From Tragedy, Dunn Offers Hope

Warrick Dunn
Falcons running back Warrick Dunn credits counseling with helping him deal with the tragic murder of his mother 12 years ago. (Tami Chappell - AP)

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By Michael Wilbon
Friday, December 23, 2005

Picking out a Christmas tree, bringing it home and searching for just the right ornaments and lights isn't that big a deal for most people. And it was rather a routine holiday expression for Warrick Dunn through his middle teen years. But that was before his mother Betty, a police officer, was shot and killed in the line of duty on Jan. 7, 1993, two weeks after Christmas, two days after Dunn's 18th birthday. Since then, between the stress of raising five younger siblings and the anger and depression of losing his mother, Dunn just bagged celebrating Christmas and his birthday, as well, even as he went through college at Florida State, then became a damn good professional football player in Tampa and most recently Atlanta. It was too hard, too sad.

"We had the centerpiece taken out of our lives," he said the other day of losing his mother in a robbery attempt. "My focus became my siblings. I had to grow up, be a man, make adult decisions I wasn't prepared to make. I was living to survive, not to enjoy life. There were people like Coach Bobby Bowden and a girlfriend in Tampa who helped me, who kept me sane. But I couldn't celebrate occasions like Christmas, my birthday and Mother's Day. My girlfriend in Tampa wanted me to try and have a Christmas tree. And I would tell her, 'You can't force me to do this. It's going to take time.' "

The great irony, looking in on Dunn's life of coping, his inability to celebrate and find joy for nearly a dozen years, is that out of that tragedy he created joy, repeatedly. Dunn, starting in his rookie year, established a program called Homes for the Holidays, in which he helped single mothers, like his, become first-time homeowners by making down payments on new, fully furnished homes.

Dunn's selflessness really isn't breaking news because he's been spreading his holiday joy for eight years. His organization now collaborates with home ownership programs such as Habitat for Humanity and the United Way, and Dunn has come up with down payments and furnishings for nearly 60 single moms and their 130 or so children.

"If you could just see the look of joy on the faces of those mothers and teenage kids when I give them the keys," Dunn said. "I just feel overwhelmed that I've changed someone's life, and not for a day or a week, but 10 to 15 years. We've only had one situation where a family couldn't stay . . . and that was because the mother passed away. And her children, who were like 17, 18 years old, wanted to assume the note."

The league presented him with the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award a year ago. And the truth is the award probably should bear Dunn's name as well as Payton's.

The real news this year is that there's joy in Dunn's house, in Dunn himself, to be specific, for the first time since Betty was taken from him 12 years ago. The best year of his already productive football career -- his 1,328 rushing yards are by far his career high -- have come at the same time that counseling has helped him become a new person in so many ways.

"Counseling helped me move on," he said. "The hardest thing is, people wanted to help but couldn't understand what I was going through. I had to do things in my time. Years ago, I wouldn't have said 20 words about this. But now, I'm more inquisitive, more curious, more interested in life. I'm happy. I laugh more, smile more. I don't walk around with the weight of the world on my shoulders. I'm living for myself now, not just my brothers and sisters [who range in age from 23 to 30]. I had become a mean person, probably because I had to do adult things I simply wasn't ready to do.

"But with counseling, it was clear I had to work on communication. I needed to improve that to be successful in relationships. Hopefully, I'll be able to become a great husband and a great dad. But I had to deal with issues of communication and commitment."

His commitment to philanthropy and the uniqueness of his expression of it through Homes for the Holidays has created such a fascination that Dunn said earlier this season he wanted to remind people he's a committed football player.

"It had gotten to the point," he said, "where people presumed I was just some guy hanging on . . . when, in fact, I'd become a better player as I got older and wiser. I started seeing things better, running better. Sometimes guys get it early in their careers. Me, I hadn't been in a system that really suits my skills until now. . . . I enjoy it that people are noticing that and saying, 'He is somebody the Falcons can depend on.' "

As true as all that is, as worthy as Dunn is of his Pro Bowl selection this season, I told him this would not be a football column. It would be a piece about a man whose simple but stunning demonstration of Christmas spirit had become one of the inspirational stories of giving, in and out of football. I told Dunn that there are hundreds of men playing professional football but only a handful who are fundamentally changing the day-to-day lives of people so in need of assistance.

And Dunn said: "It is one of the best years of my life . . . at least since my mom passed away. It's a complete year. I think back a few years . . . I didn't even acknowledge to anybody that I was doing this to honor my mom. I didn't want anybody to know. I wanted to give the check, but not have the presentation. . . . Now, I have such a better sense of being in a position to share this with people and say to them, 'This is the reality of the situation.' "

Warrick Dunn picked out a Christmas tree the other day. "About eight feet," he said. "Maybe 7 1/2 feet. I picked it out myself, the tree and the ornaments. People see a nice-looking tree and all the ornaments and they presume a young lady must have helped me with it. No, did it myself. I find myself leaving the [Falcons'] practice facility, heading to Target or Michael's, the craft store, picking out things, like the wreath for my front door. I went Christmas shopping myself. . . . I hadn't done it in so long. I would just give somebody the money to shop for my brothers and sisters and say, 'Here, can you get them this. . . .' "

The Falcons play on Christmas Eve in, of all places, Tampa, where Dunn spent the first five years of his nine-year career.

"It should be really good to go back there and share this with the people there I got to know," he said. "To share this with them I think will be really special. I still keep in touch with [Buccaneers linebacker] Derrick Brooks, who helped me so much over the years, and with Ronde Barber, Brian Kelly."

No doubt, the players, and the women and children whose lives were forever changed by Dunn's generosity will see a different man than the one who left Tampa.

His 31st birthday is coming in less than two weeks, and then the most unfortunate of anniversaries two days later. Hopefully, Dunn will have had immeasurable happiness by then.

"People say to me, 'Your mom would have been proud,' " he said. "Maybe so, but what I know for certain is that I'm happy to represent her. She was my best friend . . . we had a unique relationship. I'm happy to represent her, and represent her name."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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