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Charity work earns Dunn 'Man of Year'

The former Buc is recognized for his program helping provide single mothers with new homes.

By RICK STROUD
Published February 5, 2005


JACKSONVILLE - Warrick Dunn was only 8 when he was discovered running track in Baton Rouge, La., against a youngster who was bigger and older.

"I told him I thought he would make an excellent football player," said Maelen "Choo-choo" Brooks, a youth football coach whom Dunn calls "Pops." "And some of the other kids said, "Yeah, coach, he can run. He's got a big heart.' "

Dunn's heart is what drove him to begin his Home for the Holidays program, which helps single mothers become first-time homeowners.

On Friday, the Falcons running back was named the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year.

Dunn launched the program during his rookie season with the Bucs in 1999. To date, he has helped 52 single mothers become homeowners by making the down payment on fully furnished homes, affecting the lives of 135 children and dependents in Tampa, Baton Rouge and Atlanta.

The motivation for Dunn's program stems from the death of his mother, Betty Smothers, a single parent and Baton Rouge police officer killed in the line of duty in 1993. At 18, Dunn was left to care for his five brothers and sisters.

"It was very tough," said Summer Smothers, Dunn's sister. "I was 15, so like every teenager, we already think we're grown. So when you have a brother that's 18 running the family, you think he can't tell you what to do. So we had back and forth type arguments, especially trying to raise five kids from Tallahassee, Florida."

Several other NFL players, including Giants quarterback Kurt Warner, Chiefs kick returner Dante Hall and former safety Jason Sehorn, have begun similar initiatives in their hometowns.

"It's good that other players see the program and want to be a part of it, they want to figure out how to make it work in their hometown," Dunn said. "The great thing about the program for me is a lot of guys grew up in the same situation. To see them want to get involved in their community is great. Guys all the time want to know how can I get involved, what can I do? Well, you can't just show up. You have to put some money behind it, but it's great once you see a mother walk through that door of their home, once you give them that key and see that expression on their face. Anybody in the room knows how great the program is."

The award is named after the legendary Chicago Bears running back who died in 1999. It is the NFL's only award that recognizes a player's community service as well as his playing excellence.

Dunn said he admired Payton's tenacity as a player and spoke to him several times as a guest on his radio show in Chicago before his death at age 45.

Dunn joins a prestigious list of winners that includes 12 members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Among them is Bucs linebacker Derrick Brooks, who won in 2001.

"I think that award sticks out more than any performance award that I have because you've affected so many more lives by doing it," Brooks said. "To see Warrick start his program from a baby and watch the seed growing and get better every year, I can stand back and appreciate the work he is doing. He's a very humble man. I feel like my little brother followed in the footsteps you've made. He not only stepped in the footsteps, but he made his own footprints."

The award was presented by Payton's wife, Connie, at a news conference that Dunn was forced to keep secret until Friday.

"Because of his love of family and knowing first-hand the struggles single parents are faced with, he created his Home for the Holidays," Payton said.

"I don't doubt Warrick ever intended to be so acclaimed for his good works, but goodness is always noticed."

Dunn rushed for 1,106 yards and nine touchdowns this season, helping the Falcons to a division title and the NFC Championship Game, where they lost to the Eagles. But Falcons owner Arthur Blank said Dunn is even a better person than he is a player.

"Warrick is a person who understands his responsibility not only as a football player, but as a man and a community servant," Blank said. "Every sports team - and every professional athlete - should take a page from his book. We are all in a position to step up and be leaders in philanthropy."

Dunn thanked many of his family members and friends, some of whom attended the news conference Friday. He credited former Bucs coach Tony Dungy for inspiring him to become active in community service.

"I don't think I would be here without coach Dungy," Dunn said. "He challenges players to give back to the community.

"Last but not least, I want to thank my mom because she gave birth to me, she gave me the best 18 years of my life, she's my best friend, my mentor. I lost a lot when I lost her at 18, but I didn't stop growing. I definitely thank her and love her to death."