The 5-foot-9, 187-pound Warrick Dunn to became an all-state high football player and sprint star at Catholic-Baton Rouge, a second-team All-America choice and Florida State’s all-time leading rusher and had a 12-year NFL career in which he ran for 10,967 yards and 49 touchdowns. (Associated Press)
Last Modified: Friday, June 22, 2012 9:07 PMIt took Maelen “Choo Choo” Brooks a few days to piece together a football uniform small enough to fit Warrick Dunn.
“I was coaching the older boys and none of the peewee coaches wanted him,” Brooks recalled. “They wouldn’t give him a uniform because they said he was too small. If he had a uniform, I knew they’d have to give him a chance.
“After about two weeks, they knew. They were telling stories about how Warrick ran and how he hit one kid so hard that the kid went flying and knocked a water cooler over. They were running to the store to buy him a uniform.”
Brooks, a longtime youth football and track coach in Baton Rouge, first saw Dunn as an 8-year-old. He watched intently as Dunn battled a much larger boy in a sprint, falling behind, then coming back to win.
Afterward, Brooks approached Dunn wanting to ask one question. When he asked, “Are you tough enough to play football?” a chorus of other youngsters answered, “Oh, he’s plenty tough.”
It’s that toughness, mixed with equal parts of desire and compassion that drove the 5-foot-9, 187-pound Dunn to became an all-state high football player and sprint star at Catholic-Baton Rouge, a second-team All-America choice and Florida State’s all-time leading rusher and then on to a 12-year NFL career in which he ran for 10,967 yards and 49 touchdowns. He was also the winner of the 2004 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award for his charity work to provide new homes for single-parent families.
Now those qualities and perseverance have carried Dunn to the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame. He will be enshrined on Saturday in Natchitoches.
“I’m humbled … this is such an honor,” Dunn said. “When I was playing, I never really thought about honors like it. I didn’t know how what I did would measure up.
“I played with a chip on my shoulder and I wanted to prove people wrong. They always said I was too small. The first time I went out for a team when I was seven. I got picked last. The next year I was picked first.
“They didn’t think I’d succeed in high school or college. People thought I’d only play three or four years in the NFL and I played 12. I was always proving myself.”
While proving himself, Dunn always had a knack for turning heads.
Central High football coach Sid Edwards was a ninth-grade football coach at Catholic High when he first met Dunn as a 13-year-old.
“I had a buddy who was after me to come see his son play for Prescott Middle School,” Edwards said. “This kid had already applied to go to Catholic High, so I went.
“There were all these big, good-looking athletes. Then in the back I see this little guy who probably doesn’t weigh but about 80 or 90 pounds. The other team kicks the ball to him on the (opening) kickoff and he returns it for a touchdown.
“They had him playing on defense. He intercepts two passes and returns them for touchdowns. He returned another kickoff for a touchdown. And at the end of the game they put him in on offense. Both times he touched the ball he ran for touchdowns. He touched the ball six times in the game and scored every time.”
After the game, Edwards asked his friend who the “little guy” was and was told, “Oh, that’s little Warrick. Isn’t he cute?”
Dunn’s mother, Baton Rouge police Cpl. Betty Smothers, was standing nearby and heard the conversation. She told Edwards she was Dunn’s mother and asked about Catholic High. Edwards said he explained the application process that included academic testing and an interview.
A few months later, Dunn was accepted to Catholic. There were struggles at first. He was academically ineligible after the first quarter of his freshman year but battled back.
“The thing about Warrick that impresses me to this day is his work ethic and desire to better himself,” said Catholic High football coach Dale Weiner. “A lot of kids who find themselves in the situation he did as a freshman give up. He buckled down and improved academically every semester he was in high school.
“That’s the model he’s used for his entire life. If he sees a weakness within himself, he attacks it. He’s taken public-speaking classes and now he’s getting his master’s degree. It’s just incredible.”
Just as incredible were some of the things Dunn did at Catholic High. He owns the school’s career record for yards per carry for a career, 9.04 (1990-92); a single season, 10.52 in 1992; and a single game vs. Denham Springs, 39.2 in 1992.
Interestingly, Dunn started at quarterback as a senior, not at running back because Weiner believed he’d have a bigger impact on the game.
“There are several plays I’ll always remember,” Weiner said. “There was one run Warrick made against Glen Oaks his senior year. Glen Oaks was really rolling and had one of the top teams in the state.
“Glen Oaks had just tied it. Warrick ran to the line and ducked under one tackle. Then he did two spin moves — one was a 360 — and just ran away from the defense for a TD.”
Dunn would go on to be the Class 5A 100 meters champion as a senior. By that time, he was running for his life in a more literal way.
On Jan. 7, 1993, Dunn’s mother was shot and killed while working an off-duty security job. The single mother of six often worked multiple jobs to make ends meet and dreamed of someday owning a home.
As the oldest, Dunn had always had a father-like role for the other siblings. The role intensified. When his grandmother moved into a home bought by donations to the family, Dunn was comfortable enough to venture out of Louisiana and to Florida State.
Before he left home, Brooks talked to Dunn about leaving the importance of leaving a legacy.
It didn’t take long for Dunn to start doing just that. Injuries to other running backs gave Dunn the small opening he needed to claim playing time as a true freshman.
Quarterback Charlie Ward won the Heisman Trophy that year and Dunn played a role as FSU won its first national championship.
From there, Dunn went on to become the Seminoles’ all-time leading rusher with 3,959 yards, leading the team in rushing for three consecutive seasons, including a school-record 1,418 yards in 1995.
As the 1997 NFL draft drew near, Dunn again was trying to outrun some of the questions that followed him for years. Was he big enough or durable enough for the NFL?
“We envisioned him as a guy who would give us big plays, but Warrick always knew he would be an every-down back,” former Tampa Bay and Indianapolis head coach Tony Dungy said. “Before the draft, I called Coach (Bobby) Bowden (the venerable Florida State coach) about him.
“And as only he could, coach Bowden told me he didn’t know about our game or the level of play, but he knew Warrick was the best player he’d ever had. That was enough for me. He was also a guy who took making a difference in the community to heart. He’s just special.”
Dungy and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers drafted Dunn with the 12th pick of the first round and he went on earn the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year award by rushing for 978 yards and tallying 462 receiving yards. He went on to earn three Pro Bowl berths (1997, 2000 and 2005).
In 12 seasons with the Bucs and Atlanta Falcons, Dunn was a model of consistency. He had five 1,000-yard rushing seasons and averaged fewer than 4 yards per carry twice.
Dunn’s best NFL season was 2005, when he rushed for 1,416 yards, averaging 5.1 yards per carry. He also caught 29 passes for 220 yards.
As his NFL career grew, so did Dunn’s passion for charity work. His goal was to provide and furnish homes for single-parent families that were much like his own.
Through the efforts of the Warrick Dunn Foundation and Charities and other corporate partners the work continues. Since 1997, down payments and furnishings have been provided for more than 100 homes in cities that are near and dear to Dunn’s heart: Atlanta, Baton Rouge, Tallahassee and Tampa. Other cities, including Lafayette, are part of the network now.
“A lot of guys who make it like Warrick did spend their money on clubs and material things,” Brooks said. “They get show trucks and cars. Not Warrick. He understood the importance of sacrifice then just as he does now.
“Through the first couple of years he was in the NFL, he still drove the same car his mother and grandmother pulled together the money to buy. He was more concerned about providing for his family and others. That’s a legacy.”
The list of awards Dunn has won for his charity work includes the 2007 “Whizzer” White NFL Man of the Year Award and the 2008 Bart Starr Man of the Year Award.
Dunn has a partnership stake in the Falcons and is working to complete a master’s degree at Atlanta’s Emory University. He also works as a broadcast analyst.
“I always look for challenges and for ways to better myself,” Dunn said.
Edwards notes, “As impressive as Warrick’s football career was, I still believe the best for him is yet to come.”