Analysis

Honoring Juneteenth: Former NFL RB Warrick Dunn's commitment to changing lives unwavering

For more than two decades, former NFL running back Warrick Dunn has helped single parents acquire homes. He's been honored and recognized in many ways for his life-changing work, including being named the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year in 2004.

Amid his goal of reaching 200 home acquisitions -- Warrick Dunn Charities has helped 190 families thus far -- Dunn recently said the evolution of his efforts, and himself, are centered around education, resolve, commitment and timeliness.

With the world trying to gain its footing during the coronavirus pandemic and the United States dealing with racial and socio-economic issues brought to the forefront by the 2020 murder of George Floyd at the hands of law enforcement, Dunn said his work and pledges by corporate America to help rectify historical flaws and injustices must be fruitful.

"2020 was a big push with corporations, after a video showing George Floyd on a sidewalk getting killed, that woke up a lot of people. It brought issues of America to the forefront," Dunn said during a virtual conversation last week titled Juneteenth: A night with Warrick Dunn Charities. "We've got to continue to press companies to keep moving forward and fulfill their promises to help.

"When a company wants to do it, it starts with leadership. Leading by example."

Dunn, a minority owner of the Atlanta Falcons, would know about leading. He started his Homes for the Holidays program in 1997 during his rookie season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He's built it into one of the most notable charities in America.

Now, though, Dunn said understanding more of the historical context that has left communities of color in dire need of housing directly correlates to the present, when lending discrepancies, removal of rent control and spiking housing prices emerging from the pandemic are disproportionately impacting people of color.

Learning about Juneteenth -- the recognition of the June 19 date in 1865 when slaves in Texas were emancipated (more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation) -- and the Tulsa race massacre in 1921, on top of other known and previously unknown history, has helped Dunn gain a greater context of why his work is more crucial than ever, he said.

On June 25, he is staging a virtual fundraiser in lieu of his annual golf tournament to raise funds for his Homes for the Holidays program. Again, the goal is to help reach a total of 200 homes to house single-parent families. Former and current athletes, including Michael Vick and the New Orleans Saints' Malcolm Jenkins, actor Chris Tucker, singer Ne-Yo and other entertainers will take part. (For more information go to WDC.org.)

Dunn's commitment to change lives has been unwavering, with good reason.

After his mother, Betty Smothers, a police officer in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, was slain while working an off-duty security job when he was 18, Dunn and his siblings were taken in by family and community members. The impact of others helping him and his siblings stuck. So did the effect of him eventually having to raise most of his siblings once he made it to the pros.

"Impact," Vick said of Dunn during last week's virtual discussion. "I was on the phone with my mother when Warrick called on the other line. She asked who it was, and I told her Warrick. She said, 'Is he still giving away houses?' That's what stuck with her. Success comes in all forms. Now we're talking 200 homes? That's unexplainable."

Dunn quickly corrected something Vick said. Homes aren't given away. His charity helps single mothers and fathers "earn" them. Down payments, furnishings and other financial help are provided to the chosen families.

When Vick shared that story of the phone call with his mom, it reminded me of an incredibly thought-provoking interview I had with Dunn when I was covering the Falcons for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. It was 2006 and Dunn was approaching his third consecutive season with 1,000 yards rushing. He was at his career peak. Atlanta had the NFL's best rushing attack with both Vick and Dunn surpassing 1,000 rushing yards that season. I was doing a story on Dunn and asked about his charity work. Dunn, one of the kindest and most soft-spoken athletes I ever covered, said something to me that took me aback: That he is recognized more for his off-field work than being a football player. I never thought of that, but frankly, it was true.

I joked back with a remark in the realm of "Well, it could be worse. You might not be known for either." It went right past him. The subject clearly bothered him because he was doing something few running backs have achieved at that level. He finished his 12-season career with nearly 11,000 rushing yards and more than 4,300 receiving yards. There are just seven other RBs who have reached the 10K/4K club in NFL history. Only once did he finish a season with fewer than 1,000 yards from scrimmage. That's pretty rare air.

Not bad for a 5-foot-9, 180-pound running back who was once thought to be too small and too fragile to last.

You could see why, at the time and maybe to some degree now, he is touchy about having his football career overshadowed. Still, as Dunn often says, the key lesson he's learned from his mother and former coach Tony Dungy is that it's not about you. It's about what you do for others.

For Dunn, that's having changed a lot of lives, something he will keep trying to do.

As he said during the virtual conversation, "My mom taught me so much about life, and about how you treat others."

Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter.

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