On a crisp, sunny day on a quiet street in Atlanta, about two dozen people gather in the driveway of a light yellow house with white trim to celebrate move-in day with the owner, Martha Renderos, and her three sons, David, 16, Jose, 13 and Samuel, 8.
When the Renderos family arrives, the group of friends and volunteers burst into applause as a beaming Jose and Samuel take their mother by her hand and guide her through the well-wishing crowd. Martha, an industrious 36-year-old nanny and housekeeper who long has dreamed of owning her own home, is near tears.
David puts his arm around Martha and leads her to the front door. Then a polite, unassuming man, not much taller than David, smiles and presents Martha with the key to her new Habitat for Humanity home built entirely by volunteers.
“Would you like a tour?” the man asks.
“Yes!” Martha says excitedly.
He even stocks the fridge
Now the man—Atlanta Falcons running back Warrick Dunn—is beaming, too. He is about to do his favorite thing: surprise a single mom with a $5,000 check toward the down payment on her new mortgage. He identifies deserving recipients by teaming up with charities, such as Habitat for Humanity, that build affordable homes for low-income working families. Then, with the help of sponsors and contributors to his Warrick Dunn Foundation Homes for the Holidays project, he fills their new homes with furniture and other essentials. He even stocks the refrigerator.
“Now you have everything you need,” Dunn says, showing Martha the sparkling laundry room complete with brand new buckets, mops and six months worth of laundry detergent.
Martha whispers “thank you” over and over, as Dunn points out her cozy bathroom, complete with fluffy towels, a robe and a basket of bath beads.
“Home ownership is the American dream,” says the soft-spoken Dunn a few minutes later. “Setting people up in their own home can have a 10- or even 15-year positive effect on their lives. That’s major change.”
“This program helped stabilize our lives, and I will always be grateful,” says Renee Tulloch of Tampa, Fla., a single mom who returned to college to complete her nursing degree after Dunn helped her into her first home in 2002.
Dunn, 32, the oldest of six kids, grew up in Baton Rouge, La. His mother, Betty Dunn Smothers, was a single mom working as a police officer in addition to several side jobs to provide for her family. Long workdays didn’t stop her from being a constant presence in her children’s lives, chief among them her eldest son, Warrick, a high school track and football star.
“Betty never missed any of his events,” remembers Dale Weiner, Dunn’s high school coach. “They were very, very close.”
Honoring his murdered mom
Then, in January of Dunn’s senior year, tragedy struck. Moonlighting as a security guard, Betty was escorting a grocery store manager to make the night bank deposit when she was shot and killed during a robbery attempt.
Despite his grief, Dunn quickly turned his focus to the care of his three brothers and two sisters.
“I was amazed at how he immediately assumed the mantle of head of the family,” coach Weiner says. “He was always mature and responsible. But that was quite a burden for an 18-year-old kid.” Dunn briefly considered skipping college so he could work to support his siblings, but a visit from Florida State University football coach Bobby Bowden assured him he would have time for family during the school year. So Dunn accepted a scholarship to Florida State, helping his team win the national championship his freshman year. He went on to become a three-time All-American, setting several school records along the way.
In 1997, after graduating with a degree in information studies, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers picked Dunn in the first round of the NFL draft. He immediately moved his siblings to Tampa and settled them into his apartment. Between making dinners and supervising homework sessions—not exactly the responsibilities most people imagine for a professional football player—Dunn had an outstanding first year as a Buccaneer, making the Pro Bowl and being named Offensive Rookie of the Year by the Associated Press.
As his dream of playing in the NFL became a reality, Dunn was grateful and wanted to honor his mother, who despite years of hard work was never able to afford her own home.
“Owning a home was my mom’s dream,” he says. “I’m happy to represent her and represent her name.” His Homes for the Holidays program, which began in 1997 in Tampa, at first featured Christmas home giveaways, but since has grown to include Mother’s Day and Thanksgiving presentations. Dunn, who signed with the Atlanta Falcons in 2002, further expanded the program to include Atlanta and his hometown of Baton Rouge.
Several other NFL partners, including Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner and Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Dante Hall, signed on as partners in their playing cities, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Shelton Quarles carries the torch in Tampa and in his hometown of Nashville, Tenn. To date, the Warrick Dunn Foundation, which has a full-time director and depends on dozens of volunteers, has helped more than 65 single moms and some 160 children begin a better life. “We’re just helping them get down the road,” says Dunn modestly. “But they have to steer. They’re still driving the car. We’re just giving them a boost.”
And what a boost for the Renderos family! Martha works six or seven days each week, often taking on extra babysitting and cleaning jobs that keep her working until 8 or 9 p.m. Until recently, she and her sons rented an older home that often had no heat. The three boys shared a single bedroom their entire lives.
That is, until the family moved into its new Habitat for Humanity home.
As Jose walks into his own room for the first time, he makes a beeline for the mountain bike propped up against the wall. He then notices the Atlanta Falcons bedspread and matching beanbag chair in the corner. “You better be cheering us on,” Dunn prods playfully.
An outstanding athlete
Dunn’s fellow NFL players agree that he’s a good guy. But he also is a good football player—really good. His high school coach calls him one of the most gifted athletes he’s ever seen. Florida State coach Bobby Bowden says he’s the best offensive player he’d ever coached. Just last year, Dunn made yet another trip to the Pro Bowl for the Falcons.
“Warrick doesn’t like attention, but if he gets noticed for something, he wants to be known for his playing abilities,” coach Weiner says. “He doesn’t do charity work so people will make a big deal. He does it because of who he is.”
Still, especially in an era when professional athletes often receive attention for their not-so-charitable escapades, Dunn has set the bar extremely high. He has received dozens of major awards for his good works, including the 2004 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year trophy, one of professional football’s highest honors, which recognizes both community service and on-field performance.
“If I could do this quietly, behind closed doors, I would,” Dunn says. “For me, it’s a higher calling—how can we change and affect lives for the future?”
Back at the Renderos home, Samuel motions to Dunn to come into his room and see his new pet goldfish.
A serious look comes over Samuel’s face. “What will I feed it?” he asks. With a grin, Dunn points out a jumbo jar of fish food nearby.
For Dunn, the thoughtfulness and attention to detail is how he honors his mother and fulfills the dreams of other working moms. “I’m just living the way that my mom wanted me to live.”
Visit warrickdunnfoundation.org for more information.