Letter from Warrick Dunn: Honoring my mother's legacy

NFL legend Warrick Dunn: Paying it forward and honoring my mother's legacy

On January 7, 1993, at 12:30 a.m., I received a phone call that would change my life forever. Officer Theodore Jordan, who worked with my mother and was a family friend, called to tell me that mom had been shot while working off-duty as a police officer. At first, I thought he was joking. But shortly after, my world started spinning and it would be many years before I could come to terms with the fallout.

Betty Smothers, my mom, was pronounced dead at 12:45 a.m. It was like the air had been squeezed from my body. I was the first family member to arrive at the hospital that night, so the surreal job with every bit of horribleness you can fathom of identifying her body fell on me. She lay motionless on the table surrounded by her fellow officers while still in her uniform, her head bloodied, bandaged and swollen. "It couldn't be real," I thought. But it was. My entire world felt as though it had collapsed on top of me.

My brothers and sisters -- Derrick (16 years old), Bricson (11 years old), Travis (10 years old), Summer (14 years old) and Samantha (9 years old) -- were equally in shock and disbelief when they heard the news. Losing mom -- our only caregiver and provider -- delivered a responsibility that I was not prepared for, and yet was suddenly immersed in.

Mom and I had been planning our recruiting visits, since National Signing Day was only four weeks away, and I was being recruited by some of the nation's top colleges and universities to play football. That became a distant thought very quickly as I stared at my mother's lifeless body on that table. They say timing is everything, and timing in my mind meant "what am I going to do now?" Recruiting didn't seem all that important any more.

How could it be that at a very young 18 years old I was supposed to be spending the weekend visiting schools with mom, but instead I was planning her funeral and burial?

My family, of course, was emotionally drained and broken hearted, but one thing was clear. My family would live through this together and as the oldest, it was up to me to make sure that happened. It became my responsibility to raise my siblings. Mom had prepared me for this role, but I had no idea where to start. She made it seem so easy.

Two or three weeks after mom was murdered, I made my official visit to Florida State University and immediately had a genuine connection with Coach Bowden. It quickly became clear in my mind that I would be a Seminole, and on February 3, 1993, it happened. Many people from home in Baton Rouge believed I should stay and attend Louisiana State University, but mom would've wanted me to follow my heart. Hindsight is 20/20, but I made sure I benefited from having Coach Bowden in my life and it felt like a perfect fit from day one.

Finishing up at Catholic High School in Baton Rouge, the responsibility weighed on me. We were renting a home at the time my mother lost her life and knew we couldn't stay much longer; the memories were too painful for me and my siblings and my grandmother who had come to live with us. With our address being splattered all over the media, I became afraid to be at home.

After a couple months of searching, I finally found a house in the Park Forest neighborhood, not far from where we lived. I paid $89,000 for it using the insurance money that came from mom's job as a police officer. We finally had a place to call home, even though the most important part of home was missing. We wouldn't have to worry about packing in the middle of the night or being evicted either. We had a HOME and it was ours.

Before my mother's murder -- in my early years -- we moved from apartment to apartment, rental house to rental house, trying to stay a step in front of any potential problems. We didn't have much, but nobody complained and we made the best of every situation. As children, we didn't really comprehend the problems, but we behaved and went along believing mom would take care of things like she always did. Our family ended up on Bradley Street when I was twelve years old. Mom had to rent because as a single mother of six and on the meager salary of a police officer, she never made enough money to purchase her own home. But she wanted to.

Looking back, I wanted that too. Moving is stressful with the new schools, making new friends and getting to know new teachers. Sports were a connector for all of us, but it was still hard. The tragedy my family experienced opened my eyes to the importance of having a stable home. A place to retreat to everyday after work or school, be with family and feel safe and secure. Growing up, I could see the way my mother struggled to make ends meet, even though she was always working two jobs.

I graduated high school in the spring of 1993 and spent the next four years at FSU attempting to overcome the tragic loss of my mom. I did not have the traditional college experience. I did not go out, I did not go to parties like other players did. I went home to help my Grandmother or my siblings in the summers and when I had free weekends in college. I became the first running back in FSU's history to record three 1,000-yard rushing seasons and finished as the Seminoles' career leader in rushing yards, gaining 3,959 to surpass Greg Allen's 3,769 (1981-84). I was also considered one of the nation's top pass-catching backs, snaring 132 career receptions for 1,314 yards and scoring 47 touchdowns in four FSU seasons -- 37 rushing and 10 receiving -- to break Allen's previous school record of 46 before I graduated in 1997. And in what can only be described as an amazing fete -- I was drafted -- after being told my whole life that I was too small to play -- in the NFL!

Tampa Bay took me in the first round, 12th pick overall of the 1997 NFL Draft. That year I was named NFL Rookie of the Year by Football News, Pro Football Weekly and Sports Illustrated and designated Offensive Rookie of the Year by the Associated Press, Football Digest and College and Pro Football Newsweekly. It was fun but I never cared a whole lot about awards, truth be told. I was focused still on getting my siblings through school and onto higher education or their next phase of life -- on their own.

After playing with the Buccaneers for five years, I signed with the Atlanta Falcons on March 15, 2002. During my first season in Atlanta, I produced four 100-yard rushing games after playing through a painful toe injury and hamstring problems in 2001. I rushed for 5,979 yards with the Falcons, ranking third in the team’s history. Then in 2007, I became the 22nd player in NFL history to reach 10,000 rushing yards and 4,000 yards receiving.

After six seasons with the Atlanta Falcons, I returned to Tampa and signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on March 10, 2008 as an unrestricted free agent. Having competed for 12 years, I retired from the NFL following the 2008 season. I also had the opportunity to play in the 1997, 2000 and 2005 Pro Bowls.

I wouldn't have had the football career I did without the support of my coaches, my family and even my mom -- a constant inspiration. So many times I wished she could have been there to see it and enjoy it with all of us. It has afforded some of the greatest memories of my life.

And ultimately it led to another great adventure born from my simple and humble beginning. Growing up and watching my mom struggle to keep a roof over our head lead me to start a program called Homes for the Holidays in 1997. But I didn't do it alone. During my rookie year with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Coach Tony Dungy challenged each of us to do something bigger than ourselves, to become contributing members of our community. While working through the possibilities, Homes for the Holidays was born, becoming a legacy in the memory of my mom and her dream. Our program provides housing opportunities for economically disadvantaged single parents and children who have demonstrated a commitment to achieving financial independence and stability. To date, the program has rewarded 159 single parents and over 420 dependent family members for achieving home ownership.

Through Warrick Dunn Charities, as we are now known, I've been able to honor my mother's life and the lessons she left with me while making an impact in the lives of hardworking families who deserve a hand up -- not a hand out -- in life. When my family was grieving and suffering from the loss, the Baton Rouge community stepped up to provide food, financial assistance and other support, and I'm honored to pay it forward by providing support to the families in our program too.