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Warrick Dunn

Inner Fire…
The truly great use adversity as fuel.

Nearly a year ago, this newsletter covered the story of NFL great Warrick Dunn. Response then to Warrick’s amazing story was extraordinary, leading me to want to share another characteristic that Warrick embodies, especially since his autobiography – which recreates his journey to Greatness – was released Tuesday by Harper Collins. Warrick was also just featured on The Today Show.

On Thanksgiving night 2007, the crowd in Atlanta’s Georgia Dome roared with praise. With a short burst through the line of scrimmage, Warrick Dunn became the 22nd running back in NFL history to rush for 10,000 yards.

No one ever thought a player Warrick’s size – a mere 5′ 8″ and 180 pounds – would have the strength to withstand 12 years in the NFL, much less become one of its all-time leading rushers. In fact, the next smallest person to reach that milestone weighed nearly 20 pounds more. But Warrick treated his lack in size as he did every other obstacle thrown his way – he used it as fuel.

Warrick was born in Baton Rouge, LA, the oldest of six brothers and sisters. They all idolized their mother, police officer Betty Smothers. Though she was forced to work several other part-time jobs to keep her family afloat, she always made time to nurture her family. In high school, when Warrick began getting attention from scouts all over the country, his mother stayed by his side to ensure her son made the best decision for his future.

The day they met Bobby Bowden, Warrick and his mother – his best friend – enthusiastically agreed that playing at Florida State University was the best choice. He thought he had it all figured out.

dunn 2But two days after his 18th birthday, a call came that changed his life forever.Warrick’s mother was shot and killed in a robbery at a bank. He was devastated and confused. As the oldest, Warrick knew his new role would be to become the man of the household, but he also knew his mother would want him to fulfill his commitment to FSU.

Incredibly, he managed to do both. With the help of his grandmother, Warrick raised his five younger siblings while earning a degree at Florida State, leading the Seminoles to their first national championship and becoming FSU’s career rushing leader. In 1997, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers took him in the first round of the NFL draft.

dunn 3Wealth he never expected suddenly his, Warrick created a foundation in his mother’s honor – buying homes for single mothers struggling to keep a roof over their children’s heads. To date, the Warrick Dunn Foundation’s “Homes for the Holidays” program has helped 78 single mothers (one father) and 205 children and dependents.

If the story stopped right there, Warrick would be among the greatest winners I’ve ever worked with. But, while working with him on his autobiography Running For My Life, released Tuesday, Warrick showed me strength, character and courage I never imagined. He invited me to join him the day he met face-to-face, for the first time, with his mother’s killer.

Warrick had spent years in counseling dealing with the grief of losing his mother. That day he was looking for answers – answers only Kevan Brumfield could provide. But the Warden warned Warrick that an appeal was pending and he may not get was he was looking for.

The warden was right. No sooner than we had sat down, the inmate told us he “didn’t do it.” Warrick sat patiently and listened to his story, but stopped him after about 20 minutes.

He pushed aside his spiral notebook filled with questions, looked Brumfield in the eyes, and bared his soul to him.

“In the years after my mom’s death, I had been hesitant about being in a committed relationship,” Warrick said. “I’ve been afraid to lose people. I’ve been in counseling for many years over this very concept of having a true, committed relationship because I don’t want to lose somebody I love twice in my life. … I don’t think I could suffer that pain again.”

Warrick paused while tears ran down his face. “If you didn’t do it, I don’t know why you are here today, but I know why I’m here today. I am here because I need to forgive somebody.”

As we walked out of the prison, passed rows and rows of razor wire, I realized that Warrick Dunn was a living testament to the fact that, if harnessed, adversity can fuel true greatness.

Tips From the Great Ones

dunn 4Adversity is assured for all of us. It does not matter where you’re from or who you are – it is the one thing we all have in common. The truly great find opportunity in the worst of times. Warrick Dunn will be the first to tell you that he would not have created a foundation to provide homes to single mothers if he hadn’t lost his. He turned his adversity into an opportunity to change the lives of many.

“My mother used to tell me that adversity can make you bitter or better,” said Warrick. “She always encouraged me to do better.”

When adversity comes your way look at it for the opportunity it may be providing you – a lost job can create a new career path… but only if you’re willing to open your eyes to that possibility. Remember the words of Helen Keller: “When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened for us.”

Keep your eyes straight ahead.

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About Don Yaeger

Don Yaeger

Don Yaeger is a Certified Speaking Professional (CSP), longtime Associate Editor for Sports Illustrated, 11-time New York Times best-selling author, leadership expert and executive coach.

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