There is no hiding that the circle has come full for Warrick Dunn, an arc extending from tragedy through triumph and now, home again. There is no denying the symmetry of a man playing his last college football game, for the national championship, less than 100 miles from where all of this so miserably began, almost four years to the day after his mother was murdered in Baton Rouge.
There is no denying, also, that Dunn hates all of this. Whereas others might secretly be negotiating the movie rights, Dunn has worked quietly behind the scenes in an attempt to mute his celebrity, in the same breath conceding his time at Florida State has been “just like a fairy-tale, a short story.”
Dunn is determined not to make a spectacle of his melancholy, of family photo albums, of heartbreak, no matter how newsworthy it might seem to the outside.
He recently asked the Florida State sports information office to shield his five younger siblings, brothers and sisters he vowed to raise after his mother’s death, from the media glare. Dunn has denied television crews access to his home in Baton Rouge, crews that would have woven heartfelt, soft-lighted tales of Dunn’s plight.
When a reporter broached the topic of his siblings at Sunday’s news conference, Dunn politely responded, “I’d rather not talk about them.”
Rob Wilson, Florida State sports information director, puts it succinctly when asked about Dunn’s aversion to the spotlight: “He doesn’t want to shine.”
When a writer once asked Dunn what winning the Heisman Trophy might bring, he responded, “problems, problems, problems.”
Dunn doesn’t want sympathy or press clippings or microwaved remembrances of a mother strangers never knew.
What he wants is the ball against Florida and enough room to make something happen Thursday night when the teams meet in the Sugar Bowl.
The rest he puts up with.
He seeks not glory but respect, of the sort offered unsolicited this week by the enemy, Florida Coach Steve Spurrier.
“I have complete respect for Warrick Dunn,” Spurrier said between rips of Florida State coaching tactics. “He’s a tremendous competitor, a fine young man. I know he’s going to have a big game. I just hope it’s not a real big game, because he’s always played extremely well against us.
“I voted him No. 2 behind Danny Wuerffel for the Heisman Trophy. I’ve said that several times. I gave him a higher vote than most of you guys.”
The Sugar Bowl beckons with great expectations--Florida State’s quest for its second national title in four years--but there is also a lonelier subtext.
Dunn will be playing his last game for Coach Bobby Bowden; Bowden coaching his last game with Dunn. It is difficult to say who will miss each other more.
“The Warrick Dunn era has been one of the greatest things I guess ever to happen to me,” Bowden said.
Bowden was speaking about more than just Dunn’s on-field dividends, which have paid off spectacularly enough: 10 touchdowns and 511 rushing yards as a freshman in 1993 on Bowden’s first national title team and three consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons since. Bowden can reflect on Dunn’s 3,959 rushing yards, his 6.8 yards per carry average, his 49 touchdowns and 21 100-yard rushing games.
What about Dunn’s knack for playing big in big games? This year, Dunn saved his best for Virginia (131 rushing yards), Miami (163) and Florida, when he gained 185 yards in the Seminoles’ 24-21 victory on Nov. 30 despite being shadowed all day by safety Lawrence Wright, who had 18 tackles.
In five games against the arch-rival Gators, Dunn has accounted for 862 yards--445 rushing, 334 receiving--and even passed for a 73-yard touchdown in Florida State’s 23-17 1994 Sugar Bowl victory.
But it has been more than that for Bowden, who has taken to Dunn as he has to no other player.
“The minute I found out his plight, that he had lost his mother, in the middle of his senior year, that she was killed. . . . I wrote him a letter when he signed with us, ‘Son, I’m going to do my best to take care of you, give you the leadership even more than the other players.’ My players never resented that. I’ve never done it before. But I felt that way about him, and he never let us down.”
More than a coach, Dunn says Bowden has been “more like a father.”
Dunn never forgot the letter Bowden wrote; Bowden never forgot the hangdog look on Dunn’s face when he arrived in Tallahassee, the weight of the world on his 18-year-old shoulders.
What was not to respect about Dunn?
The oldest of six siblings, in a fatherless home, Dunn had been taking care of family matters since before he was a teenager.
It was Dunn who took the call at 12:30 a.m. on Jan. 7, 1993 from police informing him that his mother, Betty Dunn Smothers, 36, had been shot in an armed robbery.
Smothers was a Baton Rouge police officer moonlighting as a security officer at a Piggly Wiggly supermarket. She and the store manager were making a night deposit at the Citizens Bank and Trust when assailants fired 12 shots into her patrol car. The market manager survived.
Dunn, who turned 18 two days before, had to identify his mother’s body and the pearl earrings she was wearing. Pearls Warrick had given her. While family members grieved, Dunn was on the telephone, calling funeral homes and insurance companies.
Was he ever really 18?
“I feel a lot older, wiser, than other guys,” Dunn said. “Because of the situations I’ve been through, the things I’ve experienced. . . . I think I have a better handle on life than most guys on the team.”
Dunn’s first thought after his mother’s death was that he would have to stay home to raise his brothers and sisters. He was a star at Catholic High in Baton Rouge, destined for Florida State, but suddenly everything had changed.
“I’ve never said I wasn’t afraid or wasn’t scared to take on the responsibility,” he said.
What choice did he have? Looking back, Dunn says it took a certain kind of resolve.
“You have to be raised a certain way,” he said. “My mom raised me, I guess, to be prepared for that day. I’ve had those responsibilities since I was 10, 9 years old. That was just the next phase of my life, to actually grow up, be a young man and take care of business.”
Dunn, it turned out, didn’t have to stay home. His grandmother, Willie Wheeler, moved in to help out with the children: brothers Derrick, 19, Bricson, 15, Travis, 14, and sisters Summer, 18, and Samantha, 13.
The community of Baton Rouge, about 90 miles from New Orleans, has also been instrumental, raising to date about $400,000 in a trust for the children.
The charity freed Dunn to pursue his football career, even if it meant he would shun the home- town school, Louisiana State, for Florida State.
“I’m just thankful that they didn’t write me off because I left the state of Louisiana,” he said.
Bowden treated Dunn differently. If Dunn had to return home to tend to family business, Bowden freed him to do so.
Others were there to help. Doug Williams, the former Super Bowl MVP with the Washington Redskins, was a childhood friend of Dunn’s mother. Williams asked then-Florida State quarterback Charlie Ward to look after Dunn in Tallahassee. Ward obliged, becoming Dunn’s roommate.
Bowden knew what he was getting as a person; but wasn’t quite sure about Dunn the football player.
Bowden recruited Dunn, only 5-feet-9 and 185 pounds, as a defensive back, but Dunn begged for a chance to play tailback.
Bowden remembers patting Dunn politely on the helmet, saying “OK, we’ll give you a chance, son, we’ll give you a chance.”
The defense never got him back.
“It’s just been unbelievable how he’s come along,” Bowden said. “He’s such a team man. He never misses practice, never late for practice, never misses classes, never a problem, very quiet. Hey, he may be the best blocker on our team, can you believe it?”
For Dunn, coming home for his last game is special, but not without complications. The demands of heading a household remain.
“I think that burden will probably always be there,” he said.
When Dunn decided to turn down millions from the NFL to return for his senior season, some thought he was nuts.
Dunn said his objective wasn’t to set an example for his siblings, but it sort of worked out that way.
“It probably turned out to be a lesson in life,” he said of his decision. “I hope those guys realize that education is important.”
Dunn said he doesn’t regret a minute.
It gave him another year with Bowden.
“It’s going to be sad,” Dunn said of leaving. “Athletes come and go here. He’s definitely going to be missed, and I hope he misses me in the future. That’s one guy that I actually loved to play for and I’m happy I had a chance to actually get to know him.
“But just because my career is finished doesn’t mean my relationship with Coach Bowden will be over with.”
After his required meeting with the media, Dunn returned to the peace of his hotel room, all his innermost thoughts still bottled.
“So, anyway, that’s the Warrick Dunn story,” Bowden was left to conclude. “It’s so great he can be back here in his home state, this close to his home town to play his last college football game.”