Dunn finding closure after tragedy

TAMPA, Fla. -- No one notices Warrick Dunn, curled up on a couch in a hotel lobby.

It's a late Tuesday afternoon in December and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back, anonymous among the palm trees, yawns as he rises to his feet. Following a Monday night game at Carolina, Dunn grabbed a couple of hours of sleep before hurtling into what is normally an off day for NFL players. Not-so-fresh after attending ceremonies to give two homes to single mothers through his foundation, Dunn is about to navigate a lengthy interview to promote his book, "Running for My Life."

Like everything else in his life, Dunn does this effectively, efficiently and without complaint. Still, there is an emotional flatness in his soft voice. It's difficult to know if it's the weariness from the long day -- or the subject matter itself. It has been 16 years since his mother, Betty Smothers, was murdered. Only recently, in a cathartic 2007 journey to confront the man found guilty of that crime, did Dunn finally face his own struggles.

"I was on a quest so that Warrick could be free, live his life and be merry and take his life back," Dunn said in an interview with ESPN. "This one incident has made me so hard and closed that I wanted to continue to progress and move forward."

There are a million stories this week in the Super Bowl city, most involving familiar names from the Steelers and Cardinals. This is one you might not know.

Dunn, of course, is well known as one of the league's most philanthropic players. He was honored as the 2004 Walter Payton Man of the Year, and his foundation has provided some 80 homes for disadvantaged families. At the age of 34, ancient for an NFL running back, Dunn had a quietly successful season with the Bucs. He became only the sixth player in league history to rush for more than 10,000 career yards and catch more than 500 passes. His 2008 season featured 786 rushing yards and 47 receptions for another 330 yards.

But for all the on-field glory, there had been a gaping hole in his life since the death of his mother. It left him bitter, sometimes depressed and alienated. He was an unhappy person and found it difficult to enter into long-term relationships.

Betty Smothers was a police officer in Baton Rouge, La., and the mother of six children. She was providing security for a convenience store manager Jan. 7, 1993, when they were ambushed by three men on the way to a bank. After she was shot and killed, Dunn identified her body, recognizing the pearl earrings, now blood-spattered, he had given her.

"It was one of those relationships -- it wasn't just as mother and son, we were one," Dunn said. "When she passed away, I didn't feel like anyone or anything could ever replace that."

At 18, he was the oldest child and, suddenly, the man of the house. Along with his grandmother, he helped raise his siblings. And while he went on to marvelous performances at Florida State, Tampa Bay and Atlanta, something was missing. A decade after the murder, a counselor endorsed a meeting with the murderer as a radical way of achieving closure.

"It took me almost a year where I could look [the counselor] eye to eye and talk to her," Dunn said. "She could see the change in me over the last couple of years and thought I was at a place in my life where I could handle it."

The Scenic Highway, which takes you north out of Baton Rouge, is anything but. There is a cluster of three oil refineries, belching fire and vast clouds of gray, low-hanging smoke. Follow the road out of the city and through several small towns and you will eventually come to Angola State Prison, home of Kevan Brumfield, one of the men convicted of the murder. In October 2007, Dunn made this journey along with author Don Yaeger and his longtime mentor, Maelen Brooks, who wasn't so sure it was a good idea.

"I was apprehensive, fearful that this catastrophic wound might be reopened," said Brooks, who coaches basketball at the Sports Academy in Baton Rouge. "If you have this type of anger within you, I know the best thing is to confront it face to face.

"You have to let it go, or it will destroy you."

Dunn was taken through the prison, back to the separate death row facility, where he met Brumfield. The questions that had been plaguing him for years flashed through his consciousness: Why did the men have to open fire? Were they really in need? Why that particular store at that particular time?

The running back was stunned when Brumfield, who is appealing his conviction, claimed he didn't kill Dunn's mother.

"To not hear him admit doing it was tough," Dunn said.

But when Dunn told Brumfield how haunted he was by the incident, tears came to the prisoner's eyes. In Dunn's mind, this confirmed "it's the right guy who did it, [otherwise] why would you really care?"

Dunn spent nearly an hour with Brumfield and, in closing, said that whether he committed the crime or not, he forgave him.

Leaving the prison, there was one more stop to make. Dunn and his entourage headed south on Rte. 61 and turned right onto an unmarked road. They drove past the tall oak trees, dripping with Spanish moss, and stopped in front of the tiny Magnolia Baptist Church.

It has been long abandoned; the chain-link fence was locked, so Dunn vaulted over it. He approached the concrete tomb:

    Betty Ann Smothers
    July 16, 1956-Jan. 7, 1993
    Beloved daughter and mother

And then Dunn, finally, said goodbye to his mother.

"I know she loves me," Dunn said. "I know that she sacrificed her life for us -- the six of us. I know she's proud. She's proud of the fact that I hadn't gone crazy. I hadn't gone down the wrong path, that I've done something positive with my life."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.