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Bustin' loose

Personally and professionally, Warrick Dunn has the chance this season to be his own man for the first time. The prospects excite him.

By RICK STROUD

© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 9, 2001


It's lunch hour at One Buc Place in Tampa and he passes on the team's catered buffet, hopping in his black BMW with the temporary tags and heading a mile down the street to WestShore Plaza.

Although he looks smaller in his gray T-shirt, he is recognized instantly by the diners at the Piccadilly Cafeteria, not exactly where you'd expect to find a Pro Bowl running back, but a place he frequents for takeout of a home-cooked meal.

When he approaches the register, he realizes the check is missing from the lunch he ordered, something that apparently occurs more often than not.

He tries to pass a $20 bill to the cashier, but she is having none of it. Instead, she receives a hug that is warmer than anything in his hot lunch.

Warrick Dunn often repeats the food run for dinner, returning to his North Tampa home that sits empty for the first time in his life. His five younger siblings, who he raised since he was 19 after his mother, Baton Rouge police officer Betty Smothers, was shot to death during a robbery attempt, all have left the nest.

"I miss them. I miss them to death. But it's time to be by myself," Dunn said.

As Dunn is learning, solitude has its blessings. He couldn't be happier about not having to share his home or the bulk of the rushing load in the Tampa Bay backfield this season.

After averaging 174 yards in a four-game period last season -- all victories -- while fullback Mike Alstott was injured, the 5-foot-9 Dunn convinced coaches he was durable enough to become the Bucs feature back for a 16-game season. He had at least 20 carries, and as many as a career-high 28, in Weeks 13-16, becoming the smallest of 23 NFL backs to gain 1,000 yards.

"That was a whole offseason discussion. We said, 'Who knows what he can do?' " offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen said. "But I know one thing, no one in the building wanted to say he can't. You're scared to say he can't do something because you might be wrong.

"Pound for pound, Warrick Dunn may be one of the toughest football players I've ever been around. He might be the toughest."

Dunn also will play a bigger role in the passing game. He led the Bucs in receiving in 1999 and that, combined with his rushing skills, makes him a poor man's Marshall Faulk.

In fact, Christensen sent Dunn film of all of Faulk's runs and receptions from last season, with the implied message that the Bucs would be willing to use Dunn in a similar fashion.

"I said, 'Hey, watch this, have fun watching it and see if anything strikes your fancy,' " Christensen said. "What do you feel good about? I think how they use him is unique and they feature him in a lot of different ways. We're not the same offense. We're not the same philosophy. But I figured it'd be a fun tape to watch.

"I think you'd love to see him be a 1,000-1,000 guy. That he's capable of rushing for 1,000 and capable of making 1,000 yards worth of catches, a la Marshall Faulk."

Of course, Dunn still has detractors. Even Sports Illustrated recently questioned whether the 180-pound Dunn could take on "such a heavy burden."

"I don't know that the first four years didn't convince us," coach Tony Dungy said. "He was going against the stereotypes of a running back and the fact that we had another direction to go with Mike.

"Over time he has by his play shown that he is durable and productive when he gets a lot of touches. He's had to earn his touches. I don't know if that's fair or not, but that's the way it seemed to work out."

If the Bucs have their way, Dunn will carry the offense the first through the third quarters. Then they will try to protect the lead and Dunn's legs by finishing off teams with the 248-pound Alstott.

Dunn still struggles with the reason people cannot look beyond his size.

"If I was 5-11, I would've been the first pick in the draft," Dunn said.

"If people can't see, they won't ever see. If people can't see production, or potential or someone who is consistent, they'll never see it. My whole career, I'll always have knocks. It's part of the game. The game is political. I think players who are supposed to be rewarded should be rewarded.

"I've been patient. I don't know how much longer I could've been patient without more playing time. Because I'm getting older. They say a running back lasts four or five years and you're usually finished. You have to take advantage of your time."

Time might be running out on Dunn's career with the Bucs. He is in the final year of his contract, but the team hopes to sign him to an extension before the season ends.

"I think it's a good time for me and the situation I'm in," Dunn said. "The pressure I'm not afraid of, I look forward to it."

Dunn is looking forward in his personal life as well. Almost Garbo private, he rarely hangs with teammates off the field.

"I love playing football with Warrick. He's a great teammate," tackle Jerry Wunsch said. "I know him as a football player and for what he does off the field. But personally, I don't know the first thing about him."

Dunn admits his shyness and says he is working on becoming more open and outgoing.

"I'm still growing. Sometimes people don't see that," Dunn, 26, said. "They see, okay, you're a professional football player you have this, you have that, you helped raise your brothers and sisters so life should be great for you. But I still haven't experienced a lot of things that other guys have. My thing is, I have to come out of my shell and not be scared to be open and show people who I am.

"I mean, I may have a maturity dealing with family and responsibility, but I still think I need to experience some things. But I'm at the point now where I need to think about my future and what I'm going to do with myself. I haven't taken time for myself, but I think everything I've been through has helped me become the man I am today. I've made mistakes, I've probably done some things I shouldn't have done."

According to Dunn, it's increasingly hard to find friends who aren't in committed relationships. "All my friends are either married, with fiancees or serious with somebody.

"My home is empty and you wish you could go home to somebody who could take care of you. That's the biggest thing somebody would want, somebody to love you. I mean, I've cared about girls and have had relationships that maybe I made mistakes in and haven't taken advantage of, but for me, I don't think it was time because I still had to go through my issues. I guess now, it's a good time for me."

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