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Warrick Dunn's journey to accepting late mother's challenge by giving back

What makes the former Falcons running back's story so compelling is not simply what he accomplished on the football field, but what he overcame in order to claim that level of success.  


*The second of three stories of the Next Gen Storytellers project weaves through the life of former Falcons running back Warrick Dunn, zeroing in on what he overcame in order to claim the level of success he saw during his playing career and beyond. *

Story by Marlon "MJ" Scott and Raymond Ragland

ATLANTA -- Warrick Dunn's accomplishments on the football field are legendary.

The Baton Rogue, Louisiana native led a powerhouse Florida State University team to a national championship as a freshman in 1993. His performance at FSU led to induction in both the Florida State University Athletics and College Football Halls of Fame.

As an NFL running back, Dunn played for 12 seasons, claiming the NFL's 1997 Offensive Rookie of the Year title as well as three Pro-Bowl selections. As a member of the Atlanta Falcons, Dunn rushed for over 1,000 yards in three consecutive seasons, including a career-high 1,416 yards in 2005.

What makes Dunn's story so compelling is not simply what he accomplished on the football field, but what he overcame in order to claim that level of success.

In 1993, Dunn's mother, Betty Smothers, was working as a security guard, a responsibility she took on in addition to her duties as a Baton Rogue police officer. During a failed robbery attempt, Smothers was ambushed by three gunmen, who shot her to death.

Instead of allowing the death of his mother to affect him negatively, Dunn became a powerful advocate for single mothers, potential homeowners and other human rights groups. The memory of his mother manifested in multiple programs designed to give back to others, including the Homes for the Holidays program and the Warrick Dunn Foundation. Homes for the Holidays is a program designed to help financially-challenged single parents take the necessary steps to become homeowners.

Born in New Orleans but raised in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Dunn was the oldest of six kids. As the oldest sibling, he had to play the "dad" role. He had to make sure his siblings had something to eat for dinner, did their homework and took their baths. Dunn had to become very responsible at an early age. Even though his mother spent a significant amount of time at work, she would still find ways to come to her children's games and events.

Dunn was recruited to play football at a predominately white, Catholic high school. After his first nine weeks, he had only attained a 0.9 GPA; as a result, he was ruled academically ineligible to play football. Smothers asked, "Are you going to show these people you can do this?"

The challenge from his mother served as a catalyst to prove to everyone that he could not only excel at football, but excel academically. As a result, he raised his GPA to a 3.0.

Dunn soon discovered a father figure in his football/track coach, Maelen "Choo Choo" Brooks. Brooks was pivotal in helping Dunn become the person that his mother could count on for help with his siblings. Brooks often shared a wealth of knowledge with Dunn, and was the person that Dunn could pick up the phone to call whenever he needed help or advice. Revered head football coaches Bobby Bowden (Florida State University) and Tony Dungy (Tampa Bay Buccaneers) also had a significant impact on Dunn's life, helping him develop his moral foundation.

Upon arriving to Florida State, coaches initially wanted Dunn to play defensive back, but he made a deal with Bowden to play running back instead. He asserted himself in practice, and became a key component to FSU winning the national championship as a freshman.

Dunn played four seasons at FSU, finishing in the top 10 of Heisman Trophy votes twice during his college career. After a stellar college career, Dunn was drafted 12th overall in the 1997 NFL Draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Considered undersized by NFL standards at 5-foot-9,180 pounds, Dunn played the game with a chip on his shoulder. He worked out three times a day to ensure he stayed game-ready. Tony Dorsett, former running back of the Dallas Cowboys, is a player that he watched growing up, and emulated his running style. Dorsett was small like Dunn, and had a smooth and shifty running style. Dunn thought that emulating Dorsett would help him be the best running back he could be.

Dunn's ability was evident; he won the league's Offensive Rookie of the Year award, and was selected to the Pro Bowl in the 1997-98 season. He made the Pro Bowl two more times, including the 2005 campaign with the Atlanta Falcons. Dunn also won the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award in 2004, which is awarded to the player that best demonstrates significant community impact.

"I would rather win the Walter Payton Man of the Year over winning Offensive Player of the year or an MVP," Dunn said.

In tribute to his late mother, Dunn started Homes For The Holidays. He has emphasized that the program "does not give out houses," rather the program tries to "help families create stability, especially for single parent homes."


When Dunn retired from the NFL, Falcons owner Arthur Blank reached out to him multiple times about becoming a limited partner with the Falcons. Dunn was hesitant initially, but after he met with a financial advisor, he decided it was the right thing to do.

Once Dunn became a partner, he quickly realized that he did not know a lot of the business terms they would use in their meetings.

"A lot of the business verbiage would fly over my head in the business meetings," Dunn said.

To combat this, Dunn earned his MBA at Emory University. He believes that he brings an important perspective to the business group, that of a former professional player.

Along with being a limited partner of the Falcons, Dunn has also started up multiple new programs in his post-playing career life such as "Count on Your Future," which is a support service that helps people with financial literacy to build their savings account.

Dunn is big on mental health awareness, too.

When he first started going to counseling, he did not want to tell anyone. He was ashamed and embarrassed because football players and Black men in general are supposed to come across as strong and tough. He got to a point where he no longer cared about who knew. He became more confident about himself and he knew it was the right thing for him to do.

He tried to start a mental health organization in 2012, but he could not get funding or support because it was not a "sexy" topic back then, and he feels like he was before his time when it comes to addressing mental health. Dunn wishes that more players reached out to him for advice because he wants to pass on the knowledge that he has. He is glad that it is coming to the forefront now and people are starting to get help.

Dunn has shifted his focus to advocating for having mental health support services inserted in the community.

"Government dollars are out there," Dunn said.

People like Hakeem Jeffries (the first and current Black minority leader of the U.S. House of Representatives) is someone who Dunn has a connection with and can collaborate with to improve communities through policy.

As his list of causes and give-back programs grow, it shows Dunn's journey is a testament to his resilience when accepting a challenge. After everything he has gone through, he was able to live out his mother's dream by helping others. Dunn is doing what needs to be done to raise up his community.

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