The afternoon of Jan. 30, 2008, was not a high point for me. At the downtown convention center in Phoenix, sitting a few feet away from a man who's done more to change lives than any other professional athlete I know -- who was being honored as such -- I was disinterested. Bored, even.
Warrick Dunn was accepting the Home Depot NFL Neighborhood MVP, awarded for his Homes for the Holidays foundation. He was talking about his efforts "on and off the field," and I felt like I had heard it all before. So many pro athletes have foundations. So many don't tend to them. So often I've been in a player's house and realized that his charity amounts to a dated Web site, stacks of paper on the floor and piles of unopened mail -- all to be handled by a entourage member who's eternally preoccupied by Wii.
True -- Dunn isn't one of those guys. Most players aren't those guys. But having seen a joke of a foundation over and over again soured my perception of Dunn's award. Dunn could tell, too. From behind the podium, he could feel every eye that wasn't on him. After his speech, reporters (myself included) asked him only football questions -- if he'd remain an Atlanta Falcon -- and nothing else.
"I'm used to it," he told me last week.
I called Dunn partially out of guilt, partially out of admiration, after learning that in early May his foundation covered the down payment and completely furnished houses for three Tampa residents, all in three and a half hours. Forget the nation's real estate crisis, forget that he's received acclaim for his charity, forget that the media -- me -- typically ignores such acts: Dunn just keeps putting families into houses. In 12 years he's assisted 77 single parents and 201 children into homes.
I've never heard of anything like that. As the son of divorced parents who struggled with home ownership, I realize how people's lives can forever be changed thanks to Dunn's efforts. I just realized it late.
Ask Joilee Hazley how her life has changed. Hazley, a single mother of two, had applied for assistance in purchasing a home through the city of Tampa. She was approved and had planned to close on a new house, but she had no idea her mortgage broker had submitted her name to Dunn's foundation. During the afternoon of May 6, she took off from her job at the Busch Gardens Zoo education department and drove with her sister, Kathy Schultz, to the final walk-through. As they approached, she saw a bunch of people standing in the yard. "I thought, 'Wow a lot of people show up for the final walk-through,'" she later said.
As Hazley, 48, stepped out of the car, she was greeted: "Hi, I'm Warrick Dunn."
Shocked, stunned, grateful, she was led into the house and quickly learned what Dunn's foundation means by "furnish": All new couches and tables. Flatscreen TVs. Food in the cabinets. Fridge full. Toothbrushes and toothpaste in the bathroom. Even hanging towels embroidered with, "Joilee's Kitchen."
"You can tell there's a lot of love in how Warrick does this," she said.
Dunn selected Hazley by personally reviewing her application, reading her bio, studying her circumstances, and praying. It's what his mother, Betty Smothers -- the inspiration for his charity -- would have wanted. A police officer in Baton Rogue, La., Smothers was killed in the line of duty before she achieved her goal of home ownership.
"I'm not completely buying the house for them, but I am taking away any excuses they have," Dunn said. "We provide the down payment, we fill up the house. All they have to do is bring their clothes."
I often ask football players what it feels like to catch a pass, throw a block, score a touchdown, take a lick. I've never asked what it's like to change a stranger's life for the better.
"You can't describe it," Dunn said. "It's one of the greatest feelings. I cherish them for my lifetime. Each person and each moment is unique. To be with them when they achieve home ownership, it's amazing."
He's addicted to that feeling. After all, it's his life's work, as he's been doing it since 1997, his rookie year. Dunn is now 33, and his 187-pound body has suffered through 2,483 carries. Beginning his second stint with the Bucs this season, his career is clearly winding down. But Dunn says his foundation won't end when his playing days do.
"This is my dream," he said. "A dream isn't something that's done once and over with. A dream is continuous."
Good thing, for those of us late to notice.
Seth Wickersham is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a columnist for ESPN.com. For more information about the Warrick Dunn Foundation,