In December, Warrick Dunn celebrated a special occasion. It wasn't about his new job as a part owner of the Atlanta Falcons or an honor from his playing career -– in fact, it wasn't about football at all. It was a celebration for his foundation, the career he wishes to remembered for. For the 100th time, his foundation had found a single parent who was ready to purchase his or her own home. She was Janice Cantrell of Atlanta, and Dunn gave her $5,000 toward the down payment of that house, furnishings and a full cupboard.
The news crews were out in full force, searching for the tearful close-up and poignant quote. And they found what they were looking for: Cantrell had lost two sons and a nephew to gun violence, and she sought to own this house in their honor. Some celebrities were there, too: NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and even President Jimmy Carter. They each praised Dunn for his off-the-field efforts.
After her house tour, as she sat on the couch in her new living room, Cantrell was asked how she felt. She said, "I feel like I have won the lottery."
The truth, though, is that about one in three lottery winners go broke in five years or fewer. Although Cantrell was the 100th recipient of the gift from the Warrick Dunn Family Foundation, the organization made sure she didn't receive any special treatment. As with all the home presentations, the news crews packed up and drove off, the foundation finished its work and left, and the celebration ceased. After a few hours, a single parent was left to take on the remainder of the mortgage.
So what happens to these single parents as they strive to complete with the rest of their work?
The answer to that question starts in the summer of 2002. Dunn left the Buccaneers for the Falcons in free agency, and he took the young foundation with him. On his first return trip to Tampa, the soon-to-be Super Bowl champions crushed his Falcons, but he doesn't remember the loss as much as the gift.
He stayed in Tampa for two extra days to offer a house to a woman named Renee Tulloch. The moment was moving and special -– like the other 99 moments Dunn has created with his generosity.
But now, almost nine years later, Renee Tulloch no longer lives in that house.
Renee was born in Tinton Falls, New Jersey. Her parents, Derrine and George, a nurse’s assistant and a printer, worked overtime to make sure they could pay off their one-story house. And they did, in half the length of the mortgage.
Renee fell in love in high school, with a boy named Wesley, whom she knew since third grade.
Her parents couldn't stand him.
They urged her to take a little time after high school and explore new opportunities. She moved to Tampa, where both of her sisters were stationed at MacDill Air Force Base. She worked as a physician's assistant and aspired to be more, but something was holding her back: She never broke up with Wesley.
For a while, they kept up the long distance relationship and she kept working and going to school. They would only see each other a few times a year, but they made it work. One day, 20-year-old Renee was on her way back from work in Tampa and was changing into clothes to wear to night school. She sat down on the apartment in her couch for a moment. She closed her eyes.
She didn't wake up for 24 hours.
She went to see a doctor, and she found out what had happened. She called Wesley with the news first, and he was supportive. Renee’s sister, however, slapped her in the back of her head. Renee was pregnant.
Wesley stood up to the family and said he would be there for the baby, and that if he and Renee wanted to start a family, that was their prerogative. This wasn't the result of a one-night stand, he argued, it was the result of a four-year relationship.
Renee told her dad. He reacted surprisingly well to the "I'm pregnant" part, but he hung up the phone immediately after the "Wesley is the father” part.
He didn't talk to her once during those nine months.
But as soon as he saw his grandson, he warmed to Renee again. And as an almost 21-year-old new mother, she once again became a daddy's girl.
That same year, a young running back from the Buccaneers started a foundation under the umbrella of his team. Just a few years before, his mother, a police officer in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, had been murdered. She had always struggled to own a house, and Dunn wanted to do something to honor her: He wanted to help single mothers find homes.
Renee named her son Jordan, and in the first year of his life –- and of the foundation's –- both she and Warrick Dunn were busier than ever. She worked whatever jobs she could find in addition to her regular hours as a physician’s assistant -– at Busch Gardens, at Victoria's Secret, anywhere. Money was scarce. It didn’t help that she and Wesley broke up.
Dunn was busy financing the foundation himself, in addition to selecting each recipient and furnishing each home. In the beginning, he didn't understand the magnitude of the gifts he was giving –- he just knew that he had to help. He was still grieving over his mother's death and was in therapy to help him navigate the darkness.
He started the foundation to honor his mother, but he held her in such high esteem that he tried to deny that early on. In his mind, no one could reach her standards.
Renee wanted to continue her parents' legacy, too, but she could only afford an apartment. Her first with Jordan, when he was a newborn, was near the University of South Florida, but the complex turned crummy and the commute was killing her. She moved to another apartment closer to the hospital where she spent so much of her time.
She always remembered her mother's advice, though, that paying for an apartment was like "paying for someone else's house." She searched for a home for two years. She ate mostly Ramen noodles, and didn't buy anything new. Jordan would wait up for her after work and, when he became old enough, they would talk until late. She would sleep in a Papasan chair because she couldn't afford two beds.
She finally found her first home in 2002 –- a $90,000 house on Busch Boulevard. It was new, so she wouldn't have to put any additional money into it. She started taking some classes at Habitat for Humanity about paying off home loans. Little did she know that a certain NFL benefactor worked with the same organization to locate worthy single moms and dads.
That summer, when Dunn left the Bucs, the organization released his foundation, and he made it a public charity based in Atlanta. He was the only employee. "All along," says current executive director Jenn Maxwell, "it only took one person and an army of volunteers."
In December, Dunn found Renee.
On the day she was set to sign the papers for her house, Renee had a long list of tasks on her mind. She had to double-check the loan application, sign the deed and get groceries and furniture. So she didn't think twice when her boss, Nyda, offered to take her to the new house and then to lunch.
She wasn't suspicious until she saw the news trucks.
Then she saw her friends and family.
Then she saw Dunn.
Then she cried.
A pastor blessed the house, and there was a ribbon cutting. Dunn is too shy to do either. Instead, he invited her on a house tour, without the news crews. Along the walk, he whispered to her, out of earshot of anyone else, "I'm so proud of all that you accomplished. I know hard you've worked for this."
Eventually, everyone outside was welcomed in, and the house became an impromptu Christmas party. Renee headed to a banquet lunch with everyone, and when she returned, it was just her and Jordan -– like always.
With the money she saved on her house, and with the help of a Pell Grant, Renee returned to school again, this time to become a licensed professional nurse. She worked two jobs, went to school and doted on Jordan with the remainder of her time. He became the man of the house, washing the car and mowing the lawn and doing the laundry. "With Jordan," she says, "I need no husband."
So what happened to the house?
After five years, in 2007, Renee sold it and used the money to pay off her remaining debt. She now works 40 hours a week and spends the remaining time at her new home, with Jordan. And she can now afford to send her son back to New Jersey during the holidays so that he can spend time with Wesley. They are on good terms.
As for Dunn and his foundation, only three of the now 101 recipients have had their houses foreclosed on -– a remarkable number considering the era we’re in. The foundation moved from Tampa to Atlanta this winter, and as they did, they remembered the anniversary of the death of Dunn's mother.
"It's helped me grieve," Dunn says. "When I first started doing the program, I wasn't as emotional. I didn't understand it. I was at a loss. Now, years later I understand what the purpose is –- what my mom was truly working for and what she wanted. To understand that, it's made me a better person.
"If I can get through darkness, then other people can get through it, too. You want to give people the knowledge that they can accomplish things, if they focus and if they sacrifice."
Dunn’s mother's sacrifice led to his focus. And when he gives, that's when he finds that he's still with her -- and when he finds something else. It's the same thing that he's helped find for Renee Tulloch and 100 other single parents.
-- David Gardner is a frequent contributor to ThePostGame.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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