Confronting his pain

By GARY SHELTON, Times Staff Writer
Published December 16, 2007

Men come to The Farm for a lot of reasons, most of them evil.

They come because of murder or malice, because of violence or brutality. Many of them come here to die.

As for the man with the wounded soul, he had come to find peace.

Warrick Dunn stood in front of the barbed wire of Angola Prison in St. Francisville, La., his emotions swirling within him. There was fresh anger and familiar pain and the twisted knot of anticipation. In some ways, he was 18 again, and once more, his heart had just been ripped from his chest.

It was Oct. 29, six weeks ago, and Dunn had come to face his demon.

After all this time, Dunn had come to confront the man who murdered his mother.

"It wasn't something that I wanted to do," Dunn said quietly. "It was something I needed to do."

For more than an hour, Dunn talked to convicted killer Kevan Brumfield about their lives since Jan. 7, 1993, the night when Brumfield and Henri Broadway ambushed and killed police officer Betty Smothers, Dunn's mother, as she drove a grocery store manager to the bank to make a night deposit. For Dunn, now 32, it was almost half of his life ago. Still, he has never fully recovered.

Dunn has more than 10,000 yards in his career, yet these are the steps that some will not be able to understand. Why would a man do this? What would he say to a man who had taken so much from him? What could Brumfield say that could change anything?

"I'm trying to find peace and get to a point in my life where I can move on," Dunn said. "It's hovered over my life. It's been 14 years. It's been a long, long journey to get to this point.

"I think it's just where I am in my life. You do reopen doors and wounds and emotions. But I got an opportunity to say some things and express how I felt. I'm happy that I did it."

It was shortly after noon on a Monday when the two sat down in a break room on death row in Angola. Brumfield, 34, was in handcuffs and his legs were manacled. His two attorneys were in the room, as were Dunn's former youth football coach Maelon Brooks - a man close enough to Dunn that he refers to him as "Pops" - and Don Yaeger, an author writing a book about Dunn. Outside the window, able to observe but not hear, were several guards for security.

"I spent the last 10 weeks of Walter Payton's life with him," Yaeger said, "and (Dunn's meeting with Brumfield) is still the most powerful day of my life. Warrick's dignity was unbelievable."

A few years ago, Dunn admits, he would not have been emotionally prepared for such a conversation. But there is something to be said for staring into the eyes of the things that haunt you. It strips away the power they have over their victims. For years, Brumfield had been the bogeyman to Dunn. Now, he was just another stocky man in prison-issued clothes. He seemed fully aware of Dunn's NFL statistics.

"We just sat down and talked like two men," Dunn said. "It's hard to describe the emotions. We've all been through things and been hurt. We all could say, 'I wouldn't have been able to do it,' or, 'I wouldn't be strong enough to do it.' But sometimes, you don't know what you can do. That's just human nature. I've had a lot of people tell me, 'I would go crazy. I would lose my mind.' But you don't know what you would do unless you've been in my situation."

Few people have been in Dunn's situation. He has become one of the most admired players in the NFL. He has played longer now in Atlanta than he ever did for the Bucs, and he has gained more yardage. Still, because of his charities, because of his history, Tampa Bay's regard for Dunn has never faded.

In many ways, Dunn is a man shaped by the violence that came two days after his birthday in 1993. There has been so much responsibility, so much remorse since that night, and for Dunn, the past 14 years have been a quest to separate one from the other.

The reason he raised his siblings, although he was not much older than they were? Because he felt his mother would have wanted it. The reason his foundation has paid the down payment for more than 70 homes for single mothers? To honor his mother. The reason he was so withdrawn, so reticent for so many years? Because he was unable to talk about it.

Counseling, along with time, has changed that.

Dunn has reached a point where he is able to talk about his mother, able to deal with his emotions. For him, sitting across from those who ended her life was merely the next step to dealing with her loss.

So it was that, in late October, when the Falcons had a bye week, Dunn traveled to Angola, once considered "the bloodiest prison in America." He did not tell his family until the last possible moment in order to spare their own emotions.

"I said all the things that I felt, things that my family felt," Dunn said. "I don't think you would say I was calm. It was emotional. I wasn't about to come across as wanting to jump over the table at him. I tried to be smart about it. I had to keep a level head.

"It wasn't just me talking. I had a chance to listen to what he had to say. Of course, he's going to say his piece. What else could you ask for?"

Perhaps one could ask for remorse. Perhaps for regret. Certainly, one would hope for a killer to understand what he stripped away from a family.

"I don't think anyone can understand," Dunn said. "When you lose someone in your life like this, no one understands. I can explain it all day, and you still can't get the fact of living it day in and day out."

Who knows how much Brumfield heard of what Dunn had to say? Who knows if it made a difference to him? Brumfield, who continues to appeal the death sentence he received 11 years ago, did not admit guilt, Yaeger said.

Still, the meeting made a significant difference to Dunn.

"I don't hate him anymore," Dunn said. "I've moved on. I'm in a better place."

And as for Brumfield's death sentence? Does Dunn still want it to be carried out?

Dunn hesitates. Finally, he says, "He's going to get his due, whatever that is. It's up to God. I'm fine with whatever happens."

As for Broadway, the other gunman on death row, things are different.

Broadway would not meet with Dunn, although at one point, he had agreed to do so.

"That speaks for itself," Dunn said. "I can say a million things, but that says volumes without me saying anything." (A third man, getaway driver West Paul, was released from prison after serving 131/2 years.)

In the weeks since his visit, Dunn says he has attempted to sort out his feelings. There are parts of his conversation he is saving for the opening chapter of his book, scheduled to be published next summer by Harper-Collins. There are parts he says he can never tell.

Perhaps the essential part is this. Dunn walked away from prison as a changed man.

"I think I got out of it what I needed to," he said. "I think I can move on and be at peace."

After all of these years, isn't it time Dunn achieved a little?

Gary Shelton can be reached at (727) 893-8805.