NFL Legend Warrick Dunn On Charity, Community and Tampa

Buccaneers great set an example that has inspired the NFL

Nationwide, sponsor of the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award, presented a commercial titled “Goals” during Thursday night’s NFL Draft coverage. In the ad, a kid talks about his plans for the future. Of course, like so many kids, the dream is to play in the NFL and become a star, but in this case there is so much more.

“I’ll do more for my community than anyone has ever done. Ever!” The hopeful young receiver dreams of winning Super Bowls, but he also dreams of being “the best humanitarian in the league.” The real goal when he grows up: To be the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year.

The award celebrates all the good work that NFL players do in contributing for their community by championing those who work the hardest in that regard. Warrick Dunn, one of the league’s all-time humanitarians, won the award in 2004. Dunn took some time on Friday to talk with Sports Talk Florida about NFL players off the field, and the impact they can have on their communities.

Screenshot from Nationwide’s “Goals” ad that premiered during the 2018 NFL Draft.

When it comes to athletes inspiring future generations, Warrick Dunn takes matters to a new level. With nearly 11,000 rushing yards, Dunn was one of the best running backs in the NFL in his day, starring for the Buccaneers and the Atlanta Falcons. He’s also a Florida State Seminoles legend who has been known to visit with the program from time to time. A certain kind of running back might still model his play after that of Dunn, a supposedly undersized back who showed power few were expecting and speed few could match.

For Dunn, however, the more rewarding inspiration is when a football player strives to follow in his footsteps off the field. Dunn has been leading the charge in providing people with homes since his playing days began, and Warrick Dunn Charities are so effective that they have been aligned with Habitat for Humanity. Off the field, Dunn inspires football players and fans alike to pitch in for their communities.

That tradition did not begin with Dunn, though he may have taken matters to a new level. Walter Payton, the man for whom the Man of the Year award is named, was nearly as well-known for his great works off the field as he was for his Hall of Fame NFL career. Before Payton, Jim Brown fought for civil rights as an outspoken activist both during and after his playing days. Of course, in Tampa Bay Dunn was following in the footsteps of the great Lee Roy Selmon, the very first Buccaneer, who gave so much to Tampa that the city named an expressway for him.

When asked about his own inspirations, Dunn starts with his late mother. Police officer Betty Smothers raised Dunn, and set a shining example for the man who would go on to star in the NFL. “I saw the way that she treated people,” said Dunn. “One, I saw her work ethic. And two, I saw, when we didn’t have anything as a family … she would give her last to people. She would help do small things, and that I think for me set the example.”

With the blessings Dunn was given as a football player, from money to fame, he was in a position to give quite a bit. He has done exactly that. It is impossible to talk about Warrick Dunn without mentioning his charity work. Dunn doesn’t settle for simply giving money, he gets houses built for those who need them, and he has done this in every community he has touched, from his native Baton Rouge to Tallahassee, Tampa and Atlanta.

As for Dunn himself setting an example for NFL players, nobody is as familiar with the power of off-field work as Deshaun Watson. The Houston Texans’ quarterback and 2017 first round draft pick was one of the recipients of one of Dunn’s houses in 2011, and went on to make the league himself. “We planted the seed years ago, and he’s been able to really take that example that I set, and really just move it forward. He’s the next generation of young athletes that are going to impact their communities.” Dunn pointed out that there are many kids he has come to know over the years that he is proud of,

Dunn still calls the city of Tampa his home. Warrick Dunn was one of the great players in the greatest era of Buccaneers football, and that was not just limited to on the field play. The Bucs in the late nineties raised the NFL bar for how a team can contribute to its community, led by Hall of Fame coach Tony Dungy.

“The guy who gets all the credit is coach Dungy,” said Dunn without hesitation. “If you really look back on the guys he coached, he coached two Walter Payton Man of the Year Award winners in myself and Derrick Brooks.”

When Dunn looks back on his time in Tampa—not with the Buccaneers, just in the city—he’s quick to point out that his charitable work really began there. “The day that I started this Homes for the Holidays program in 1997, when I was able to hand the keys over to a single mother at that time. That moment will stick with me forever.” Before that moment, the idea of building homes for people was abstract, but when he was able to see the look on the faces of the people he was helping it became real for him.

“I’m thankful for all the support I’ve had in the Tampa community.” It nearly goes without saying that the people of Tampa feel the same way about the support that Dunn has given them.

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Tim Williams has been covering sports since his days as a student at Northeastern University covering events such as the Beanpot. In the thirteen years since, he has covered college hockey, the NFL, Major League Baseball, the PGA Tour, and the National Hockey League. A native of the Tampa Bay area, Tim has returned home after living much of his life in the northeast, including sixteen years in the Boston area. These days the Managing Editor of Sports Talk Florida can be found on Florida's golf courses when he's not working.