But Betty Smothers was killed while responding to a robbery in 1993. Having long since been abandoned by his father, Warrick became caretaker of his five siblings, all younger than he.
“It was up to me,” he said, “to make sure that everybody grew up to be somebody.”
He had athletic talent, and he resolved to use it for good purposes, in honor of his mom. He was a three-time Pro Bowl running back, but more significantly, he became one of the greatest philanthropists the NFL has produced.
He was Walter Payton Man of the Year in 2005, “Whizzer” White NFL Man of the Year in 2007, Bart Starr Man of the Year in 2008, Heisman Humanitarian in 2010, winner of the Jefferson Humanitarian Award for Public Service in 2011. Those are just a few of the acknowledgments of his immense charity work.
When he was setting rushing records for Florida State University, he visited his brothers and sisters as often as possible, trying to take care of them based largely on parenting advice from his coaches.
In a box on his dresser he kept his mother’s pearl earrings, stained with blood from the night of her murder.
The killer, Kevan Brumfield, was spared execution when the Supreme Court ruled, 5-4 in 2012, that he was mentally disabled.
Dunn called the decision “offensive and morally wrong.”
But he’s not bitter. He’s expressed forgiveness of the crime and has visited the prison where his mother’s assailants are serving time.
In spite of all his work on the football field and all his good deeds off it, he managed to graduate from FSU on time, with a bachelor’s degree in information studies.
Soon after signing a professional contract (first-round draft pick by Tampa Bay in 1997), he started a charity, Homes for the Holidays. He raised money to furnish homes for single mothers through first-time home-owners assistance programs.
He effectively lobbied the NFL to assist the home-deprived victims of Hurricane Katrina.
In 19 years Warrick Dunn Charities has given away 150 homes to single parents and has provided assistance to thousands of families.
Since retiring from the NFL in 2008, Dunn has stepped up his charity work even more. Homes for the Holidays has expanded into 13 markets other than Tampa. The organization reaches as far west as Arizona and as far north as Newark, N.J.
This is not simply a giveaway program. For families to continue receiving help in paying the mortgage and acquiring furniture, they must demonstrate a commitment to achieving financial independence.
An offshoot of HFTH is Hearts for Community Service, which provides scholarships for young people in Louisiana, Florida and Georgia.
“Because I have been blessed with a talent,” Dunn says, “I have also been given a responsibility.”
He feels that retirement from the NFL – and the income loss that entails – does not relieve him of his responsibility to help those who are less fortunate than he. Last month he raised thousands of dollars with his sixth annual Warrick Dunn Charities Celebrity Golf Classic, in Atlanta, where he also played pro football.
As fine a player as he was, Dunn has made more national impact with what he’s accomplished apart from the game. This will be his legacy.