Warrick Dunn knows how to keep his head down and keep moving. For 12 years, his career depended on it.
The former running back was a first round pick for the NFL in 1997, and was later named Rookie of the Year. His professional career spanned more than a decade, with three stints in the Pro Bowl and countless other awards and accolades. In his final year with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he became the sixth NFL player ever to rush more than 10,000 yards.
For most athletes, that kind of resume would be enough. But for Warrick Dunn, it’s just one small fraction of the story that reveals his real endurance.
Dunn’s mother, Betty Smothers, was murdered when he was 18 years old — leaving him as the legal guardian of his six younger siblings.
Smothers was a Baton Rouge police officer, as well as a single mother. She was off-duty and working an evening security shift — something she often did to provide for her family — when she was shot and killed by bank robbers.
“She gave me the best 18 years of my life. She was my best friend. She taught me everything about life. I lost a lot when I lost her,” Dunn told USA Today in 2005.
With help from his grandmother, Dunn was able to split his time between his family and his burgeoning education and football career at Florida State University. “I was able to provide them with everything that a parent would be able to provide them with. It’s what my mom would’ve wanted,” he said in a charity blog post. “I didn’t live my life for myself; I lived my life for them. I really did try to give them everything possible to give them a normal life.”
But to him, his mother’s legacy was bigger than his own kin. Which is why he founded Warrick Dunn Charities in 1997.
According to the website, “Warrick Dunn Charities was created from the belief that a better future starts with hope. We are dedicated to strengthening and transforming communities through combating poverty, hunger and improving the quality of life for families and children.”
Their slogan? “Improving lives. Instilling hope. Inspiring communities.”
One way that Dunn’s organization achieves this is through Betty’s Hope, which offers grief resources and education for children. The other is Home for the Holidays, which eases the financial burden of homeownership for economically-disadvantaged single-parent families — helping others to realize the property-owning dreams that Dunn’s mother always wanted but never lived to achieve.
As of December 2015, Home for the Holidays has provided homes for 147 families, with a goal to reach 150 by this spring.
What does that mean, exactly? It means that Dunn’s organization covers the down payment on the house and also supplies families with fresh linens and a fully-stocked pantry, along with some electronics, such as a television or computer. As Dunn told The Daily Snark, “They only have to bring their clothes.”
Other well-known athletes might revel in the spotlight, using their charitable actions to boost their own brand. But Dunn is content to let his actions speak for themselves.
This probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise considering how seamlessly he stepped into a caretaking role at such a young point in his life.
Even at the height of his NFL career, Dunn was humble and frugal with his earnings. “I try to tell the family, ‘Let’s buy out of necessity,'” he said in a 2000 interview with the St. Petersburg Times. “Now, sometimes it’s good to get things you don’t need to be rewarded, but let’s not go overboard.”
That’s not to say that Dunn is entirely selfless — in many ways, his charity work is just a part of his own grieving process.
“This one incident has made me so hard and closed that I wanted to continue to progress and move forward,” he said in a 2009 interview with ESPN, shortly after visiting one of his mother’s killers in prison.
“I know that [my mother] sacrificed her life for us — the six of us. I know she’s proud. She’s proud of the fact that I hadn’t gone crazy. I hadn’t gone down the wrong path, that I’ve done something positive with my life.”
Here’s a recent video of the famously soft-spoken running back discussing his mother and his Home for the Holidays program.
And if you want to support Warrick Dunn Charities in their goal of giving away 150 homes this spring, you can make a donation online. Or you can help by simply spreading the word, so that ever-humble Dunn can focus on helping hundreds of other families in need.