TAMPA, Fla. — The consummate dual threat is 47 years old now with flecks of gray, but still synonymous with forward progress.
Warrick Dunn, enshrined in that figurative wing of most beloved Bucs, had them cheering — even weeping — with his latest misdirection Tuesday that ended in positive yards.
“It’s amazing. Thank God for everything,” Deniseshia Nu’man, a legally deaf operating-room attendant at Tampa General Hospital, told a huddle of reporters as Dunn stood nearby. “Such a blessing.”
About those yards. They were adjacent to each other, on an east Tampa side street a block or two south of Middleton High.
Both had a three-bedroom home — block structure, hurricane-resistant windows, luxury vinyl plank flooring, granite countertops — nestled on them. Nu’man and Angela Smithen — also a single mom — presumed they were arriving at their respective new residences Tuesday morning for the procedural walk-through prior to move-in.
They encountered a block party of benevolence instead, with Dunn the understated master of ceremonies.
While the homes had been purchased and financed independently (with the help of the City of Tampa’s Infill Housing Program), Dunn’s longtime non-profit (Warrick Dunn Charities) — with assists from some corporate partners — provided $10,000 worth of home furnishings, stocked the pantries and refrigerators, and delivered $5,000 down-payment assistance checks to each new homeowner.
Smithen, holding 1-year-old son Khamari while her teenage boys — 14-year-old Timoi and 16-year-old Raeshaun — stood behind her, couldn’t suppress her tears.
“There’s a lot of things I want to say, but right now,” Smithen said, her voice breaking, “I’m just speechless.”
As Dunn guided each family through their new digs, a DJ played hip-hop and old-school R&B. Dignitaries mingled. Journalists snapped photos. And somewhere, from an ethereal balcony, Betty Smothers beamed.
For the 207th and 208th times.
“I just hope she would be proud that we’ve really been able to move the needle and help a lot of individuals,” Dunn said.
Channeling grief into goodness
Many who followed Dunn’s dazzling college and pro careers can recite his painful, poignant backstory by rote. Smothers, his single mom, was a Baton Rouge, Louisiana, police corporal who was shot five times and killed while working an off-duty security job in 1993. Dunn, the oldest of her six kids, had turned 18 only days before.
Though industrious and indefatigable, she never realized her dream of home ownership. Upon her death, Dunn became the de facto caregiver for his five younger siblings, while Smothers’ mom, Willie Wheeler, moved into Betty’s house. Meantime, the Baton Rouge community rallied around the family.
“They started a fund for us, and that’s how we were able to pay our bills and just survive over the years,” Dunn told reporters as Miss Willie, now 85, sat nearby wearing a Falcons jacket. “So they really taught me what it means to wrap your arms around each other and care about your neighbors.”
Dunn’s first embrace had come a quarter-century earlier. It was his first year in Tampa, when he was putting together a mesmerizing season (1,440 total yards) that would result in him being named to the Pro Bowl and earning NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors.
The Tuesday before Thanksgiving in 1997, his charity launched its “Home for the Holidays” program, helping facilitate the home-buying process for three Tampa single-parent families.
“The first home, I was just like, ‘OK, I’m just handing you the keys.’ And the mom was like, ‘OK, thank you,’” Dunn recalled.
“The second mom, she picked me up and squeezed me, and I was only 170-something pounds then, so she took me out of it. But I saw her recently, a couple days ago, and she was still so thankful. Just that first day of helping those individuals, I had really no idea what that impact would be. I was just doing a program because this is something my mom wanted.
“But years later, now I really understand the impact of having close-knit communities and creating stability for not just the parents but the kids. That’s the most important thing.”
Neighbors bound by benevolence
Nu’man, 31, and her 9-year-old son Carter, were the 207th family assisted by Dunn and his partners. Her parents, raised in a west Tampa housing project, had the first of their two kids when they still were students at Plant High. Nu’man, who came along shortly after her mom’s graduation, was born with sensory nerve damage that impaired her hearing.
But her vision was intact, and she watched her dad and mom build careers as a culinary chef and nurse, respectively, while developing her own resolve in the process.
“She has all the reasons to give up, but she’s always been the one that pushed forward, always never gave up,” said her mom, Eboni Shippy. “She was always the one that said, ‘I got it, I’ll do it,’ and never really wanted any help. So I’m super proud of her.”
The pride matriculated to the ensuing generation. Shippy didn’t suppress her pride over Carter, a fourth-grade honor student at BridgePrep Academy who wasn’t bashful about approaching a bank of microphones Tuesday.
“I think I’ve spent almost half of my life in an apartment, so this is kind of new to me,” he said. “And I’m happy we got our house. And really, I couldn’t ask for more.”
Less than an hour later, Smithen, 39, and her sons arrived at their new neighborhood. A certified medical assistant, she and her family immigrated from St. Thomas after two hurricanes — Irma and Maria — battered the Caribbean in 2017. Like Smothers, she struggled valiantly, and futilely, to attain home ownership.
But on Tuesday, in her new house next door to the Nu’mans, she and her boys will top off their Thanksgiving dinner with apple pie. Dunn places one in each new home, on a platter covered pristinely by a glass dome lid.
It was his mom’s favorite dessert.
“It’s really hard to speak for her, I just know that growing up, she always challenged me to be better,” Dunn said. “And to see that we’ve been able to really impact lives, I think she would be thankful for that.”