Turning His Grief to Good : Florida State Running Back Warrick Dunn Sets an Example for All


Home is a bit more than an hour away this week, 5 1/2 hours the rest of the year and a long-distance phone call almost every day.

Derek is doing well at Catholic High. Travis is fast and Bryson small, but he’s growing. Summer and Samantha are running track and doing well in school.

You listen to Warrick Dunn and hear a proud father talking of his children. And then you realize that Dunn is only 19. Still, he’s in charge of his brothers and sisters, ages 11-17, now that Betty is gone.


She was his mother, and she rests in a cemetery in St. Lawrenceville, a small town on the Mississippi River, about 45 minutes up Sumner Road from their Baton Rouge home. Betty Dunn Smothers was gunned down at 36, two days before her oldest son, Warrick, had turned 18.

It was a month before he committed to playing football at Florida State, where, as a sophomore, he is only the fifth Seminole to have rushed for more than 1,000 yards in a season.

He’s back home now, playing in the Sugar Bowl, among friends and family who are all looking forward to seeing him against Florida.

Betty will be with him.

“She’s always on my mind,” Dunn says quietly. “I’m constantly reminded of her. All you’ve got to do is walk into my house and you see her picture. There’s not a day when I don’t look at her.”

She was his best friend, a mother who worked two jobs, 16 hours a day, to keep the family together and to provide a few of the things that make being a kid a little more fun.

Betty Smothers was a Baton Rouge police officer by day, a security guard by night. She was in her squad car, in uniform, driving the manager of the Piggly Wiggly market to the bank with the day’s receipts on the night of Jan. 7, 1993, when three men came out of some bushes and started firing.


She was hit in the head and the body, and the passenger, who was also hit, reached across the seat, put the car in gear, jammed on the gas and drove to a nearby convenience store.

They knew Betty there. Most of the people in the area did. Most of the people in Baton Rouge, really. She had been a state champion hurdler in high school, an athlete at Southern University and worked with kids in the K-Y track program in the city.

A 911 call went out . . . too late.

If there’s anything harder than a teen-ager being asked to go to the hospital in a police car, identify his mother and then go home to tell his brothers and sisters what happened, he doesn’t want to know about it.

“He called me about 1 o’clock in the morning and said, ‘Coach, my mama is dead. Somebody shot her,’ ” says Joe LeBlanc, who was an assistant coach at Catholic High. “I said, ‘What can I do, Bud?’ And he said, ‘Nothing. I just wanted you to know.’ ”

It was Dunn, handling things as he always had, the father figure, but now without a mother.

“I never really had a childhood,” he says. “I’ve never been able to go out and just go crazy, like most kids, because I grew up staying in the house a lot, baby-sitting.”


He dealt with relatives and friends coming in, and even a wake that was held in Baton Rouge’s Riverside Centroplex, with television coverage and thousands in attendance. He dealt with the cortege, cars stretching for four miles, lights on in a funeral procession and because Baton Rouge police were keeping their lights on to let people know they wanted a pay raise and this was one reason why.

Those police and other friends have raised a trust fund of more than $200,000 to keep the family together and educate the children. They live in a house in Baton Rouge with his grandmother, Willie D. Wheeler, in charge.

“It’s something my mom always wanted, a house,” Dunn says. “And it’s something we couldn’t afford.”

As a high school senior, Dunn adjusted to being the father figure without a mother to turn to for help and advice. He took the children to games and to the mall, watching them play and springing for ice cream or hot dogs afterward.

Louisiana State wanted him to stay at home and play college football close to his brothers and sisters. Florida State wanted him in Tallahassee.

So did others.

“He needed to get away,” says LeBlanc. “If he had stayed here, he would never have had a life for himself.”


Dunn was an option quarterback and defensive back at Catholic High, but he wanted to play running back in college.

“We wanted him to play defensive back and we had him slotted for a defensive back scholarship,” said Seminole Coach Bobby Bowden. “We already had given a running back scholarship to Rock Preston. Warrick told us he wanted to run the football, so I told him, ‘We’ll give you a chance at running back, but if you don’t do as well and we need you at defensive back, will you play defensive back for us?’ ”

Bowden also sent him a letter.

“I just wrote him that I knew of his grief and I wanted him to come to Tallahassee and be my boy, my son,” Bowden said. “He’s always been a little more special to me. I mean, all the kids are special, but I think they know I’m a little closer to him and they understand.”

They do.

Doug Williams, the former NFL quarterback, called Charlie Ward at Florida State and asked him to look out for Dunn. Williams and Betty Smothers had grown up together in Louisiana, and it seemed the thing to do.

Ward, a senior quarterback on his way to winning the Heisman Trophy, went the extra mile, rooming with the freshman Dunn and taking him home to Thomasville, Ga., from time to time.

“They’re my second family now,” Dunn says.

But Ward is gone, playing for the New York Knicks, and Dunn goes on in Tallahassee. He had been a consolation-prize running back, sharing time with senior Sean Jackson, in part because Preston was injured. He rushed for 511 yards and scored 10 touchdowns, six on receptions. He gained acclaim by catching a short pass from Ward and turning it into a 79-yard touchdown play against Florida in a game in which he caught eight passes.


He was the starter when he reported for his sophomore season and asked Bowden for the ball more often. Dunn turned in a 1,026-yard effort for an offense that has become more run-oriented since Danny Kanell took over for Ward. Preston is his backup.

Dunn also caught 34 passes, 10 of them in the 31-31 tie with Florida in a game that turned in the fourth quarter when Kanell began throwing to him on routes circling out of the backfield to confound the Gator defense.

And he burned up the telephone wires to Baton Rouge, keeping up with the kids.

“My brother, Travis, will probably be faster than me,” he says. “And Bryson is good, too, but small for his age. He’s 14. He has a bigger heart than I do. . . . Everything is against him because he has a learning disability and has to put forth more effort than anyone in the family, really. If I had his heart, I’d probably be that much better.”

How much better does he need to be? He’s small, 5 feet 9 and 178 pounds, and quick, a third-down type player on an NFL scale, and he would like to play pro football because nearly every college player would like to play pro football. But it’s not an obsession.

“I’m a negative person, so I always look at the negative aspect of things,” he says. “I never thought I could play college football because I didn’t think I was big enough or smart enough.”

A college degree in computer science has become important to him.

Again, it’s the father figure.

“If the NFL happens, it happens, but if it doesn’t, that’s why I’m trying to get my degree,” he says. “I’m trying to set an example for my brothers and sisters that it’s important. And if it’s going to help me at the same time it helps them, that’s even better.”


For a long while, he tried to get away from the past by asking politely that questions be related to football. It’s tough, though. The first of three men who were arrested and charged with killing Betty Smothers, Kevan Brumfield, is scheduled to go on trial on Jan. 30.

Warrick Dunn will be in Tallahassee, still dealing with her death.

“I hear other guys call their mom, or their mom will call them,” he says. “I can’t ever experience that. That’s why there are times when I just want to get off by myself, and I’ll just think. I’ve been writing about her lately, mostly in papers in English class, because it’s something I experienced.

“It’s a good thing for me if I’m not telling people about her, about how I feel, to put it down on paper. I think I’ve done a good job so far, but it’s hard--so hard.”