In 1997, then Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Warrick Dunn started a charity called Home for the Holidays. Its goal was to help single parents achieve their dreams of owning their own homes.
Dunn, who grew up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, was inspired by his own mother, Betty Smothers, a police officer who was shot and killed in 1993 during an armed robbery while on an off-duty assignment.
Smothers was also a single mother of six; Dunn was the eldest. It was a bumpy road as Dunn, just 18 years old at the time, stepped in and raised his siblings. However, he not only rose to the challenge, but ultimately established himself as one of the top running backs of his era. He is one of just 26 running backs in NFL history with more than 10,000 rushing yards.
While Dunn is retired from playing, 17 years later, his foundation is still going strong. And recently he took it up a notch, issuing his #28Challenge, which appeals to people to make charitable donations every day over a 28-day period, which started on September 25th.
“The challenge is trying to promote doing good,” Dunn explained. “What have you done good lately? Things that you’re doing good in your community.”
He knows the exponential impact that even one small gesture can have through his own journey with his charity and community work. For the first five years, he funded the foundation solely from his own pocket. Now with outside donations and partnerships, its reach has broadened dramatically.
Since the beginning of Home for the Holidays, Dunn’s foundation has helped 139 families build homes and sustainable lifestyles through assisting with everything from the down-payment to the furnishings to food. The foundation doesn’t build the homes and hand them over; Dunn is a big believer in the philosophy that sweat equity creates longevity. So, every family that is chosen to receive a new home participates in the building of it. The program has a 92% success rate.
“[The owner] is helping build the home,” Dunn said of those who have been selected for the program. “They put this nail in this wall. People say ‘I worked so hard to get this, I’m going to cherish it.’”
His foundation has been renamed Warrick Dunn Charities and now includes another program, Betty’s Hope. Named for his mother, Betty’s Hope helps children dealing with loss and grief with the goal to provide support and keep them on a positive track in life. The program offers a variety of services including peer group support and parent and caregiver support. It offers assistance targeted specifically to the needs of children and teenagers.
And Dunn cherishes the life he has built. His siblings are now all adults and off on their own paths. While it was difficult to relinquish the reins after so many years, Dunn, the surrogate parent, had to learn to let them find their own way.
“The one thing I had to do is let go,” he said. “They grow. I can’t hold their hand. We’re all close, but there have been a lot of trials and tribulations.”
And while Dunn’s playing career is over, his affiliation with the NFL is not. In 2009, Dunn purchased a minority stake in the Atlanta Falcons, the team with which he played from 2002-2007. The idea started toward the end of his NFL career when he started to think, “What am I going to do the rest of my life?”
So, Dunn had a conversation with Arthur Blank, the Falcons’ majority owner. He met some of Blank’s other partners as well as leaders in the business community. Dunn realized what he wanted to do.
“I said, ‘I don’t want to be coaching, I want to be up here in the box with you.”
This next phase of his career has been both empowering and rewarding. He is developing other business ventures so he decided to go back to school and received his MBA from Emory University in Atlanta. He told no one he was doing it. But, he knew that if he was going to interact with CEOs and other high level business leaders, he needed to develop that business knowledge for himself.
Now, on game day, Dunn is upstairs in the owner’s box, a role he enjoys. He also finds himself in an amusing position with some of the same players who used to be his teammates.
He laughed as he described how when he sees some of those former teammates, he is greeted with, “Hey boss.”
Although his NFL playing career is over, Dunn’s future is just taking off.
For more information about Warrick Dunn Charities and the #28Challenge: www.wdc.org