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By HUBERT MIZELL
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 4, 2000
TAMPA -- It's touchy.
When a knee injury felled 248-pound Tampa Bay bull rusher Mike Alstott, it cleared the Bucs stage for Warrick Dunn, a toy-sized tailback who weighs a mere 178.
Little guy ... big hit.
Eight days ago, Dunn scooted and even slammed for 106 yards against the Buffalo Bills, triggering a vital Tampa Bay win. But that Warrick, he's no one-trick pony.
Sunday, opposing the fabled but faded Dallas Cowboys, the sans-Mike wizardry of No. 28 would only multiply. Alstott watched in blue jeans, limping the Bucs sideline as his Tom Thumb sidekick scorched the NFL's lousiest rushing defense. Dunn, on his first carry, dashed 70 yards for a touchdown. Then, for three extraordinary hours, the small stud from FSU perpetuated the solo sizzle, sculpting a 210-yard masterpiece.
"What's different is that I'm now the main ball carrier," said Dunn, a delightful chap from Louisiana known for low ego and high generosity. "I can stay patient, even if things don't immediately open up."
Left alone, for glory.
That was where Warrick strained to be careful. Working at diplomacy. With a tongue nowhere near the outrageous league of a Warren Sapp or Keyshawn Johnson, while embracing his afternoon of runaway heroism, Dunn strained to not sound selfish.
"Mike will be back, we're just not sure when," he said. "Alstott will play when he's healthy. I will adjust, doing whatever is asked. But, no, I will not ever want to just be a third-down back."
You wonder, with Dunn now afire, repeatedly proving ability as well as durability, will new thoughts now perk in the personnel-savvy minds of Bucs coach Tony Dungy and general manager Rich McKay? Any way they become comfy enough with a 178-pound workhorse to consider (gulp!) seeing what they might obtain in a trade for Alstott?
Oh, yeah, it's touchy.
Always, critics have questioned Dunn's durability. Downgrading him due to the squatty, smallish frame. "That will never change," he said, "but it really should be clear by now that I'm pretty good at avoiding the nasty hits."
Seven years ago, during Warrick's early seasons with the Seminoles, the same queries arose. FSU coach Bobby Bowden explained that Dunn has a knack for folding his body when being tackled, giving a tiny target for overzealous tacklers.
He's been lucky.
But it is a skill.
Dunn scored a second touchdown against the Cowboys, flying a mere 4 yards near the end of a 27-7 success. This gentle bachelor who, to sweeten holidays, makes down payments on homes for single mothers, twice took it to the house against Dallas.
Tampa Bay opted for a late-game numbers thing, keeping Warrick on the job until the 200-yard plateau was achieved. Dungy then ordered a stop, not allowing Dunn to chase James Wilder's 17-season-old franchise record of 219. "Why needlessly risk injury?" asked the coach. "It would've been nice," Dunn said, "but what's the point? Making 9 more yards could've easily happened, but (backup runner) Rabih Abdullah has worked hard and deserves chances." Warrick departed to a Raymond James Stadium standing, victorious ovation.
As he approached Tampa Bay's bench, the first fellow to burst forth with a hug was Alstott. They are buddies. Mutually admiring. But the hard facts are that Dunn, in No. 40's absence, is accomplishing spectacular numbers.
Will it become an issue?
"What great blocking I received from our offensive line," said the thoughtful Baton Rouge fellow. "Those guys are now hitting me up for gifts; saying I should at least take them out for dinner."
Frank Middleton, a 334-pound guard, had posed to Dunn that another 100-yard game, like against Buffalo, should motivate the tailback to treat his blockers to a fancy feed. "Since he got 200 this time," said the comical Middleton, "we're looking for two dinners."
NFL running backs with big stats, in recent seasons, have treated their OL mates with expensive steaks, fancy clothes and Rolex watches. Dunn, despite his attitude of giving when the needy are involved, has a reputation among fellow Bucs for being frugal.
"I was thinking about McDonald's, or one of those all-you-can-eat buffet places -- you know, Golden Corral," Dunn said with an elfish grin. Asked if he'd heard of Shula's or Bern's or other high-stakes restaurants, Warrick shrugged and said, "I don't make that kind of money."
Then, an idea blossomed.
"Back at Florida State, when I experienced a big game, but had absolutely nothing in my pockets," Warrick said, "I would call my grandmother in Baton Rouge and have her package up some home cooking for my linemen."
Willie Wheeler may be getting a call. Facing an all-time takeout order. She's the kitchen-ruling Dunn grandmom. "That's what I think I'll do," Warrick said. "It will be better food, and a lot cheaper."
Little fellow ... not big spender.