MIAMI -- It's not every senior quarterback who asks a freshman to be his roommate during a Heisman Trophy campaign. And it's not every freshman who responds to a personal tragedy by leading his team in touchdowns as it pursues its first national championship.
On and off the field, Charlie Ward and Warrick Dunn make quite a pair -- Ward at quarterback, Dunn at tailback, Ward the $H guardian angel, Dunn the eager disciple. Dunn arrived at Florida State reeling from the loss of his mother. Ward became the older brother he needed, the older brother he never had.
"When I first came here and was still dealing with my mom's death, he just talked to me about it," Dunn recalled yesterday. "He said some things that meant a lot to me. He just gave me what God thought, what the Bible says. Ever since then, I've been reading the Bible more. He's just touched me."
Indeed, Ward has done many spectacular things for Florida State this season, but perhaps none more meaningful than the nurturing of Dunn. The oldest of six children, Dunn could have crumbled after his mother, a police officer, was murdered last January in Baton Rouge, La. Instead, he turned into a junior Charlie Ward.
Florida State signed the 5-foot-9, 170-pound Dunn as a defensive back, but that won't be his position Saturday in the Orange Bowl. After Dunn broke several big runs in his first college scrimmage, Florida State defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews said, "I'll never see that kid on this side of the ball again."
Andrews was right. Dunn averaged 7.5 yards per carry and scored 10 touchdowns this season, despite touching the ball only 93 times. "I could never have predicted the year he's had for us," coach Bobby Bowden said -- not the 6-yard touchdown reception in the failed comeback against Notre Dame, nor the 79-yarder that sealed the victory over Florida.
To think, Dunn's stunning rise might never have taken place without the intervention of Doug Williams, a former Redskins quarterback and an old family friend. Williams went to high school with Dunn's mother, Betty Dunn Smothers. After Dunn committed to Florida State, Williams asked Ward, whom he had once met in an airport, to "take care" of Betty's son.
A few weeks later, Ward phoned Williams and said, "Ask Warrick if he wants to room with me." Why did Ward want to live with a freshman? "Because I'm a nice guy," he said yesterday, joking. Actually, Ward needed a roommate, and Dunn was quiet and religious, a mirror image of himself.
"It's my job to be a good person," Ward said. "I wanted somebody similar to me, and he happened to be that person. There was no big reason for me asking him. He happened to be a person with a lot of problems. It worked out, and I'm just happy to be part of his life."
And Dunn is grateful he found a friend. His mother was a strong single parent and an unusually popular police officer. "You can't get too many better," Williams said. "Warrick, being the oldest, was the man of the house. She did an extremely good job with Warrick. It trickled down from there."
But Betty Dunn Smothers didn't even see Warrick graduate from high school. She was shot dead while escorting a grocery-store owner to a night bank depository during an off-duty assignment. Four thousand people attended her funeral. Dunn made his official visit to Florida State one week later.
"I've been through some tragic stuff myself, when my wife died in '83," Williams said. "You can't ever get it off your mind. But he's mature enough and strong enough to realize that his mom's gone. A lot of things he has accomplished and will accomplish will be in memory of his mother. His mother is his inner strength. He knows what she wanted for him."
Dunn prefers to "leave the past in the past," and avoid talking about his mother. "When I pray, I think about her. When I read the Bible, I think about her. When I talk to my family, I think about her," he said. "Not a day goes by when I don't think about her. I just have to keep moving on."
That's where Ward enters the picture. "I'm used to being around my family, helping them cope," Dunn continued. "But when I came here, I couldn't talk to them every day. He's just been there. His mom is there, too, in case I need to talk. The whole family is just behind me."
Dunn spent Thanksgiving with the Wards, and he has grown so attached to Charlie, his teammates often ask, "What are you going to do when he's gone?"
"I really don't know," Dunn said. "I'm not going to change anything. I'll just have to find another roommate."
Maybe he'll ask a freshman.
And be his Charlie Ward.