As Rashawn Harris and his 6-year-old daughter pulled up to their new home Tuesday afternoon, he knew it was a special moment.
After moving from apartment to apartment, he qualified for an interest-free mortgage through Habitat for Humanity, and he had even helped build the house.
But when former Tampa Bay Buccaneer Warrick Dunn met Harris, 24, and Alexia at the front of the driveway, the single father realized the key to the house wasn't all he'd be getting.
Harris became the 90th recipient of Homes for the Holidays, a program of the Warrick Dunn Foundation that, with the help of Aaron's, usually provides single moms with a $5,000 down payment, furniture and just about everything needed to start living in a home.
Harris, a University of South Florida student, full-time worker and aspiring lawyer, is just the second dad chosen in the program's 12 years.
"This started as flat concrete, and this is what we have now — a home for me and my daughter," Harris said before stepping inside the Plant City house. "I still have a long way to go, but this is going to make it a lot easier."
Once inside, Harris, saw a furnished living room, a flat-screen TV and, in the corner, a lighted Christmas tree. To his right were custom-made stockings hanging on the wall. In all, the home decor totaled $20,000.
"Oh my gosh," said Harris, making his way through the door alongside a shy Alexia.
"You like?" asked Dunn, whose last NFL stint ended when the Bucs cut him before this season.
"I love this," Harris said.
• • •
The oldest of six siblings growing up in Baton Rouge, Dunn watched as his mother, Betty Smothers, worked tirelessly to provide for the family. She was a police officer who also worked other jobs.
When Dunn was 18, Smothers was shot dead while working as a security guard. She never owned a home, so in her honor, Dunn started Homes for Holidays after the Bucs drafted him in 1997. His goal was to help single parents own their own home.
The project's roster of beneficiaries includes families in Baton Rouge; Atlanta; Tallahassee, where Dunn played at Florida State; and throughout the Tampa Bay area. Before heading to Plant City on Tuesday afternoon, the foundation presented April Harrelson and her sons Brandon, 18, Ethan, 11, and Loghan, 8, with a home in Dade City. (To read more about the presentation to the Harrelson family, go to pasco.tampabay.com.)
Although he's known for lending a hand to single moms, Dunn, who rushed for 49 touchdowns and almost 11,000 yards in his 12-year career with the Bucs and Atlanta Falcons, also has a soft spot for dads. In a way, he became one, helping to raise his siblings when their mom died.
"You can only imagine the struggle, the things you have to give up," said Dunn, 34. "It was tough. It was a lot of stress, a lot of days worrying."
Dunn's foundation works with Habitat for Humanity to select deserving parents. There aren't a lot of men who go through the system, he said, so when they do, he takes a good look at their situation.
And he liked what he saw in Rashawn Harris: a 3.9 high school GPA, a dedicated political science college student, a full-time employee at a collections agency.
"Knowing the struggles and the different things that you go through trying to provide, I'm just in awe," Dunn said of Harris. "You have a single father who's stepping up and doing more than expected of himself. He just wants a better life for his daughter, and I respect that."
• • •
As Dunn, Harris and Alexia toured the home, the little girl, clung to her dad and, at times, buried her face in his chest.
In the kitchen, they found a fully-stocked refrigerator and cabinets, a blender, a crock pot and a cherry pie in the center of their new dinner table.
The first room in the hallway is an office, equipped with a computer. Alexia's bedroom has a Tinker Bell theme; his is made up of dark wood furniture.
Once the tour was over, Harris signed the paperwork, officially making the home his. The trio then made their way to the couch to pose for photos. At that point, Alexia let her guard down and smiled.
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Kevin Smetana can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 661-2439.