The Musial Award for Extraordinary Character is one of two special honors bestowed at the Musial Awards. It recognizes an individual who demonstrates remarkable class, perseverance and overall sportsmanship.
Tired? Cliché? Trite? Never for Warrick Dunn. Those quaint expressions have hit home for the former NFL running back more than 200 times.
A record setter at Florida State and nominee for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Warrick has left his mark more indelibly through his mission to house single parents than he has on the field. Through excellence, humility and perseverance, he harnessed the platform that football offered to transform the lives of hundreds of families: a body of work worthy of the Musial Award for Extraordinary Character.
His journey to the award was born out of tragedy. Warrick is the oldest of six children raised by his mother, Betty Smothers, a police officer. He became the head of the family suddenly at age 18, when Betty was killed while escorting a businesswoman to make a night deposit. “In that moment, I knew my life changed forever,” he says. “We were renting a house, and I was still in school. I couldn’t pay rent.”
With help from his grandmother, Warrick balanced the time demands of college recruiting with providing a home for his siblings. He used the proceeds from his mom’s life insurance to buy a house for his brothers and sisters, then accepted a scholarship to Florida State. There, he became the first back in school history to record three 1,000-yard rushing seasons. He also managed to graduate on time with a degree in information studies.
Drafted 12th overall by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1997, Warrick was named rookie of the year. He also accepted a life-changing challenge that year from Bucs coach Tony Dungy, who said, “‘If you want to live in this community, you want to give back,'” Warrick recalls. “I thought of my mom’s dream of home ownership, and I understood the pain and sacrifice families make.”
So, he founded Homes for the Holidays, which partners with local organizations to provide furnishings and down payment assistance for single-parent families. In 25 years, the program has furnished more than 200 homes, provided approximately $1 million in down payments and served more than 450 single parents and children.
“The reason that I started the program was because of what I experienced with my mom, what she went through to provide a stable environment, to make sure that we could have a place to have memories,” Warrick said at a ceremony in Tampa in October, when he turned over the keys to his charity’s 204th house.
Every home also includes a fresh-baked apple pie on the dining room table. “My mom’s favorite,” he says.
After six seasons with the Buccaneers and six with the Falcons, Warrick retired in 2009 ranked 14th all-time in all-purpose yards with 15,306 and 19th in rushing yards with 10,967. The Walter Payton Man of the Year in 2005, Warrick joined the Falcons front office and purchased a minority ownership stake in the franchise in 2010.
Since then, Homes for the Holidays has flourished and inspired Warrick to develop three additional programs.
A dozen seasons of excellence on the field combined with a quarter-century of giving back: “It never gets old,” Warrick says. “Over the years, I’ve been able to use the program as therapy. I think my mom would be happy that I was strong enough to handle the pressure but also to take something and make something positive.”