also established himself as a passing threat, hauling in 357 yards and six touchdowns as a receiver.
That year, he helped Florida State win the NCAA championship.
The next year, he became a starter, and he shone brightly, rushing for over 1,000 yards a season for the remainder of his college career. As a junior, he had 13 rushing touchdowns, and the next year he notched a dozen rushing touchdowns.
He notched at least 300 receiving yards in three of his four years at Florida State. The one year he failed to reach that milestone (his junior season), he still had 294 yards in the air and three touchdowns.
The football world was starting to notice Dunn’s incredible talent, as he was named to the All-ACC team three times as a Seminole.
1996 Florida State/Miami
Warrick Dunn breaking an Iso 80 yards for a TD.
Devastating moves in the secondary! pic.twitter.com/14HBs1VAug
— Coach Dan Casey (@CoachDanCasey) January 25, 2018
He was also a standout track and field athlete. The Associated Press named him an All-American for his exploits on the men’s 4×100 meter relay team.
His entire time at Florida State, he competed as a sprinter, which surely helped elevate his profile as a pro prospect.
In the meantime, he stayed in close contact with his younger siblings back at home, and taking care of them, even from a distance, remained a top priority.
“If the NFL happens, it happens, but if it doesn’t, that’s why I’m trying to get my degree,” Dunn said early in his college career. “I’m trying to set an example for my brothers and sisters that it’s important. And if it’s going to help me at the same time it helps them, that’s even better.”
In 1997, he graduated from Florida State with a degree in information studies.
Movin’ On Up To Tampa Bay
Dunn was the 12th overall pick in the 1997 NFL Draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He had a very strong rookie season, rushing for 978 yards and four touchdowns, and catching 39 balls for 462 yards and three touchdowns.
The Bucs had long been an NFL laughingstock, dating back to their inception in 1976, but with Dunn setting the tone, they finished 10-6 in ’97 and made the playoffs for the first time since 1982. To that point, it was only the third time in franchise history they posted a winning record.
Dunn got plenty of love for his production as a first-year player, winning the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year award and being named to the Pro Bowl.
He built on his rookie exploits in his second season, posting his first 1,000-yard season. In 2000, his fourth season in the NFL, he had 1,133 rushing yards and eight touchdowns, earning his second trip to the Pro Bowl.
Against the Dallas Cowboys that season in Week 14, he scorched Troy Aikman and company for 210 rushing yards and two touchdowns in a 27-7 rout.
https://t.co/nDC5cB8lG1'S ON THIS DAY IN 2000
Warrick Dunn's 200-yard day. The Bucs beat the Cowboys 27-7 and the little guy had a 70-yard run in the first quarter on his way to the then-second highest rushing total in Buc history. pic.twitter.com/eG0QfLhSxr
— BUCPOWER.COM (@BucpowerC) December 3, 2021
In four of Dunn’s first five seasons, the Bucs posted a winning record and made the playoffs. Thanks to his efforts, the team was starting to erase the bad memories that its fans had accumulated over the preceding years.
Moving To ATL
Following the 2001 season, Tampa Bay was at a crossroads. It was a good team, but it needed to get over the hump. Head coach Tony Dungy was one of the most respected and loved coaches in the NFL, but the team was weak offensively, despite Dunn’s contributions.
As a result, the Bucs fired Dungy and hired Oakland Raiders head coach Jon Gruden. The team also did some remodeling of its offensive roster, and with Dunn a free agent that offseason, he decided to move on to join the Atlanta Falcons.
Just a few years earlier in 1998, the Falcons had reached the Super Bowl behind star running back Jamal Anderson. But their fortunes declined the very next season when Anderson suffered a torn ACL, and suddenly they were one of the NFL’s worst teams.
Along with a young quarterback named Michael Vick who was helping to change the game with his ability to gain yards on the ground, Dunn gave the Falcons one of the league’s most-feared running games. He rushed for 927 yards and seven touchdowns in ’02, and Atlanta returned to the playoffs for the first time in four years.
The 2003 campaign was a tough one for Dunn and his team. Vick missed the first dozen games of the schedule with a broken leg, and Dunn himself didn’t suit up for the last five contests of the year due to a torn ligament in his left foot.
Off the field, he was struggling with the residual effects of his mother’s murder years earlier. It was around this time that he realized he needed professional help for depression, and he has admitted that it helped him grow.
“I became much more self-aware,” Dunn said years later about how counseling helped him. “I wasn’t afraid to express myself. I’m still reserved, but I think it made me more conscious of my surroundings and the things that are before me so I don’t lose opportunities. It’s given me a different perspective because we all come from different backgrounds and we all have opportunities, so it’s also helped me encourage people that, if I’ve come from a dark place and I can turn it around, I know you can, too. My back was against the wall, so I think it’s given me a positive outlook that I just try to encourage other people, and it’s given me a really good story to where I’m able to impact other people’s lives in a positive way.”
Dunn would eventually become one of a group of pro athletes who helped battle the stigma of mental illness and encouraged other athletes to seek help if they needed it.
Just continuing the conversation. Thankful to be apart of the Mental Health Symposium. @NFLLegends #NFLbrotherhood #DunnDidIt https://t.co/L7xXOrmBoq
— Warrick Dunn (@WarrickDunn) May 14, 2018
Dunn bounced back in 2004, putting up 1,106 yards and a career-high nine touchdowns on the ground. The Falcons finished 11-5 under new head coach Jim Mora, and their fans felt they had an excellent shot at reaching the Super Bowl.
In the Falcons’ first playoff game against the St. Louis Rams, Dunn had himself a feast, rushing for 142 yards on just 17 attempts and scoring two touchdowns in a 47-17 massacre.
Unfortunately, Donovan McNabb’s Philadelphia Eagles ended Atlanta’s championship hopes by dealing it a 27-10 loss in the NFC Championship Game.
Dunn had another great all-around season in 2005, registering a career-high 1,416 rushing yards. But it wasn’t enough to give the Falcons another shot at the Super Bowl, as they only won eight games and missed the postseason.
But it didn’t prevent Dunn from adding to his individual accolades, as he made the Pro Bowl for the third time.
He again rushed for over 1,100 yards in ’06, and in Week 6 against the New York Giants, he set a franchise record with a 90-yard run that resulted in a touchdown.
Atlanta started the season 5-2, but it was flat for the rest of the schedule, finishing 7-9 and missing the playoffs again.
Afterward, the Falcons’ fortunes went sharply south. Vick was convicted of federal charges for his involvement in a dog fighting ring that resulted in multiple canine deaths, and he was sentenced to 23 months in prison.
Without their star quarterback, the Falcons fell on hard times. Dunn’s production fell, and Atlanta again failed to make the postseason in 2007.
The Falcons were so riddled with injuries at one point that year that Dunn even served as a third-string quarterback behind Joey Harrington and Chris Redman.
Dunn asked to be released that offseason, and he got his wish, allowing him to return to the Buccaneers just a week later.
The 2008 campaign would be his last in the NFL. He had one final 100-yard performance in Week 6 when he posted 115 yards against the Carolina Panthers.
Upon his retirement, Dunn finished as one of the all-time leaders in rushing yards and all-purpose yards, a testament to his supreme athleticism and determination.
Leaving A Legacy
Although Dunn had a very solid NFL career, it was his work off the field that left the greatest impact on people.
Before he even suited up for his first pro game, he started the Homes for the Holidays program (HFTH), which helps families make a down payment on their house and furnishes their new home as well.
Dunn started it as a tribute to his late mother, who made plenty of sacrifices to give him and his siblings a solid foundation in life.
The program chooses families to endow through a partnership with Habitat for Humanity. Dunn has chosen to select families being raised by a single parent who is actively working to make ends meet. As the initiative’s website states, its “focus is on providing a hand-up – not a handout.”
In 2006, one of the families it chose to assist was that of a young child named Deshaun Watson. Watson would later on become a star quarterback at Clemson, leading them to the national championship, and he subsequently became a star signal-caller in the NFL.
Dunn blessed Watson’s family with a four-bedroom, two-bathroom fully furnished house.
Warrick Dunn giving the Watson family the keys to their house in 2006. Deshaun Watson in black sweatshirt on the right. pic.twitter.com/UjGlcIhlkT
— BUM CHILLUPS AKA SPENCER HALL (@edsbs) January 10, 2017
“I felt grown having my own room,” Watson told the Associated Press. “Just having my own bed, not really being squished, not really worrying about someone sneaking up on me, it was a great moment, a special moment.”
Dunn is very grateful for all the lives that HFTH impacted. According to its website, it has helped nearly 200 families to date.
“We’re helping people who are helping themselves,” Dunn said. “It’s crazy how much pride people have when it’s something they work for and not something they’re given.”
In 2002, the program expanded into Warrick Dunn Charities (WDC) in order to help people in additional ways. Among other things, the foundation provides education in nutrition, health, and wellness, and financial literacy.
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WDC also has a program called Hearts for Community Service, which awards people who are active in serving their community with college scholarships.
The same year that WDC started its operations, Kurt Warner, the star quarterback of the Rams and Super Bowl XXXIV MVP, along with his wife joined forces with Dunn to assist families in the St. Louis area.
As a result of WDC’s impact, Dunn was given the Giant Steps Award in civic leadership by former President Bill Clinton.
He also received the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award in 2005, an award that recognizes NFL players for performing community service that improves the lives of others.
That year, when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, Dunn challenged his fellow players to each donate at least $5,000 towards helping victims get back on their feet. Over $5 million was collected towards the effort.
Towards the end of his career, Dunn turned his focus towards creating other leaders who would pay it forward. To that end, he and a slew of other high-profile athletes founded Athletes For Hope.
The program educates athletes on how they can make an impact on the disadvantaged through philanthropy. Some of its goals are to combat childhood obesity and malnutrition, as well as to offer mental health training and resources.
This huge undertaking earned Dunn the 2009 Bart Starr Award, as well as the Jefferson Award for Outstanding Athlete in Service and Philanthropy.
More recently, the former running back has gotten involved in the fight for social justice, especially in the wake of a rash of shootings and killings of unarmed Black individuals.
When two white men shot and killed Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man, in Georgia in 2020, Dunn was outraged and decided to take action.
“I Run with Maud: A Promise. A Movement.” is available on ESPN+
The film, narrated by Warrick Dunn, centers on the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery and the pursuit for justice in his name
Director Sarah M. Kazadi spoke with Front Row about the film: https://t.co/wN0gS5M3m1 pic.twitter.com/BdICXLGaJU
— ESPN Front Row (@ESPNFrontRow) October 29, 2021
“When I found out, I was probably like most people. Like, this happened two months ago, and we’re just hearing about it now?” Dunn said. “Then you see the video, and it just enrages you. We’re trying to tell people to rely on law enforcement and not to take it into their own hands. It’s disturbing. It’s sad to see we’re still in the day that we feel like we have to hunt people down. We’re supposed to be innocent until proven guilty, but they said he’s guilty just because they thought he looked like a suspect — another black man.”
To that end, Dunn got involved with the Players Coalition, a large group of current and former NFL and NBA players and coaches whose mission encompasses criminal justice reform and police transparency and accountability.
“It’s important for me to do something if I have the ability to help create positive change,” he said. “I’m not sitting on the sidelines. I want to do what I can for individuals who don’t have a voice for themselves. I’m all about trying to raise the bar.”
WDC has now expanded its focus towards eliminating racial disparities when it comes to law enforcement.
Perhaps some day in the not too distant future, Warrick Dunn will be known more as a philanthropist and less as a former NFL star.
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