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Job Well Dunn : Florida State Back Ends Journey Near Where It Began

December 30, 1996|CHRIS DUFRESNE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW ORLEANS — There is no hiding that the circle has come full for Warrick Dunn, an arc extending from tragedy through triumph and now, home again. There is no denying the symmetry of a man playing his last college football game, for the national championship, less than 100 miles from where all of this so miserably began, almost four years to the day after his mother was murdered in Baton Rouge.

There is no denying, also, that Dunn hates all of this. Whereas others might secretly be negotiating the movie rights, Dunn has worked quietly behind the scenes in an attempt to mute his celebrity, in the same breath conceding his time at Florida State has been "just like a fairy-tale, a short story."

Dunn is determined not to make a spectacle of his melancholy, of family photo albums, of heartbreak, no matter how newsworthy it might seem to the outside.

He recently asked the Florida State sports information office to shield his five younger siblings, brothers and sisters he vowed to raise after his mother's death, from the media glare. Dunn has denied television crews access to his home in Baton Rouge, crews that would have woven heartfelt, soft-lighted tales of Dunn's plight.

When a reporter broached the topic of his siblings at Sunday's news conference, Dunn politely responded, "I'd rather not talk about them."

Rob Wilson, Florida State sports information director, puts it succinctly when asked about Dunn's aversion to the spotlight: "He doesn't want to shine."

Fame?

When a writer once asked Dunn what winning the Heisman Trophy might bring, he responded, "problems, problems, problems."

Dunn doesn't want sympathy or press clippings or microwaved remembrances of a mother strangers never knew.

What he wants is the ball against Florida and enough room to make something happen Thursday night when the teams meet in the Sugar Bowl.

The rest he puts up with.

He seeks not glory but respect, of the sort offered unsolicited this week by the enemy, Florida Coach Steve Spurrier.

"I have complete respect for Warrick Dunn," Spurrier said between rips of Florida State coaching tactics. "He's a tremendous competitor, a fine young man. I know he's going to have a big game. I just hope it's not a real big game, because he's always played extremely well against us.

"I voted him No. 2 behind Danny Wuerffel for the Heisman Trophy. I've said that several times. I gave him a higher vote than most of you guys."

The Sugar Bowl beckons with great expectations--Florida State's quest for its second national title in four years--but there is also a lonelier subtext.

Dunn will be playing his last game for Coach Bobby Bowden; Bowden coaching his last game with Dunn. It is difficult to say who will miss each other more.

"The Warrick Dunn era has been one of the greatest things I guess ever to happen to me," Bowden said.

Bowden was speaking about more than just Dunn's on-field dividends, which have paid off spectacularly enough: 10 touchdowns and 511 rushing yards as a freshman in 1993 on Bowden's first national title team and three consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons since. Bowden can reflect on Dunn's 3,959 rushing yards, his 6.8 yards per carry average, his 49 touchdowns and 21 100-yard rushing games.

What about Dunn's knack for playing big in big games? This year, Dunn saved his best for Virginia (131 rushing yards), Miami (163) and Florida, when he gained 185 yards in the Seminoles' 24-21 victory on Nov. 30 despite being shadowed all day by safety Lawrence Wright, who had 18 tackles.

In five games against the arch-rival Gators, Dunn has accounted for 862 yards--445 rushing, 334 receiving--and even passed for a 73-yard touchdown in Florida State's 23-17 1994 Sugar Bowl victory.

But it has been more than that for Bowden, who has taken to Dunn as he has to no other player.

"The minute I found out his plight, that he had lost his mother, in the middle of his senior year, that she was killed. . . . I wrote him a letter when he signed with us, 'Son, I'm going to do my best to take care of you, give you the leadership even more than the other players.' My players never resented that. I've never done it before. But I felt that way about him, and he never let us down."

More than a coach, Dunn says Bowden has been "more like a father."

Dunn never forgot the letter Bowden wrote; Bowden never forgot the hangdog look on Dunn's face when he arrived in Tallahassee, the weight of the world on his 18-year-old shoulders.

What was not to respect about Dunn?

The oldest of six siblings, in a fatherless home, Dunn had been taking care of family matters since before he was a teenager.

It was Dunn who took the call at 12:30 a.m. on Jan. 7, 1993 from police informing him that his mother, Betty Dunn Smothers, 36, had been shot in an armed robbery.

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