FSU's Dunn may not be big, but he's a tower of strength

THE BALTIMORE SUN

NEW ORLEANS -- So much to like about this kid, so much to digest; heck, so much to celebrate, not that Warrick Dunn would be comfortable as the guest of honor.

He isn't a New Year's Eve kind of guy.

He's a walking New Year's resolution.

Resolved: To play football, even though his first coach remembers him as "a little-bitty thing" at the age of 9.

Resolved: To become Florida State's all-time rushing leader, even though he was recruited as a defensive back.

Resolved: To return for his senior year, even though he might have been a first-round NFL draft pick as a junior.

If that was all Dunn had accomplished at Florida State, he'd merely be one of the most fabled players in school history.

But that's the least of it.

If you haven't heard about Dunn by now, you will during tomorrow night's Sugar Bowl, and not because he tortures archrival Florida like no other opponent.

At 5 feet 9 and 185 pounds -- and those numbers appear serious exaggerations -- Dunn carries the weight of not just his entire team, but his entire family in Baton Rouge, La.

His mother, Betty Dunn Smothers, was murdered two days after his 18th birthday, on Jan. 7, 1993. His father lives in Texas and has never been part of the family.

Dunn, the oldest of six children, has been the man of the house for almost as long as he can remember. His mother was a policewoman. To make ends meet, she'd work off-duty jobs at night.

She was shot dead during a robbery attempt as she escorted a grocery-store manager to a bank night depository.

And only days after she was buried, Dunn walked into coach Bobby Bowden's office in Tallahassee, ready to carry on his life.

"Only Warrick Dunn could do that," Bowden would say later.

And only Warrick Dunn could sit in a hotel ballroom yesterday and give the proper perspective to his final collegiate game, in his home state, for the national championship.

"All this right here doesn't mean anything," Dunn said. "If I can have that day back, have my mom back, I would give up football, I would give up college, I would give up everything."

He spoke in his usual soft manner, paused before he answered questions, began each answer with sort of a half-frown. He turns 22 on Sunday, yet has this world-weary look about him. It's not often that he smiles.

Last Sunday, in another interview session, a reporter asked him to give the ages of his brothers and sisters -- not their names, just their ages.

Dunn declined.

"That's what people want to talk about," he said yesterday. "But that's something I'm not going to talk about, my family."

For the record, his siblings range in age from 13 to 19. Two are in college, and the other three live with Dunn's grandmother, Willie "Wheezer" Wheeler, along with two cousins.

Dunn has served as a father figure from 490 miles away, going home when necessary, with Bowden's blessing. From the beginning, the coach has treated Dunn almost like a son. He can't help it. The kid is his all-time favorite.

Bowden recalls a note he mailed Dunn after their first meeting. He sends letters to all freshmen recruits, but this one he wrote out longhand. It said, in essence, "Son, I'm going to do my best to take care of you."

Dunn doesn't remember the letter, but he remembers Bowden's commitment.

"He's definitely lived up to his end of the bargain," Dunn said.

Still, Dunn said he never could have endured if his mother hadn't raised him properly. And yesterday, he cited Maelen "Choo Choo" Brooks, his coach with the South Baton Rouge Rams, as a major influence.

Brooks, a running back for Grambling in the 1960s, still remembers the first time he saw Dunn, running in a track meet.

"He might have weighed 50 or 60 pounds," Brooks said.

The race?

"He was running against a boy that was a lot taller than he was," Brooks said. "Every time the boy would pull away, he'd catch him. They were running 100 yards. It went back and forth, back and forth.

"I said, 'That little boy has a big old heart.' "

Brooks approached Dunn after the race and asked him if he thought he could play football. Dunn replied yes, and a group of his friends shouted, "He ain't scared -- he'll run!"

And so he did.

Dunn remembers his team averaging 79 points per game; Brooks said it might have been 67. Whatever, Brooks saw a special player. And a special kid.

"He was always very conscious of things," Brooks said. "Even before his mother got killed, he was the one in the household who had to be baby-sitting the rest of the children, being a little leader.

"Betty called him, 'My little man.' He likes to say they were soul mates. It was something to see. I told her, 'Don't be petting him up, making him soft. You gotta be tough.' She would baby him a lot."

Baby him?

Dunn cleaned house, did laundry, prepared meals, made sure his siblings did their homework, got them into bed.

"I definitely got robbed in a sense," he said. "I wish I could take those years back and be a little kid again. I can't. I had to grow up early, mature real fast, overcome a lot of odds. I guess I wouldn't be the man I am today if it wasn't for that."

His responsibilities only increased after his mother's death, but Bowden counseled Dunn on disciplining children, and Brooks warned him about "not getting puffed up trying to have the highest morals you can have."

Dunn forfeited millions to return for his senior year. He wanted to win another national championship for his teammates. And he wanted to become the first member of his family to earn a college diploma (his major is computer science).

Oddly enough, for someone who does so much for others, Dunn said he puts his own happiness first. He doesn't see himself as a hero, or even a role model. He just lives his life, the way he was taught.

"It amazes me," Florida State receiver Andre Cooper said. "My mom, she's the most important thing in the world to me. I don't know if I could have handled it. And I never would have handled it as well as Warrick did."

What is Dunn most proud of?

"That I didn't stray off and go off on the wrong path," he said. "The easiest thing to do would have been to give up and not look forward. That's something I didn't do.

"Being a [surrogate] father, a big brother, playing this football season, that comes naturally. Trying to stay on the right path is the hard thing."

Resolved.

Pub Date: 1/01/97

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