Thanksgiving night, 2007. In a nationally televised game, Warrick Dunn, the diminutive running back then playing for the Atlanta Falcons, took a quick handoff early in the second quarter and plunged his 5-foot-9-inch, 180-pound frame into a mass of 300-pound linemen. On the other end of the run, he found history.
That night, on the most basic of football plays, Dunn became only the 22nd player in the history of the National Football League to rush for more than 10,000 yards, joining a list of legends like Walter Payton, Emmitt Smith and Jim Brown, who reached that plateau before him. A three-time Pro Bowler, Dunn also became the NFL's only active running back with more than 10,000 rushing yards and 4,000 yards receiving.
While Dunn admits his achievements are special because his journey has been so different from others who have taken the field before him, he knows his true legacy doesn't involve a football. His real measure will not come in yards gained. Rather it will be in yards purchased.
Dunn has been recognized as one of the most charitable men in sports, and his program of buying homes (and yards) for single mothers working multiple jobs is considered one of the most creative and life-altering efforts founded by an NFL veteran.
After spending the past six years with the Atlanta Falcons, Dunn returned to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the team that drafted him in the first round in 1997 and the same city where he gave birth to his "Homes for the Holidays" program. In addition to Tampa, over the years the program has expanded to include families in Baton Rouge (Dunn's hometown), Atlanta and Tallahassee, where he attended college at Florida State and left as the all-time career rushing leader."The things I've done away from the field are way more important than football," Dunn says. "I always knew that if I ever got a shot in the NFL, I would use the opportunity to change the lives of other people. The feeling I get when I hand the keys to a home to a woman who has worked her whole life and never been able to afford one…that feeling is greater than anything I've ever felt in sports."
Since the program's inception in 1997, Dunn has put a roof over the heads of 93 single parents and 250 children.
When Dunn arrived in Tampa, his life was immediately impacted by head coach Tony Dungy, who made sure his players were personally invested in the community and in the lives of fans. Although Dunn always knew he wanted to help make a difference in that area, he was faced with the question of what and how he could do something grand. He wanted the program to honor his mother, a statement that means more once you understand his story. With the help of Stephanie Waller, a member of the Bucs' community relations department at the time, Dunn was able to realize his dream.
Thrust into Adulthood
Just days after Dunn turned 18, his mother, Cpl. Betty Smothers of the Baton Rouge Police Department, was shot and killed in an ambush while working a second job as a security guard. Smothers was driving a store manager to the bank to make a night deposit on the morning of Jan. 7, 1993, when attackers gunned them down. The manager was wounded. Three people were found guilty of the crime; two await death sentences at Angola State Prison in Louisiana, while the getaway driver was released in 2007 after serving 13 ½ years of a 25-year prison sentence.
The tragedy thrust Dunn into adulthood, making him man of the house while only a teenager. Five younger brothers and sisters counted on him for guidance. While Dunn believed his mother prepared him for his role as family patriarch, it led to a roller-coaster ride of hardship that never slowed enough to allow him to really enjoy his own life—until the past few years.
Even during Dunn's most difficult times, however, it was a mother's lasting love and dedication to her family that also inspired him to help change the lives of others when he arrived in Tampa. Dunn's goal wasn't to create "just any old charity." He explains that the word charity actually means love, but in today's society it often conveys pity, and he wanted to avoid that association. Dunn often thought of his mother's humble soul and proud spirit.
"I wanted to impact people for the long term, something that would help them on the path to better opportunities," he says. "[Mom] didn't want our family to be pitied; she wanted us to have a sense of accomplishment and of achievement. She believed in working for what you want and fostering personal responsibility because that is the surest way to respect. I wanted to help other families reach that goal."
Dunn and Dungy exchanged ideas and suggestions about how to help families in Tampa, but none seemed quite right to the soft-spoken Dunn. While a holiday meal is great and meets a need, for example, Dunn knew from experience that meat, gravy and vegetables don't change a life.
Down Payment on a Dream
When Buccaneer staff member Stephanie Waller asked Dunn what moved him, he finally came upon the idea that would become his passion. When he drove down the street and saw a woman at a bus station with a child on her hip and another holding her hand, he thought, "What a tough life." He knew he wanted to help that woman, but he didn't quite know how.
Dunn's mother always wanted to own a home, but she couldn't afford the down payment. As a child, he grew up in a variety of apartments and rental homes as his mother lived paycheck to paycheck as a police officer.
He wanted continuity; he wanted to see the growth marks in the doorway where his mother measured his height each year; he wanted memories of a family birthday in the dining room. Dunn never had those memories because they were so spread out over so many different places in Baton Rouge. When Waller mentioned the possibility of working with an organization that provides housing to struggling families, Dunn knew that was it; that's how he wanted to help that mother at the bus stop, and by extension his own mother, whose memory he cherished.
"I didn't start out to do this for my mom," Dunn says. "But it has become an amazing way to honor her and to remember her."
Following his desire to help deserving families take that first step toward ownership, Dunn provided the down payment on a new home. That wasn't enough. He wanted to do more. Dunn wanted to eliminate any possibility of failure and set up the families for success, so he filled the home with everything the family needed, from furniture to kitchen appliances to cleaning supplies to food to linens to lawn and garden equipment.
Basically, all the families had to do was walk in with their clothes and their toothbrushes, though Dunn eventually provided the toothbrushes, too. The homes are move-in ready as well as life ready.
With the assistance of an approved, nonprofit homeownership program and limited corporate sponsorship, the first four Tampa families were selected and moved in to fully furnished homes by Christmas 1997. Dunn's "Homes for the Holidays" program was no longer a dream.
"It was just the most amazing feeling to watch those four families receive their homes with such excitement and gratitude," he says.
"I had done it for the families, of course, but I had also, in a small way, done it for myself. I could see myself and my siblings in each of those children as they raced around, checking out their rooms and their yard, and I could see my mother in each woman as she unlocked the door with a smile that came from the very depths of her soul."
A Boost, Not a Handout
And Dunn continues to touch souls. He was able to translate his talent on the football field into something that helped hardworking, determined people who didn't want handouts but just needed a boost.
Needy, single-parent families are nominated by partnering nonprofit programs that manage first-time homebuyer programs such as Habitat for Humanity, United Way's IDA program and community redevelopment programs. Homeowners must meet the programs' requirements—often involving completion of first-time homebuyer classes or sometimes "sweat equity," as required by Habitat for Humanity.
Since most of the homes are ready between Thanksgiving and Christmas each year, Dunn makes sure there is a holiday turkey in each refrigerator. On the day the family takes possession of the house, there are fresh flowers in vases and an apple pie on the counter. Even the ends of the toilet paper are folded to look fancy; Dunn insists on the level of detail to make the families feel special.
When Dunn reached the coveted 10,000-yard career mark against the Indianapolis Colts on Thanksgiving night, he proved again that age and size are only numbers in his world. He entered this season with the Buccaneers with 10,181 career yards. Ten of the 12 players who have eclipsed 10,000 career rushing yards and are eligible for the Hall of Fame have been inducted.Of course, Dunn is special, too. He has won several humanitarian awards, including the NFL's Walter Payton Man of the Year Award in 2004, which goes to the player for his community service work and his on-field play.
"It definitely puts you in a category with some of the best runners to ever play the game," Dunn says. "Sometimes you really don't understand the magnitude of it until you probably retire and get away from the game."
While he admits that playing in a Super Bowl in Tampa would be a "fitting, fairy-tale ending" to the season, he knows his career won't be defined by a Super Bowl ring, or wins or losses, rushing yards and touchdowns.
"I knew that was what my mother would have been the most proud of: not my records, not my awards, but the way I used my worldly success to give something back," Dunn says. "I hope I've made her proud."