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"Everywhere we lived, there was drugs," says Durell's mother, Margaret Eskridge, who shares wide-set, slightly frightened-looking eyes with her son. Pork 'n' Beans was particularly dangerous, she says. "We stayed inside as much as we could. But Durell, he just loved to run. We couldn't keep him inside."
It was in area pick-up games where Durell learned to run and juke. By age 6, he was turning heads at Pop Warner football games.
But Margaret Eskridge wasn't there much. She worked long hours at Miami International Airport, selling sandwiches from a cart. Finally, when Durell was 7, Margaret came home to find her son outside, covered in mud. When she tried to catch and scold him, Durell dodged her like a mini Deion Sanders. So she went inside to get Durell's older sisters, 10-year-old Shenika and 19-year-old Shyrone.
"He was busting so many moves we couldn't lay a hand on him," recalls Shenika, now a pretty 21-year-old hairdresser who still lives with Durell and the family. "That's when we knew he was going to play some serious football."
Five hundred miles to the north, Devonta Freeman grew up just as poor and just as fast. He was born March 28, 1992, in Baxley, Georgia, shortly after the town's favorite son, running back Dexter Carter, finished his second season in the NFL. But if speed was in the stars for Devonta, so was instability. Like Durell, he grew up without a dad. Then his mother, Lorraine, met Cleveland Thomas, who helped raise Devonta. "I may not be his real father, but I cut the umbilical cord," the 44-year-old construction worker says proudly.
On afternoons, Thomas would take 4-year-old Devonta to the banks of the Altamaha River to fish. But the boy preferred shaking loose phantom tacklers to stringing a line. "He would just run on the river bank," Thomas recalls. "Run through the sand and the mud. That's where he gets all his strength."
That strength would be tested when Devonta, his mother, and Thomas moved to Pork 'n' Beans in 2000. The couple split up, leaving Devonta without a father for the second time.
Drugs ravaged the neighborhood, but Devonta threw everything into sports. Soon he established himself as a local baseball and football star. For his talent, he earned the nickname "Moore Park," after the playing field on NW 36th Street at I-95 that he dominated.
Devonta was the oldest of seven. He saw football as a way for his family to escape Liberty City. Even when brown recluse spider bites nearly cost him his leg, he never missed a game. "If he was sick but had practice that day," recalls his mother, her long nails pointing to a line of trophies, "suddenly he wasn't sick anymore."
At age 12, Devonta joined the Warriors youth football team, run by Central assistant coach (and rapper and New Times columnist) Luther Campbell. But the running back position was already filled by a skinny, goofy kid named Durell Eskridge.
Soon Devonta and Durell were terrorizing defenses at quarterback and running back. As they racked up wins on the field — including the national championship in Orlando — they began hanging out off of it. The two were a perfect fit. Devonta perhaps took life too seriously. Durell laughed most things off.
But then Durell's personal life fell apart. Renovations forced the family from Liberty City to a friend's place in South Miami. When that didn't work out, they landed in an old motel on Biscayne Boulevard used as a homeless shelter. Durell was shocked. "I didn't feel safe at all there," he says. "Some of the homeless people there were crazy, addicted to drugs, everything you could imagine." They stayed just a month, but he never forgot the empty faces in the motel.
A naturally smart if distractible kid, he failed eighth grade and then missed football tryouts at Northwestern. Worse, his mother lost her job at the airport and then moved in with family in Fort Lauderdale.
Homeless again, Durell moved onto Devonta's couch in his Little Haiti apartment. At least one night a week, they would wake to the sound of gunshots nearby. He stayed for months.
Unsettled without his mother, Durell also stayed with his grandmother sometimes. He skipped through six high schools in three years without even trying out for a team. Devonta did better in school, playing for Miami Edison. But then, during his sophomore year, he broke his right ankle while scoring a touchdown in the second game. He spent the rest of the season in a cast.
Durell kept things upbeat. "He's always been a joker," Devonta says of his best friend. "He likes to make people laugh a lot. That's the way he is." The two would watch television together, Devonta lifting weights and rehabbing his ankle, Durell ceaselessly annoying him like a little brother, flipping the channel from college football to reruns of Martin.
"Devonta was there for me," Durell says. "He gave me a place to sleep when I didn't have none. That meant a lot."
Just before 10 p.m. on a Friday in January 2009, Durell jogs down the creaky, uneven steps of his apartment building and onto the streets of Liberty City. He's tired of watching television, and the cupboards are bare, so he heads toward a grocery at NW 15th Avenue and 70th Street.