NEW ORLEANS - Literally and figuratively, Warrick Dunn grew up fast. Fate blessed him with footspeed and cheated him of his childhood. He is among the saddest of America's football stars - a motherless child a long way from home.
''All this right here doesn't mean anything,'' the Florida State running back said Tuesday at the Sugar Bowl. ''If I can have that day back and have my mom back here, I'll give up football. I'll give up college. I'll give up everything. That was the single most important person in my life. I'm sorry she had to leave for me to live better.''
Corporal Betty Dunn Smothers of the Baton Rouge police was moonlighting as a security guard four years ago when she was shot to death while escorting a grocery store manager to a night bank deposit. As the oldest of her six children, Warrick Dunn became a father figure by default. This accounts for both his maturity and his melancholy.
''I definitely got robbed in a sense,'' he said. ''I wish I could take those years back and be a little kid again. But I can't. I had to grow up early, mature real fast. I guess I wouldn't be the man I am today if it wasn't for that maturity that I have.''
The man Dunn is today is the best player on the best college football team in the country. His ability to gain ground figures to be a determining factor in Thursday's Sugar Bowl, in which the top-ranked Seminoles will seek to secure a national championship against rival Florida.
'A great role model'
The ability to gain ground, however, is among the least of his abilities.
''What a great role model,'' Florida State coach Bobby Bowden said. ''All these kids who get in trouble, want to blame the system, want to blame society. 'Well, I didn't have a chance. I was dealt a bad hand.' Take a look at Warrick Dunn and see what he did with his life.''
Warrick Dunn has been the man of his house since he was a small child. His father left the family in Louisiana, and moved to Texas.
''When I was nine years old, I wanted to run wild in the streets and be like everybody else,'' Dunn said. ''But I couldn't. My mom really needed me. And I never questioned her. It was a matter of survival.''
It is a familiar story in modern society, and too often a tale of anguish and despair. A father abandons his family and robs his sons of the example of male responsibility. Warrick Dunn has run for more yards than any back in Florida State history, but he will tell you his greatest achievement was in walking the straight and narrow.
''I didn't stray off and go down the wrong path,'' he said. ''That's probably the easiest thing to do -- give up. Being a big brother or playing this football season, that comes natural. It's trying to stay on the right path that's the hard thing.''
Warrick Dunn runs like a man who chooses his path one step at a time, constantly shifting gears and cutting back against the grain. It is the same way he leads his life.
When family circumstances could have caused him to seek early entry into the National Football League last year, he chose to remain at Florida State for his senior year. In passing up first-round money to finish school, he confounded both coaches and teammates. They were not sure quite what to make of the move until Dunn rose to speak at a players-only meeting following a victory over North Carolina.
''Warrick got up and said, 'I came back here to help us win,' '' FSU kicker Scott Bentley said.
''(He said) 'I didn't come back for the coaches. I didn't come back here for myself. I didn't come back so I would make more money. I came back here to win, for you guys.'
''Since that day, we've been pointing toward the national championship. I know when I walked out of that meeting, I had a fire lit in me.''
Warrick Dunn has spent his life assuming responsibility for others. He is 5-foot-9, but he stands taller.
''I'll probably be remembered as the little guy out there on the field with the giants,'' he said. ''I'm probably David and everyone else is Goliath. It's just about overcoming odds.''