Letting Go

UPDATED: March 13, 2012
PUBLISHED: March 13, 2012

In over 25 years of sports journalism, covering some of the most exciting games and thrilling moments in the world of athletics, I have never seen anything as extraordinary as what I witnessed on Oct. 23, 2007. It wasn’t a moment you’d see on a highlight reel because it had nothing to do with making a play or winning a game. It was one human being overcoming the biggest challenge he had ever stared down.

Warrick Dunn grew up the oldest of six children born to Betty Smothers, a single mother and Baton Rouge police officer. As a standout high school football player, Dunn was a blue-chip recruit who caught the eye of many Division I coaches, including then-Florida State Head Coach Bobby Bowden. Together, Dunn and his mother agreed that the faith, humor and discipline that Bowden brought to his program were the kind of environment they wanted for Dunn’s college playing career. The decision was made, and Dunn was on top of the world. He turned 18 on Jan. 5, 1993, and could think of nothing else but seeing his mother in the stands that fall as he took the field for the Seminoles.

But just two days later, his world collapsed.

Corporal Betty Smothers was shot and killed in a botched robbery attempt while she provided security for a grocery store manager making a bank deposit. Kevan Brumfeld and Henri Broadway were arrested, tried and convicted of murder. They were sentenced to death and are still serving time at separate prisons.

But Dunn was carrying out a very different sentence. He was suddenly shouldering the burden of raising his five younger siblings while trying to manage his own devastating grief.

Bowden offered to release Dunn from his verbal agreement with FSU so he could stay closer to home; Dunn considered this offer, but after talking to his grandmother and siblings, he decided to honor the last big decision that he and his mother had made together and had both looked forward to with so much joy. That summer, Dunn left for Tallahassee.

As often as he could for the next four years, Dunn doled out love and discipline to his siblings by phone and made the 450-mile drive west to Baton Rouge. When they could, his family drove east to Tallahassee for home games.

Dunn was drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1997, and he moved his youngest siblings out to live with him so they could finish high school in Florida. While the other players would leave practice and go out to enjoy the splashy nightlife of an NFL star, Dunn would drive home to help with homework and make sure chores were finished.

His mother had a proverb by which she lived that echoed in Dunn’s mind. She had reminded her children that when life brings difficulties, “you can be bitter or you can be better. As my child, I ask you to choose better.” So as he tried to fight through his continuing feelings of loss and despair, Dunn sought to improve the lives of other single-parent families by helping them to achieve the dream his mother had never been able to realize: owning a home.

The Warrick Dunn Foundation, which he established during his first year in the pros, sponsors a “Homes for the Holidays” program. In Baton Rouge, Tallahassee, Tampa and Atlanta—the cities in which he grew up, went to college and played professional football, respectively—Dunn has helped more than 100 families by not only making down payments, but also completely furnishing and outfitting their homes. From stocking the pantry to providing a lawnmower full of gas, he works to ensure that the families begin their new lives fully equipped for success.

But despite being devoted to his role as man of the house for his family, to his outstanding professional football career and to his philanthropic work, Dunn was depressed. His mother had been his best friend, biggest supporter and the center of his world. When he lost her, he felt as if the light had been extinguished from his life. The suddenness, brutality and tragedy of it all had caused Dunn to sink into a deep depression that lasted for years.

In 2007, as we were working on his book, Running for My Life: My Journey in the Game of Football and Beyond, Dunn opened up to me about the hurt he had carried for so long. We discovered that the Louisiana Department of Corrections had a program whereby victims of crimes that had landed the perpetrators on death row could meet with them face to face in an attempt at closure. Fourteen years after his mother’s murder, Dunn decided he was ready for that meeting. So we arranged a visit to Angola State Prison, where Louisiana’s death row inmates are housed and where Kevan Brumfield had been sentenced in 1993.

Each mile that passed as we drew nearer to the prison seemed to weigh on Dunn so that by the time we reached the sprawling complex (with the nickname “Alcatraz of the South”), the pain seemed to cling to him, to oppress him like a lead vest.

As guards stood just outside the cell, we sat down with Brumfield and two of his lawyers. There was obvious tension. After all, what do you say to the man who took your mother from you? What does that man say to the family he destroyed?

I was not prepared for what I witnessed. Brumfield began to profess his innocence, claiming over and over that his confession years earlier was the result of being “messed over” by the authorities. Dunn listened to his justifications for quite a long time—a lot longer than I could have if I were in his shoes. Dunn’s face was impassive as he allowed Brumfield to recite his story. He was obviously listening to Brumfield’s words, but he was also studying him carefully.

Finally, Dunn held up his hand. He closed the notebook filled with questions he had brought, and instead of demanding an explanation from Brumfield for why he did what he did, Dunn simply said, “I came here today to forgive.”

The room fell silent as first Dunn, then Brumfield, then the rest of us began to cry. The inmate, with his lawyers present, couldn’t suddenly change his story. But his tears made clear he understood the gravity of the gift he was being given.

The two men talked until the end of the one-hour visit we were permitted. Dunn shared with Brumfield thoughts from some of his siblings, Betty Smothers’ other children, who had struggled with their own grief. But at no point did Dunn raise his voice, get angry or demand answers. As he sat in that prison, looking in the eyes of the man convicted of killing his mother, Dunn realized he didn’t need to know why—because no reason would ever really make any sense. He simply needed freedom.

A few minutes later, as we drove back down the long road leading away from the prison, Dunn looked thoughtful. Finally, he asked the driver to take a right. After a few more turns, he asked us to stop. Climbing over a fence in a manner that showed he’d done it many times before, he led us into the middle of a cemetery. Dunn walked confidently to his mother’s grave and stood there in silence for a few minutes, tears running down his face. Then, in a voice of quiet strength, he said, “I’ve let it go, Mom. I’m past it. It’s done.”

In just over 60 minutes, I had seen a man let go of nearly 15 years of pain, struggle, anger, confusion, depression and hopelessness. He walked taller. His eyes were lifted. His smile was genuine.

In that moment, I saw one man’s personal best. That day, I witnessed true greatness.