By Pam Lambert
December 10, 2001 12:00 PM

Monica Thomas and her three children—Tiffany, 17, Roselyn, 16, and Roy, 13—were up early and dressed in their holiday best. It was two days before Thanksgiving, and Thomas’s real estate agent Alfinia Young had told the single mother there might be some press at the closing that morning of her new house—the first to be built in a redeveloping area of Baton Rouge, La. But nothing quite prepared Thomas and her kids for the scene that greeted them around 9 a.m. when, after a 10-minute drive with Young, the agent stopped her gold Toyota Camry. A big red ribbon wrapped Thomas’s three-bedroom, brick-and-stucco future home. A giant banner from the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers decorated the garage. As the confused family got out of the car, a team official quickly explained that because Thomas had been selected for a special program, she’d be receiving a $5,000 down payment, a place full of new furniture and appliances—and an introduction to the football star behind it all. “This is a dream come true,” said Thomas, 38, sobbing as she and her children entered the house.

The gift is part of a holiday tradition begun four years ago by Warrick Dunn, 26, the Bucs’ All-Pro running back. Each fall he presents six to eight homes—always to a single mother. In fact, he created his Homes for the Holidays charity in memory of his mother, Betty Smothers. A Baton Rouge police officer and single parent, she was shot to death nearly nine years ago at age 36 during a robbery. “You see the joy, you see the kids’ faces,” Dunn says. “You see ultimately everything my mom wanted in those guys.”

With each house Dunn, who has presented three in Baton Rouge this Thanksgiving season and will pass along another three to families in Tampa Bay on Dec. 18, contributes $5,000 toward the down payment and completely furnishes the place—as Thomas can attest. (Every house is valued from $45,000 to $55,000.) She and her family passed from room to room oohing and aahing over the brand-new bedroom suites, the maple living room furniture, the sparkling appliances. And as Tiffany started opening cabinets in the large eat-in kitchen, where an apple pie perched temptingly on the counter, she shrieked. As always, Dunn had also stocked the kitchen with food. “Every cabinet is full!” the teen exclaimed.

“I’ve had some hard times,” admits Thomas, a housekeeper, who had been renting a rundown three-bedroom house with her sister for $290 a month—the same as her mortgage payment will be on the new home. “We’ve lived in some really bad places and even came close to living on the street. In my wildest dreams I never thought that we would have such a nice house.”

Dunn knows exactly where she’s coming from. These days he parks his 2001 Range Rover outside a four-bedroom house in a Tampa gated community, but growing up in Baton Rouge as the oldest of six, he never really had a place to call his own. “We lived everywhere in Baton Rouge that you could possibly live,” Dunn recalls. “The only dream my mother had was owning her own home.”

Sadly, that was a vision Smothers never lived to see. On Jan. 7, 1993, two days after celebrating her firstborn’s 18th birthday with a small family party, the 16-year police veteran was killed while working her second job as a security guard at a supermarket. By the time a fellow officer rushed Dunn to the hospital, it was too late. “When I got home, it was chaos. It was, ‘What are we going to do now?’ and ‘Our life is over,’ and ‘How are we going to make it?’ ” says Dunn, who had already been serving as something of an authority figure for the fatherless household. “You have no choice but to mature. It wasn’t just about going to school and playing football anymore. My life became about five people.”

At the same time Dunn, a high school senior, was on the brink of making one of the biggest decisions of his life. College football powerhouses Florida State, Alabama, Texas and others had recruited him, and he would have to pick one by the first week in February. “I was going to choose to go to LSU,” says Dunn of the Baton Rouge institution, so that he would be closer to his siblings. “But family members and people from the neighborhood told me, ‘Warrick, this is your life, your dreams. We’ll take care of the kids while you’re gone.’ ” So Smothers’s mother, housekeeper Willie Wheeler, then 56, moved in with her grandchildren, and Dunn said yes to Florida State. He figured that the school’s location in Tallahassee, just a 5½-hour drive from his hometown, would allow him to visit his brothers and sisters frequently and remain an integral part of their lives.

From the start Dunn took his role as a parent seriously. “He’s one of the most mature people I’ve had come here,” says Florida State head coach Bobby Bowden. “He’d come to me like a father talking to another father. He’d say, ‘So-and-so is misbehaving; what would you do?’ Then he’d get in his car and drive back home and enforce it. When you speak in terms of accountability and responsibility, he really had it.”

Dunn was the same way on the field. “His playing was something we could have never guessed,” says Bowden of Dunn, who at just 5’9″ and 180 lbs. helped take Florida State to the national title in 1993. By the time he graduated with his degree in information studies in May 1997, the All-American had set school rushing records that still stand.

As soon as Dunn was drafted—he was the Bucs’ first-round pick in ’97—he brought his youngest three siblings to Tampa to join him in the house where he still lives. “He’s done an exceptional job,” says Nefertiti Wolf, 25, a Baton Rouge nursing student and Dunn’s best friend since ninth grade. “They’ve turned out to be good, loving kids.” Inspired by Dunn’s example, sister Summer Smothers, 23, graduated from Louisiana Tech in May 2000 and now works as a marketing representative in Tampa. Bricson and Travis Smothers, 20 and 19 respectively, attend Hinds Community College in Raymond, Miss., and Samantha Smothers, 18, plans to enter college soon. Brother Derrick Green, 24, hopes to start a business in Baton Rouge.

During his Tampa Bay rookie season Dunn launched Homes for the Holidays. To date he has presented 25 houses to recipients in both Baton Rouge and Tampa, all selected by him from candidates in the databases of organizations such as Habitat for Humanity. “He’s always been a sweetheart and always willing to give,” says Summer of the project. “Our mother would be speechless.”

So are some of the recipients, like Kiosha Brooks, whom Dunn presented Nov. 20 with a three-bedroom, two-bath home in a new subdivision of Baton Rouge. “Thank you,” the weeping 22-year-old cashier and mother of two said, as 5-year-old David took in the large glass jar of chocolate chip cookies on the kitchen counter. Dunn walked over to the jar, took out a cookie and handed it to him. “You can have it,” he explained. “Everything in this house is yours.”

Dunn occasionally jokes that “some of the houses look better than mine.” But his canalside residence, with screened-in patio and swimming pool, isn’t exactly an eyesore. Something of a homebody, Dunn—who is in the final year of a six-year contract for $8.86 million—likes to golf and, says his sister Summer, “to sleep.” She adds, “His friends might come play video games or, every blue moon, bowl.”

Bucs coach Tony Dungy calls Dunn one of the team’s most popular players, “the type of guy you’d love to have your daughter marry.” Still, he has yet to tie the knot. Dunn admits he has a high standard—his mother. “She was compassionate, she was kind, she was helpful, thoughtful,” he says. “She was everything that I would want in my wife. I consider my mother to be superwoman.”

Others regard Dunn as pretty super himself. “To this day, I tell him I’m so proud of him, but he always asks why,” says Summer. “I tell him I’m his biggest fan, and he doesn’t get it. He says, ‘I’m just your brother.’ ”

Pam Lambert

Kristin Harmel in Tampa and Steve Helling in Baton Rouge