Book excerpt: Dunn the key

Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from Bobby Bowden's and Mark Schlabach's new book "Called to Coach." Reprinted with permission from Howard Books, a division of Simon & Schuster Inc.

The night before every football game, we gathered our players in our locker room, or in the conference room of a hotel if we were playing on the road. We met for an hour or so, talking about the keys on offense, defense, and special teams. More important, someone delivered a devotional at the start of the meeting. Sometimes I delivered it, but oftentimes one of my players, coaches, or team chaplains talked about something important to them.

One of the devotionals I often liked to tell our players was a story I heard many years ago. It was about Lou Little, who was a famous football coach at Columbia University in New York from 1930 to 1956. He led Columbia to a victory in the 1934 Rose Bowl over Stanford University and coached the famous novelist Jack Kerouac and Sid Luckman, who was a great T-formation quarterback for the Chicago Bears during the 1940s.

Little also coached at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., from 1924 to 1929. There, he coached a defensive tackle who probably weighed two hundred pounds, which was very big back in those days. Little worked with the boy every day, but the young man just did not get any better. But the boy was persistent, worked hard, and had a great attitude. In fact, the boy never missed a practice in his four seasons on the team. Three or four days before the boy's final game at Georgetown, Little received a telegram that informed him the boy's father had died. Little had seen the boy walking with his father. "Son, I am sorry," Little told him. "But your father passed away. Go home and take care of your family. We'll try to win this game for you."

That Saturday, Little walked into his team's locker room and was surprised to see the boy standing there. "Coach, you have to start me," the boy said.

"Son, you have never been a starter," Little told him. "This is the championship game. I cannot take that kind of risk today."

"Coach, I have to do this for my father," the boy pleaded. "Just put me in for the first play and then you can take me out of the game."

Little was overcome with sympathy. How could he not grant the boy his wish? So he put the boy in the starting lineup, and the boy ran down the field to cover the game's opening kickoff. He tackled the player returning the kick so hard he nearly knocked him into the first row of seats. The boy jumped up and ran to the sideline just like he promised his coach he would do, but Little motioned to him to stay in the game.

During the rest of the afternoon, the boy played like he was possessed. He led Georgetown's team in tackles and delivered big hit after big hit. Georgetown won the game and claimed a conference championship.

Little pulled the boy aside during the team's celebration in its locker room. "Son, what in the world got into you today?" Little asked him. "You've never played like that before. You've never shown that much desire in four years."

"Coach, you know my father died," the boy said. "You know my father was blind. Today was the first time he could see me play."

I met Little at a coaches' convention in Washington, D.C., during the late 1960s. I asked him if that story was true, and he told me it was. After watching Warrick Dunn play at Florida State for four seasons, I can only imagine he played as hard and with as much passion as that boy at Georgetown University for the same reason. Warrick had someone watching over him, too.

We recruited Warrick while he was a senior at Catholic High School in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. On January 7, 1993 -- about a month before Warrick signed a scholarship to play football at Florida State -- his mother was murdered while escorting a grocery store manager to a bank to make a night deposit. Betty Dunn Somers, a corporal in the Baton Rouge police department, was thirty-six. Two days after his eighteenth birthday, Warrick and his grandmother were left to raise his five siblings.

After Warrick left for college, his brothers and sisters moved in with his grandmother, Willie Wheeler. I was not sure how Warrick would react to being away from his family. He was still dealing with the grief of losing his mother. But Warrick became a roommate with Charlie Ward, our quarterback, and that was the best thing that could have happened to Warrick. Both were very quiet and very much alike. Charlie is from Thomasville, Georgia, which is just across the state line from Tallahassee, and his parents adopted Warrick in many ways.

Warrick was a quarterback and a defensive back in high school. We recruited him to play defense, but Warrick wanted to play running back. He was pretty small, only about five feet nine inches and 173 pounds, and we weren't sure he could take the punishment of running the ball some twenty times a game. But his mother wanted him to attend Florida State, so he was going to sign a national letter of intent to play for us. "Warrick, we have all the running backs we can take," I told him. "If you come to Florida State, you have to play defense. Will you do that?"

"Yes, Coach Bowden," Warrick told me. "But will you promise me you will at least give me a chance to play running back?"

"I'll give you a chance to run the ball," I said. "But if it comes down to it, you have to agree to play defense."

We opened preseason camp in August 1993, and Warrick was playing defense. Before one of our scrimmages, Warrick came to me and reminded me of my promise to let him try out at running back. So we put him on offense, and no one could tackle him. After that day, Warrick was a running back for the rest of his career, and I am not sure we ever had a better runner at Florida State. Warrick will always be one of my favorite players. From time to time, he came to my office and talked about one of his brothers or sisters getting into trouble or having problems in school. "Coach, what should I do?" he asked me. I always told him to go home and get it straightened out. He drove all the way to Baton Rouge, worked things out with his family, and then came back to Florida State. It was just so much for a nineteen-year-old boy to handle, but Warrick never complained and helped his grandmother raise his brothers and sisters well.

After Warrick left Florida State, he played for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Atlanta Falcons and became one of the NFL's best running backs. More important, he became one of the NFL's best ambassadors. He established the Warrick Dunn Foundation and Homes for the Holidays, which have provided financial assistance for many single mothers to buy houses for their families. He was named NFL Man of the Year and was honored by former president Bill Clinton for his charitable work. I do not know if I have ever been more proud of one of my former players.

I have said this many times: Florida State would never have won the 1993 national championship without Warrick. It was almost as if Warrick was the missing piece to the puzzle.

Mark Schlabach covers college sports for ESPN.com. He co-authored Bobby Bowden's memoir, "Called To Coach," which was published by Simon & Schuster. His new book, co-authored with Bobby Bowden and published by Simon & Schuster, "Called To Coach," is on sale now.