Warrick Dunn, man of the people, joins Falcons Ring of Honor vs. Saints


If he bothers to think about it, which he very rarely does, Warrick Dunn will suggest that whatever you think is probably not right or least wrong enough to be stupid, but that qualifies as no be a surprise for a guy so miscast.

Hey, when he is inducted into the Falcons’ Ring of Honor while the Saints invade Mercedes-Benz Stadium, it won’t be the first time that he’ll have defied odds. Dunn not only regularly bucks a betting line, he ignores the concept of prediction.

Look at a guy who made Barry Sanders look like a giant, and think about the fact that Dunn ran for more than 10,000 yards in the NFL while sized like a high school – or middle school – point guard, and, well, nobody should be shocked.

“When we scouted Warrick at Florida State, he was the best player on the field, not just the best running back,” said Falcons president and CEO Rich McKay, who drafted Dunn No. 12 overall while with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1997.

“A lot of people questioned whether he could transfer that ... to the NFL, but I think it was his competitiveness that allowed his play to transfer so well from college to pro football. There are not a lot of 5-foot-8 180-pound running backs that run for 10,000 yards in the NFL.”

No, indeed, not that Dunn will tell you he predicted this. He issues few if any direct proclamations ahead; just does his work, and moves on. 

That’s how he laid down 10,967 rushing yards in 12 NFL seasons, six with the Falcons (5,981) to rank behind Gerald Riggs (6,631), Michael Turner (6,081) and William Andrews (5,981) in franchise history.

Talk to him for the first time in a while, and he’ll bust your chops like a bigger back. “Honestly, I just think you didn’t know a lot about football,” were some of Dunn’s first words. “I think, when I came here you saw me face to face, ‘Damn, he’s not the biggest guy.’

“You covered Jamal Anderson, who’s a big guy. T.J .Duckett came here a few years later, who was another big guy. It probably took people back.”

Dunn didn’t knock many people back; he ran around them.

When Dunn signed as a free agent with the Falcons in early 2001, Anderson was coming off a so-so season following major knee injury in 1999. Anderson blew out the other knee in the third game that season.

Dunn took over in the backfield almost single-handedly.

A year later, the Falcons drafted Duckett and Dunn rushed for 927 yards and caught 50 passes as Michael Vick became the starting quarterback, Atlanta ralliied to the postseason with first-year starting quarterback Michael Vick and became the first team to win a playoff game at Green Bay.

So, it’s probably no wonder that every now and then, somebody – like Falcons owner Arthur Blank – may tap Dunn on the shoulder and say something like, “Come on back, man; we’ve got to remind everybody how big you were.”

And that seems to surprise the fourth-leading rusher in franchise history.

“I wasn’t expecting it,” Dunn said of being summoned a few months back to Blank’s office to be told of his pending honor. “Definitely caught off guard a little bit. And, it’s definitely humbling. I definitely grew up to be meek and humble.”

No. 28 can do humble.

As an especially wee lad growing up in Baton Rouge, La., in a single-parent family, he popped into regional consciousness as a talented multi-positional player. Dunn could run, he could throw, he could intercept passes.

But he was small, projecting largely as a defender at the college level, or, if he wanted to stick with his love for playing offense, his home would probably become a Division I-AA (now FCS) school.

There was plenty of wonder that he ended up at Florida State in 1993 as a running back under white-hot coach Bobby Bowden.

“(Bowden) told me that he’d give me a chance to play turning back as opposed to DB. Everybody was recruiting me to play DB,” Dunn said. “I told him that if he’d give me a chance to play running back, I’d gladly come to Florida State.”

All he did was excel as the Seminoles won their first national championship under Bowden.

Backing up running back Sean Jackson, Dunn as a freshman rushed for 511 yards and four touchdowns, and caught 25 passes for another six scores.

That was perhaps all the more amazing because in January of 1993, earlier that same year, Dunn’s mother, Betty Smothers, was murdered.

As an off-duty police officer escorting a bank deposit drop, she was gunned down. Dunn took over parental duties for his five siblings, and eventually wrote about the tragedy, excerpted here: (https://www.today.com/popculture/football-star-faces-his-mother-s-killer-wbna27560987).

As a high school senior, Dunn’s neighbors helped. 

“Where I come from, what the people of Baton Rouge taught me about living life, and helping people, and my grandmother taught me . . . that’s how I was raised,” he said. “I lost my mom and a fund was started so we were able to survive. They taught me what it meant . . . I don’t know who started the account.”

Nobody can know if this changed Dunn, accentuated his DNA, or both.

But there’s no arguing that’s he’s been a giver since.

Not long after the Bucs drafted him in 1997, he created the first of multiple foundations with “Homes for the Holidays” that gives homes to needy families. 

Working in conjunction with Habitat for Humanity and other organizations, Dunn and his program in 20 years have assisted dozens of families in Florida, Atlanta, Baton Rouge, and in as many as 15 states. 

That list includes Gainesville native Deshaun Watson, quarterback of the 2016 national champion Clemson Tigers.

No wonder Dunn became a respected leader in every locker room where he worked. After the 2004 season, while with the Falcons, he was named Walter Payton/NFL Man of the Year.

Dunn never said much, and still doesn’t, but he made noise while rushing for 5,981 yards for the Falcons from 2001-07.

“He could do everything. He was a great receiver (510 NFL receptions), had that tremendous explosion,” former Falcons coach Dan Reeves said. “He was a great changeup (to Anderson). He was also everything you’d want off the field. He had a great reputation in the community. Those are the kind of leaders, in my opinion, where you can see how they prepare ...”

The ending wasn’t perfect in Atlanta, as so few are in the NFL, and when Dunn asked for his release after the 2007 season, Falcons brass acquiesced. The back played one more season with the Bucs before retiring.

That didn’t cloud the fact that Blank noted how Dunn goes about his business, and in 2009 the Falcons owner welcomed the former running back as a minority owner of the team.

Dunn still lives in Atlanta, in the city proper in fact, near a par-3 golf course. 

There’s not a lot of time for mingling with the Falcons, although he still does that, but not for a moment does he regret leaving his first NFL franchise and joining his second.

His best times have been here, and you can bet that his grandmother, Willie Wheeler, will be in Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Thursday night.

“I am thankful that the (Falcons’) organization sees me in that light, being one of the better players that comes through the organization,” he said. “I tell people that words can’t say. I was just a small guy, just trying to play for five years. Atlanta’s my home. I think it was one of the best moves I ever made.” 


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