Warrick Dunn has been retired for nine years. It’s interesting that, even though he is one of 31 men to rush for more than 10,000 yards in NFL history (he is 22nd all-time with 10,967 yards; number 21 is O.J. Simpson), we probably don’t remember him for being the shifty, speedy, slippery all-purpose back for the Bucs and Falcons for 12 seasons.
We remember him—at least I do—more for giving away houses than for running for touchdown, in part because he’s still doing it.
Even in retirement, Dunn and his Warrick Dunn Charities are still partnering with Habitat for Humanity to build homes for disadvantaged families across the United States. In December, Dunn and Habitat combined to build homes number 158 (in Detroit) and 159 (in Atlanta) and place two families in them before the holidays. Furnished, as Dunn like to say, “all the way down to the toothbrushes in the bathroom.”
This seems like an odd time, in the middle of the playoffs, to retell the Dunn story. But with the newfound giving of fans to causes like those of Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton and Saints punter Thomas Morstead, Dunn’s precedent looks prescient. Dalton’s foundation was flooded with more than $300,000 in donations by Bills fans after Dalton’s fourth-down touchdown pass in Week 17 sent the Bills to the playoffs. This week New Orleans punter Thomas Morstead was thanked by Viking fans with more than $150,000 in donations to his foundation for his valor in playing with torn rib cartilage in the Saints’ playoff loss at Minnesota. Morstead vowed to go to Minneapolis during the Super Bowl to deliver the donations to a children’s cause.
Recently I was with Dunn when he surprised Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson with a visit, a reminder that Dunn’s generosity made it possible for Watson and his single mom and family to move into a Habitat for Humanity home in Gainesville, Ga., 11 years ago. Watson made it clear that the home meant a new life and a shot at the American dream for his family. “I’ll never be able to thank him, and Habitat, and everyone who made it possible, enough,’’ Watson said.
I asked Dunn to explain why he started working to help families like Watson’s make a better life for themselves.
“My rookie year in the NFL, in Tampa, I was challenged by coach [Tony] Dungy,” Dunn said. He told us, ‘If you are going to live in this community, you want to be a part of this community and give back.’ From that challenge, I thought about my mom and her dream of home ownership, and that’s how it all started. We did three homes in 1997, and now we’re up to 159.
“I grew up in a situation where we needed a lot of support. I lost my mom at 18. Single mom, six kids, and a Baton Rouge police officer. She was gunned down by armed robbers at a bank. When she lost her life, the city of Baton Rouge started a fund for us. And that’s how we were able to survive and pay bills. And when I saw that from the city, that really helped me understand what it means to care about your neighbor and to give back and support. I just think now I have been driven for so many years—this is part of who I am, to want to see people smile and help anyone that I can possibly help.”
Dunn’s foundation sets up a stringent program for prospective homeowners, including requiring them to do more than 200 hours of community service and Habitat volunteering. The owners must also take a class in money management, because they have to pick up the costs of the monthly mortgage. In many cases, such as that of the Watsons, a local group takes on much of the construction work and picks up some of those costs. Dunn's organization provides the down payment for the house, and partner groups donate furniture and even groceries. And on the appointed day, the family is handed the keys and takes ownership.
It’s been a godsend, 159 times over.
“We have a 92 percent success rate,” said Dunn, “Ninety-two percent of the families are either in the homes or they’ve bought a new home. That is something we take great pride in.
“I have several families that I’m close with that I still keep in contact with. There’s one family in Tampa where the mother sold her house and bought another home. For us, that’s success. She did it the right way. I have families in Atlanta where there have been times when the mom had to call me—like, I need you to come and talk to my son and straighten him out. And I did, and in one case years later, I saw this kid, and now he’s a dad, helping his family. So it’s been a great success.’’
Dunn values this part of his life more than his football career—even though he has overachieved in both. He gets emotional when he talks about the lives he’s impacted.
“As you get older, life changes and you start to view things and value life a lot differently,” he said. “I think I just value human beings. It’s a big issue with affordable housing in this country. People have a lot of needs, and I just want to be a voice for them and an outlet, that if you work hard, and you are committed, we aren’t going to hand you anything, you have to do your part and work hard, that we are going to come support you. I tell people I am a lucky guy, but I am definitely blessed to be in the position I am in to help people.’’
He’s not done either. The seeds he’s sown will grow for years, and more families will be helped. It’s an amazing story, Warrick Dunn’s life, in football and beyond.
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