- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 20, 2002

Linda Williams was stunned and nearly speechless when she opened the door of her new home in Baton Rouge, La., last November. The house was fully furnished. There was food in the refrigerator, linens on the beds, towels in the closets. There even was a lawnmower in the shed out back and a big oak tree in the front, begging for a swing.
"If I had a bad heart, I would have had a heart attack," said Williams, a single mother of two who works in a daycare center. "It was the surprise of all surprises."
Warrick Dunn is full of surprises.
While playing for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the running back started a program called Homes for the Holidays in which he contributes about $5,000 apiece in down payments on new homes for selected single mothers in the Tampa-St. Petersburg, Fla., area and in Baton Rouge, his hometown.
But he doesn't stop there. Dunn also buys the tables, chairs and beds, the TV sets and the washing machines everything that can go into a house, including garden implements. Because the recipients are chosen after they have bought their homes, Williams said she already had purchased some furniture, which was being held on layaway. "So I went and got all my money back," she said, "because Warrick Dunn furnished the house, front to back."
Williams' reaction is not uncommon. Beverly Mitchell said she screamed when told she had been selected. "It was like winning the lottery," she said. Then she entered her new house in Tampa in December, and saw the same things Williams saw, plus a Christmas tree, lights blazing.
"It was just breathtaking," said Mitchell, a city bus driver who has three children.
Dunn goes just 5-foot-8, 180 pounds, but many will swear his heart is as big as, well, a house. And in keeping with the saying that no good deed goes unrewarded, Dunn, 27, left the Bucs last week after five seasons and signed a six-year, $28.5million free-agent contract with the Atlanta Falcons that includes a $6.5million signing bonus. That will buy a lot of lawnmowers.
Dunn's departure from Tampa Bay disappointed a lot of Bucs fans, including Mitchell.
But she understands that business is business. "I can't say I'll be an Atlanta Falcons' fan," she said, "but I'll be a Warrick Dunn fan for the rest of my life."
There are a lot of Warrick Dunn fans. Last night, Dunn was honored at the Kennedy Center by the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Presiding over the ceremonies was home improvement whiz Bob Vila.
The career rushing leader at Florida State who stayed four years and earned his degree has been improving the homes, and lives, of a lot of people since he started the program during his rookie season in 1997. The following year, he received the Giant Steps award for civic leadership from President Clinton.
Homes for the Holidays is Dunn's tribute to his mother, Betty Dunn Smothers, a single parent and a Baton Rouge police officer who was killed during a robbery in 1993 while working a second job as a security guard. Dunn was 18 at the time. Since then, he and his grandmother helped raise his five younger brothers and sisters, and he became their legal guardian.
"I grew up and matured and understood life quicker than most people," he said, "but I had to do what I could do. They were like my kids. They trusted me and relied on me. My mother always treated me like a young man. They were my responsibility to make sure they could be the best people they could be."
"His mom sure would be proud of him," Linda Williams said. "I know the angels are singing."
But it wasn't his mother's death that inspired Dunn as much as the way she lived.
"She was unique," he said. "Very unique. She was special. … I'm fortunate to where I'm making enough money that I can change some lives."
Dunn was talking at a downtown hotel yesterday, and he was zonked. He flew all night on the red-eye from Oregon, where he had met with Nike. Before that he was in Tampa and before that Atlanta, where he ironed out his big deal. "It's been a whirlwind," he said.
The 28 women who have shared Dunn's generosity are first-time homeowners who participated in affordable-housing programs for low-income families. They were picked from a larger pool of candidates, with Dunn making the final selections.
"Basically, what he looks for are people who have made some self-help effort, who have prepared themselves for home ownership," said Hal Gensler, the urban development director for the city of Baton Rouge.
Great pains are taken to maintain secrecy. Windows are shaded in case the homeowner decides to cruise by to check out the new house. Sometimes, while the house is being furnished, a little fib might be told about a delayed closing date or a problem with the carpeting. "We have to keep the family away from the home while we're sneaking stuff in," Gensler said.
Dunn said the idea struck him when he was trying to figure out "how to make a difference." Since then, New York Giants cornerback Jason Sehorn has been inspired to do the same thing.
"The first year [Dunn] came to us, we were all a bit startled," said Vernell Savage, the city of Tampa's division manager of community redevelopment. "We never had somebody come in and say they wanted to pay for somebody's downpayment."
Much less their furniture, too.
The program has received a lot of attention, which is fine with Dunn. The problem is the attention that is focused on him.
"He is not an egomaniac," said Fernando Noriega, Tampa's administrator of development, who works with Dunn on Homes for the Holidays.
Dunn said this isn't about being recognized.
"It's about those women," he said. "Changing their lives."


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