Author’s Note: When dealing with the NFL, it is a given that some of our writing is going to focus on some of the stupid deeds and words that come from the players, coaches, and owners of the NFL. When one considers the massive egos of the individuals involved, the amount of money that people are being paid, and the incredible spotlight that most of us will never experience, it is understandable that not all of the things said and done will be the best things to say and do. And in part that is our bread and butter; picking up on such words and actions and having reactions as only fans can. Then there is the part of the NFL that we are all aware of… the hours of community service done by players and coaches, and the donations of money and supplies that are generously given out each year. Sure, these are not entirely selfless acts (is there really any such thing?), but often used to promote the image of the player, teams, or league as being invested in the community and spinning good PR while also impacting people’s lives. Perhaps the most touching of these are the numerous stories that I read, seemingly every week, about NFL players who take the time to offer a disadvantaged child, often one with a grave medical condition, a unique opportunity to spend time with his or her favorite players and favorite team. These are stories that warm the heart, even if only for a few minutes before the next player is arrested for DUI and Mike Florio’s arrest meter is set back to zero.
Today’s article is the first of a recurring series where we will take a brief look at some of the men and women who have gone well above and beyond the expected team contributions to the community and have truly invested themselves in utilizing their own success to make the world a better place. These role models are not put forth to challenge other NFL players and personnel to do the same, but to encourage each of us to think about the impact that we have on the world via our own means and contributions. As fans with day (or night) jobs, we may not have the same resources that these people have to share, but we can certainly replicate their spirit.
An Eventful Flight
While I do not spend my professional life on the road, both my day job and my consulting practice give me the opportunity to travel on a somewhat regular basis. For those of you who spend all of your time on the road, you will laugh when I say that “regular” for me generally means I can expect to make three or four business trips a year. That won’t seem like much to regular travelers, but I also know way too many people who have never left their home state. Some years I have made as many as ten trips, and as the consulting work picks up I expect I will be spending more time on the road.
When on the road, the greatest accomplishment in traveling is the uneventful trip; that is, the trip with no flight delays, no unscheduled nights in hotels, and no phone calls to roadside assistance. I love flying and don’t even mind airports. I also find driving to be very relaxing, but like most travelers I can’t stand the inconveniences that can quickly turn a trip into a massive headache. Thus, a successful trip for me is one that I can describe as uneventful; the process of getting there was convenient, and no major troubles happened along the way.
Thus it was that I boarded a flight from Tampa to Atlanta in early 2009 with the hope of two uneventful flights on my way home from a conference. I took the opportunity to upgrade myself to First Class despite the ribbing of a colleague who was also on the trip. I was flying Air Tran, and for $25 a leg it was a pretty economical decision to acquire extra leg room, complementary refreshments, and the opportunity to take a deep breath after five very busy days. As I sat down there was even the possibility that I would have a row to myself, as the seat next to me was unoccupied. But right before the cabin doors closed a young African American gentleman boarded the plane and took the seat. His face was one that I immediately knew to be familiar, although I am horrible at placing names and faces and could not identify the young man. However, others in the First Class cabin had clearly made the connection and within three minutes one of the flight attendants approached our row and leaning across me asked if Mr. Dunn would be so kind as to offer an autograph.
I must admit to having two very different reactions at that moment. My first was to think, “Wow… it’s pretty cool to be sitting down next to one of the real good guys of the NFL.” I knew of Warrick Dunn’s reputation as a tireless contributor to his communities in both Tampa and Atlanta, and always admired his attitude. My other reaction wasn’t as generous. I immediately wondered if this guy next to me was just another pompous athlete who just did a better job of hiding it that T.O., Chad, or a host of other players. But as the air of reverence in the cabin was becoming palpable, I also began to wonder if this poor guy even wanted to be bothered by anyone or just wanted to be left alone. Not sure what to do, and being a fairly strong introvert myself who appreciates a little quiet on the plane, I just glanced at Mr. Dunn and pulled out a book I was reading at the time.
Sensing my discomfort, Dunn looked at me and smiled. I looked up to see his hand extended my way, with him saying “Hi… I’m obviously Warrick.” I laughed, shook his hand, and offered my name in exchange. For the next few minutes, he politely inquired as to where I was from and what I was doing in Tampa. I did the same, and realized he was making what seemed to be a fairly routine trip to Atlanta for work with his foundation. I was wearing a New England Patriots coat, and he inquired as to how someone living in the Midwest came to be a Pats fan, so I shared my story. He indicated a respect for the organization, and for Bill Belichick in particular. As we spoke for a couple of minutes, I found him to be very willing to talk about football, which honestly surprised me a little, so I began to ask about his career. He was far more forthcoming than I expected, but also incredibly modest. He spoke of the wonderful opportunities that he had to showcase his gifts, yet also was very willing to share his opinions about one particular former head coach that he played for. The balance between humility and candor appealed to me, and the conversation got on a roll. It was when I asked about his charitable work that he seemed to shut down a bit, and he simply indicated that he didn’t talk about that. I respected his space and didn’t pursue it further, though it was clear that I was interested in hearing what it was that really motivated him to give back as he does. He pulled out an electronic device (I believe it was an iPad), I did the same, and we both settled in for a somewhat quiet portion of the flight.
It was a flight attendant who broke the silence, coming over to thank Mr. Dunn for all of his work, and telling him how much the entire flight crew respected him. He clearly wasn’t comfortable with the praise and did his best to smile through it and thank her for her comments. He turned to me and explained that it was hard for him to talk about his community work, then asked me if I would do him a favor. I was taken aback to say the least. What favor could Warrick Dunn possibly want from me? I can only imagine the look on my face as I looked over at him and said, “Sure. What can I do?” His response surprised me. “I wrote a book called Running For My Life. Promise me that you’ll read it, since you really seem interested in knowing about this.” I smiled and promised him I would do just that. Surprisingly, he then began talking about the homes that he builds, how moving it was to him to see the expressions of people not just as they received a home that they never thought they would have, but also as they walked in and saw that every amenity had been provided, and that every detail had been attended to. I sat awestruck to hear his passion; it was genuine and it was clear to me that this man had been not only been raised with the right values, but he had been able to maintain those values through a successful NFL career that might have taken them from a lesser man. After a while we moved away from his work, and he began inquiring about mine. The rest of the flight focused on my professional life, with him seemingly genuinely interested in what I was doing, as he offered commentary about the importance of motivating young people. I even made a comment to him that we should bring him in as a guest speaker, which led to the most awkward moment of the flight as he said, “You know I can’t do that for free…” I laughed and told him I knew, and that we were used to dealing with talent and fees. I told him that I thought he could be especially impactful with student athletes, who often struggle with being both a student and an athlete. When the flight landed in Tampa, I must admit to being disappointed that the conversation was coming to a close, and he was kind enough to linger for a moment to offer a kind goodbye before heading down the concourse to exit the airport.
The very next day I was standing in line at Barnes and Noble, purchasing Dunn’s book. It was a quick but emotional read. I was only vaguely aware of Dunn’s story prior to reading the book, and probably had heard and forgotten the story of how hard his (single) mother worked as a police officer in Baton Rouge to insure that her children had opportunities to succeed in life, how she was gunned down in cold blood by three armed robbers, and how Warrick had to assume the role of family leader to raise his siblings. I read about his difficult decision to attend Florida State over LSU, about some of the painful family dynamics that he encountered, how he traveled to the Louisiana State Penitentiary to confront one of his mother’s killers, and how he has battled depression throughout his adult life. For all of the privileges that Dunn has experienced as a result of his physical skills, it is clear that he has been though an arduous journey but come out intact and level-headed. Dunn was drafted with the 12th pick in the first round of the 1997 NFL draft by the Buccaneers, and he immediately became a Pro Bowl player on his way to Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. He played five season for the Buccanners before moving to the Atlanta Falcons for six seasons before returning to Tampa for his final season in 2008. Dunn’s career was a model of consistency, and he finished with over 10,000 rushing yards (10,967), 510 receptions for another 4,339 yards, and a total of 135 touchdowns. He ran for 142 yards and two touchdowns in a playoff win over the Rams in the 2004 season and appeared in ten playoff games in his career.
As a member of his community, Dunn’s contributions are well documented. Dunn established the Homes for the Holidays (HFTH) program in 1997, and started Warrick Dunn Charities (WDC) in 2002 as a way to grow programs and services. The HFTH program rewards single-parent families for reaching first-time homeownership. HFTH recipient families are chosen through a partnership with Habitat for Humanity affiliates and WDC with complete home furnishings and down-payment assistance. To date, HFTH has assisted over 115 single parents and over 300 dependents in Atlanta, Baton Rouge, Tampa and Tallahassee.
Dunn received a Giant Steps Award in civic leadership from former President Bill Clinton for his program. In 2005, Dunn was presented with the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award; the award is the only NFL award that recognizes a player for his community service as well as for his excellence on the field. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Dunn challenged all NFL players, except for those who play for the New Orleans Saints, to donate at least $5,000 to the effort. The effort received over $5 million in contributions. In 2007, along with other athletes, Dunn founded Athletes for Hope, a charitable organization that helps professional athletes, sports industry professionals and fans get involved in charitable causes. For his exceptional involvement on and off the field, Dunn was awarded with the 2009 Bart Starr Award. He also received a Jefferson Award for Outstanding Athlete in Service and Philanthropy in 2011. In July 2012, WDC launched Betty’s Hope, named after Dunn’s mother, Betty Smothers, as a children’s bereavement program to empower youth as they manage their grief in a responsive environment to heal and enhance their quality of life. Based in Baton Rouge, Betty’s Hope creates safe environments for support that are relevant, responsive and fun, through a mobile programming module that offers peer-group based grief support, community advocacy and awareness, parent/caregiver support, education and resources, and community support and training.
Dunn’s list of accomplishments as a human being are impressive, but not nearly as impressive as his story. Now retired from football, Dunn is a minority owner of the Atlanta Falcons, and is committed to continuing to improve the lives of others. I challenge anyone to read Running For My Life and to remain unmoved. Dunn’s contributions are not only a shining example of what good can be accomplished by a successful athlete, but also a reminder that we all have obstacles to overcome in life, and how we navigate those obstacles, and the product we become as a result, is the true character of who we are.
While I still enjoy having my uneventful trips, I consider myself quite lucky to have had one very eventful trip with a pretty special human being, and for that I owe Warrick Dunn my thanks.