You can't believe this is Warrick Dunn.
Oh, sure, he still runs the same, darting and dashing in different directions like spit on a hot skillet. Even at 33, Dunn hasn't shown any obvious signs of decline in his skills, despite having rushed for more than 10,000 career yards. But his personal journey cannot be measured by hash marks. Six years ago, when Dunn left the Bucs as a free agent for the Falcons, he was as quiet as church prayer. Although always polite, Dunn was a player with a lot in his head who rarely spoke his mind. That's what was so surprising last week when Dunn flashed a smile, made eye contact and talked as if his life were an open book. Of course, it will be Nov. 11, when his memoir is available — Running for My Life: My Journey in the Game of Football and Beyond. "I talk more. I'm so much more open," Dunn said. "I smile more. I think I've just grown, matured."
"I became a better player. I guess I used to take all the stress and everything on the field. For some reason, I just feel so much better. … The burden has been lifted off my shoulders a little bit."
By now, everything in Dunn's life can be traced to his personal ground zero.
The oldest of six children, Dunn was the closest to his mother, Baton Rouge police Officer Betty Smothers. As a single mother working a second job as a supermarket security guard, Smothers was ambushed, shot and killed Jan. 7, 1993, while making a bank deposit just two days after Dunn's 18th birthday.
Still weeks away from choosing to accept a football scholarship to Florida State, Dunn became responsible for his five brothers and sisters. By the time Dunn became a first-round pick of the Bucs in 1997, the bullet that killed his mother had torn a hole in his life someone could drive an 18-wheeler through.
"My first five years here, I was still depressed, just going through a lot," Dunn said. "I just had a lot on my shoulders. Stuff I still deal with today, but I'm in a better place where I can handle that better. I reflect on it … I lost my best friend when I was 18. That left me so much responsibility. It kind of forced me to grow up in areas I didn't want to grow up in because I still wanted to be a kid. I just had to learn a lot early."
Although he has been named to three Pro Bowls, Dunn insists his mother would have raised his game.
"I would've been a better football player. It's kind of weird how some people just intertwine with someone," Dunn said. "I can remember in high school, I'm on the field and my mom used to ask me about certain plays. 'What were you saying to this guy?' 'Why didn't you do this?' or 'Why didn't you do that?' To have someone that you love critique you in a positive way to make you want to be better? Wow.
"More importantly, it took part of my life."
Family and football
So Dunn poured himself into his family and football. His tragedy led to the creation of Homes for the Holidays, a charity that makes the down payment for single parents to become homeowners. In Baton Rouge, Tallahassee, Tampa and Atlanta, 74 single parents and 192 dependents have received fully furnished homes through his initiative.
But the more Dunn focused on ending the pain of others, the more he ignored his own.
All of that changed after former Falcons teammate Shawn Jefferson urged him to seek psychological counseling. Only then did Dunn begin to deal with emotions he had suppressed about his mother's death.
"Sitting down in the room, I never looked at the (counselor) for a long time," Dunn said. "I never looked at her. By the end of the first year … I started to look at her and talk to her. I would be in the room and just looking down. … I wasn't lying down on the sofa going crazy. I was looking down at different things in the room. But then I started paying attention to her, and she could see I was just so much more comfortable and just releasing."
Search for peace
Even for someone like Dunn, you can tell how far a man has traveled once he stops running.
That was the case for Dunn on Oct. 29, when he walked into Angola Prison in St. Francisville, La. He had come to confront the man who murdered his mother. For more than an hour, he sat across a table from convicted killer Kevan Brumfield. Brumfield's accomplice, Henri Broadway, refused to meet with him.
"The closer we got, the more nervous I got," Dunn said. "I was just anticipating. I couldn't ask all the questions that I wanted to ask for certain reasons. … It was weird, because when I was in the room, I didn't want to jump across the table at him. I don't know why. I know if my brother came, he would've wanted to jump across the table at him. I don't know. It's hard to describe.
"I think it helped me, because for me, over the years, I've been searching for something, too. It's like I'm searching for answers so I can move on with my life. That one incident affected every aspect of my life and it stops me from moving forward — family, kids, certain things. Just growth that now I'm starting to itch for, but it's been a journey."
Dunn's book begins with his dramatic meeting with Brumfield. But in many ways, he has already tried to close that chapter in his life.
"If my mom wasn't taken away, I don't think I'd be doing the housing programs; I don't know if I would be giving back as much," Dunn said.
The irony for Dunn is that his charitable acts have overshadowed his playing career.
"When people first mention my name, they talk about the guy that gives away homes or the guy who does the things in the community. And as a football player, sometimes you get a little frustrated because you want to be known for how great you are on the field. I think my career says a lot about how I have been on the field.
"But, helping to change someone's life? That outweighs anything that anybody can do on a football field."