By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
Central remained in Northwestern's shadow: The Bulls always beat the Rockets in the playoffs, raking in their third and fourth state titles in '06 and '07. Then, in the summer of 2008, Central hired Northwestern's understated mastermind offensive coordinator, Telly Lockette, as its new head coach. Last year, Central finally beat Northwestern when it mattered, knocking off the heavily favored Bulls in the state quarterfinals only to lose to a much weaker Miramar team in the semifinals a week later.
"It's become a bugaboo," Hoover says. "It's tough because we've had these wonderful football teams, but we still haven't won a state championship."
But this year, there's hope. Central has easily its best shot, with 12 returning starters and four all-star transfers. In August, USA Today ranked the team number two in the nation behind the Trinity Trojans of Euless, Texas. Rival Northwestern was unranked.
Yet the dark side of drive is desperation, and the neighborhood around Miami Central has long been a desperate place. Here, despite the intense competition and hellish workouts, football is still one of the easiest ways out. Nearly 40 percent of the population scrapes by below the poverty line in West Little River, worse than almost any part of Miami except Overtown, the city's poorest neighborhood. Central's school zone also includes several of the most violent places in the city, including a stretch near NW 15th Avenue and 71st Street where a spate of shootings in the past year and a half have killed four and wounded dozens.
Unsurprisingly, this off-the-gridiron danger leads to tough love on it. While Lockette — a quiet man in yellow-tinted sunglasses and dental braces — normally watches practices in silence, his assistant coaches toss more invective than footballs. Show up at practice and you're likely to see a player crawl around the field on his hands and knees for the entire three-hour session while a coach yells, "That'll teach you to forget your shit" or "Find your fucking man next time!" Much of the team has been raised by single moms, so Central's sometimes-abrasive coaches are surly father figures.
"For some of these guys, football is all they've got," Lockette says. "It's their way of life, their way out of whatever situation they've been born into." It keeps them in school too. Last year, a dozen Central players earned full scholarships to some of the best college football programs in the nation. In many ways, the sport saves their lives. Miami-Dade County awards only 27 percent of African-American males with a high school diploma. Miami Central graduates closer to half.
But in the end, football saves relatively few. This spring, star offensive tackle Jose Jose lost his scholarship to play for the University of Central Florida after police caught him carrying a concealed handgun. The vast majority of the players are at risk simply because they live in the neighborhood. "Our kids are dying on these streets," Lockette says.
Durell and Devonta stand side by side on a cool Saturday afternoon in November 2005. Another national title is in jeopardy. They are 13 years old, and their Liberty City Optimist Warriors trail by six to the home team, the Fort Myers Firecats, with two minutes left in the Pee Wee South regional championship game.
The pair trots back onto the field after a time-out. Like their dreams of pro football, their pads are still too large for their narrow shoulders. But the thousands of screaming fans ringing the field are a reminder of what's at stake.
The Warriors line up at the Firecats' 30-yard line. With a sound too robust for his tiny frame, Devonta calls for the snap and drops back as if to throw. Then he hands the ball to the tall, wiry Durell, who sprints past two confused defenders. Their hands just miss his ankles. He shimmies like a skeleton running down the field, eluding multiple Firecats before diving into the end zone. In an instant, Durell is lost in a crowd of black-and-gold Warriors jerseys. Devonta is the last teammate to let go. The Warriors win 14-12, and they're on their way to the national championship game in Orlando. There, on an immaculate emerald field, they maul a Texas team 33-0.
"Durell's fast, even faster than me sometimes," Devonta Freeman admits five years later. After a pause, he adds with a smile: "Sometimes." He should know. The two young men have been inseparable since age 12. They've spent more time together than many siblings, often sleeping at each other's houses. And they've played hundreds of football games lined up next to one another.
Yet Durell and Devonta are united by more than just their longtime friendship or their supernatural ability to run faster than hell. Their bond is explained in their upbringing.
Durell was born the seventh of eight children a week before Christmas 1991 at Jackson North Medical Center. Within months, his family moved to the notorious Liberty Square projects on NW 63rd Street, the second-oldest housing project in the nation. Life in Liberty Square was a lesson in tight spaces and tighter budgets for the Eskridges. Durell, his mother, and three sisters were packed into a tiny apartment in the projects, nicknamed Pork 'n' Beans because the residents couldn't afford to eat anything other than canned food. With no father in sight, his older sisters watched over him.