A Star In Spite Of All His Sadness For Florida State's Warrick Dunn, The Game Isn't The Thing.

Posted: January 01, 1997

NEW ORLEANS — Warrick Dunn calls the last four years the best ones of his life.

Even though he has had nobody to share them with.

It has been like this for Dunn, Florida State's star tailback: One night he is a standout in a football game televised nationwide; the next day he is in a courtroom in East Baton Rouge Parish, La., testifying at the sentencing hearing of one of the two men convicted of murdering police officer Betty Smothers, his mother.

Dunn has become a star while playing a game that has diminished in importance for him.

``We were closer than anything can be in the world,'' Dunn, the oldest of six children in a single-parent home, testified when a jury was deciding whether to impose the death penalty on the murderers of his mother. ``Any time I was hurting, she hurt. Any time she hurt, I was hurting.''

Dunn probably will scrawl a remembrance of his mother on his wristbands again before tomorrow night's Sugar Bowl game against Florida. He calls this a fairy-tale ending to his Florida State career. He is back in the city where he was born, just down the Mississippi River from where he grew up, set to play his last college game with a national championship on the line.

He just doesn't count on any happily-ever-afters.

``If I go out and have a bad game, fumble three times, we get blown out, it's just going to be a bad memory,'' he said.

He said he feels a lot older and more mature than other guys on his team. He wishes he could have been more of a leader, counseling younger players, the way former Seminoles quarterback Charlie Ward counseled him. But he didn't have the time, he said, because ``I'm trying to take care of my family.''

He has to be like a father to his younger brothers and sisters. Two are freshmen in college. The three youngest, all teenagers now, live with their grandmother in Baton Rouge. Dunn wears a beeper so they can reach him at any time. He talks to them every day. He is amazed at how fast they are growing up.

He has the route from Tallahassee, Fla., to Baton Route down. (``It's four hundred thirty-something miles.'') Occasionally, he told his coach, Bobby Bowden, that he had to go home for a couple of days. Bowden understood that to mean that there was some discipline to be administered.

``It's going to be very sad for me to see him go,'' Bowden said. ``I've never taken to a player like I did to him.''

A 5-foot-9, 185-pounder, Dunn has scooted for more yards than any other back in Florida State history. If he manages 138 yards rushing at the Superdome tomorrow night, he will have gained 1,000 yards in his career against Florida alone.

``He had so many runs where he went into the line of scrimmage, disappeared, and came out 25 yards downfield,'' Bowden said. ``He's up in there in all that mess, you say, `Well, second and 10.' All of a sudden, there he goes.''

Bowden wasn't talking about Dunn's ability when he said he took to him right away. He didn't know Dunn would become one of the most elusive runners in college football and have three straight 1,000-yard seasons.

``I wrote him a letter and said, `Son, I'm going to do my best to take of you, give you the leadership, even more than the other players,' '' Bowden said. ``I felt that way about him, and he never let us down.''

Dunn said he goes in and talks to Bowden two or three times a week about subjects other than football.

``I think he's lived up to his end of the bargain,'' Dunn said. ``He's more like a father to me.''

In his freshman year, Dunn roomed with Ward, who was a senior and won the Heisman Trophy. Ward now plays basketball for the New York Knicks.

``From the first day we talked on the phone, we clicked,'' Dunn said. ``He's like a big brother. He's somebody who's going to be in my life forever.''

On Saturday, after the Seminoles arrived in New Orleans for the Sugar Bowl, Dunn took some of his teammates home for a big dinner of crawfish, gumbo and ribs - ``to say thanks,'' he said. (No, those weren't the Florida State players who got food poisoning that same night.)

While virtually all of the other Seminoles were spending their summers in Tallahassee, Dunn would be home with his sisters and brothers. Responsibility was something he had gotten used to at an early age.

``My mom raised me, I guess, to prepare me for this day,'' he said.

He says he passes for his mother's twin. A woman who was also shot but survived the 1993 attack gasped when Dunn walked into the courtroom while she was testifying. She hadn't known how much like his mother he looked.

Betty Smothers, who was 36 and working two jobs when she died, had a system. She paired an older child with a younger one, expecting the older one to be in charge of baths, homework, and going to bed. When someone in the family had a ball game or a track meet, the whole family was expected to be there. And if she didn't like a grade on a report card, she wouldn't holler. She'd say, ``Well, if that's the kind of grade you can live with, then I can live with it.''

Knowing the dangers of his mother's police work, Dunn wouldn't close his eyes at night until she walked in the door.

Prosecutor Prem Burns calls the murder the most notorious in the history of Baton Rouge - and for reasons that have nothing to do with Dunn's football ability. Dunn was just a good high school player at the time. His mother was the first female officer killed in the city.

``The affront on society - it was done so callously,'' Burns said. ``Here was a mother, working two jobs. She had a gallon of milk, some paper towels, some other things, in the back seat of the police car when she was killed. It was the end of a tremendously long day.''

The two men convicted of killing Betty Smothers received the death penalty. Burns believes they deliberately targeted Smothers and the other woman who was shot. Smothers, working a full shift at a grocery store after a full police shift, had accompanied the other woman, the night manager, to deposit the day's receipts in a bank's night drop-off box when they were ambushed. Their assailants got no money.

After his mother's death, Dunn talked of passing up college and getting a job to support the family. But donations poured in - more than $300,000 in cash, plus many other gifts. The family bought a house with the money.

``People went out of their way,'' said Joe LeBlanc, the dean of students and a former assistant football coach at Catholic High, where Dunn attended school. ``Some got together and sold tickets. When it happened, they flashed numbers across the TV screen for people to send money to.''

LeBlanc recalls Dunn ``hearing about it from a lot of people'' when he decided to go to Florida State instead of Louisiana State. But those who criticized him didn't know Warrick Dunn, LeBlanc said.

Burns, the prosecutor, has come to know him very well.

``The first time he was in the courtroom with the man who actually killed his mother, he sat in the first row,'' Burns said. ``He had this look, just this look of puzzlement. `How could you want to do this?' Absolute puzzlement. There was no hatred, no anger, which I think would have been more normal. He was trying to find some answers.''

A prosecutor for more than 20 years, Burns says that she is not a big football fan, but that she will certainly be watching the Sugar Bowl.

``Any time they broadcast a Florida State game, I go nuts,'' she said.

Even if the Seminoles win the national title, their second of the Warrick Dunn Era, Dunn will keep his feelings to himself. He was subdued after Florida State beat the Gators earlier this season, after he had rushed for a career-high 185 yards.

``That look of sadness - that sadness is always there,'' Burns said. ``It's probably always going to be there.''

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