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Playing in Pain
Johnette Howard
August 28, 1995
Two years after his mother was killed in an attempted robbery, Warrick Dunn, Florida State's sensational tailback, still runs with a heavy heart
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August 28, 1995

Playing In Pain

Two years after his mother was killed in an attempted robbery, Warrick Dunn, Florida State's sensational tailback, still runs with a heavy heart

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It was a rainy January evening in Baton Rouge, a little after midnight, when Kimen Lee, manager of the Piggly Wiggly supermarket, and off-duty policewoman Betty Dunn Smothers left the store in Smothers's squad car to make a night deposit at Citizens Bank and Trust. It was a 10-minute trip at most. Smothers, a single mother, often took on off-hours security work to make ends meet. As the two women passed an A&P that had recently been robbed, their conversation turned to the rash of grocery-store stickups in the area. Lee remembers agreeing with Smothers that their nightly routine could easily make them sitting ducks.

They knew the bank's layout wasn't good. Cars coming off the highway had to follow a one-lane, horseshoe-shaped drive that curved behind the bank building. There, out of view from the highway, sat the bank's drive-through teller windows and night-deposit box. The area wasn't well lit. As a late-night precaution Smothers always drove in through the exit side—that way her headlights illuminated the back lot, and all Lee had to do was roll down her window, reach out and unlock the night-deposit box.

That's what Lee had just begun to do when she heard what sounded like firecrackers. She saw Smothers's arm fly up and her head slump forward; then she was still. The gunfire lasted perhaps 10 seconds. In all, 12 bullets riddled the car. Five struck Smothers from behind, and four more hit Lee. Despite her wounds, Lee pulled the car gearshift into drive from the passenger seat and careened away, smashing against a lane divider as she sped out. She hung a left and swerved down Jefferson Highway to a 24-hour convenience store nearly a half mile away.

Less than 15 minutes later, at 12:30 a.m., the phone rang in Smothers's home, and 18-year-old Warrick Dunn, the eldest of her six children, picked it up. A policeman said Dunn needed to get to the hospital. Quick.

Smothers was dead before she or her son arrived at the emergency room that night. Two and a half years later Warrick Dunn has made good on the vow he made at the hospital: to keep living and to keep caring for his younger siblings, who regarded him as a father figure long before their mother was gunned down. Today Dunn is also among the leading contenders for the Heisman Trophy. He's a do-it-all junior tailback at Florida State who might be the most exciting player in the country.

Dunn and senior quarterback Danny Kanell could lead the Seminoles to their second national title in three seasons. But if you ask the soft-spoken Dunn what winning the Heisman would mean to him, he smiles and says, "Problems, problems, problems."

Excellence is something Dunn craves; publicity he can do without. As a freshman he roomed with Seminole senior quarterback Charlie Ward and experienced the Heisman hype firsthand. "When he won it, I had a sign that read CHARLIE AIN'T HERE," Dunn says. "I got tired of answering the door."

Dunn also knows that the spotlight that comes with being a Heisman candidate inevitably leads to questions about his mom. She was only 36 when she was killed on Jan. 7, 1993.

Within days everyone in Baton Rouge seemed to know the family's story. Warrick was a hotly recruited star at Catholic High, and Betty was a community-minded woman, a doting mother, a popular cop who worked marathon hours because even as a 14-year police veteran, her corporal's salary wasn't enough to support her family: Warrick, now 20; Derrick Green, 18; Summer Smothers, 17; Bricson Smothers, 14; Travis Smothers, 13; and Samantha Smothers, 12.

For the six kids the murder is still an open wound. Initially Summer avoided reading the local newspaper and watching TV news; now, as she talks sweetly about the family photographs on a living-room shelf, she skips past those of her mother. Derrick has had nightmares and has told everyone, including the police, that he would like to shoot the murder suspects himself. When reminded that his mother wouldn't condone that, he says, "Well, she's not here to tell me that, is she?"

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