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
Outside the store, close friends Derrick "Termite" Gloster and Brandon Mills are playing a boisterous craps game with at least 30 others. Durell stops to watch the dice flash on the pavement. Then another friend approaches from behind and whispers into his ear: "You'd better walk off right now." Confused, Durell heads home.
"Get on the ground!" he hears someone yell behind him. Already halfway down the block, Durell turns to see a man pull an AK-47 on his friends. Durell sprints into the darkness until the gunshots stop, and then he runs back to the store. Derrick and Brandon are lying on the ground, each with a bullet in the head.
Durell drops to the pavement beside his friends' lifeless bodies. When the police arrive, Durell is in so much pain they think he's been shot as well.
"I felt sick," he recalls. "They were two of my best friends."
That night, as police sirens wail outside his small, second-story apartment, Durell decides to return to football. He hasn't played much in the past two years, bouncing from school to school. But anything — humiliation, rejection, or injury — is better than ending up dead on the corner.
Six months after watching his friends' murders, Durell was catching footballs again. He was playing alongside Devonta. And they had a shot at another title.
Two weeks before the shootout, Durell had transferred from LifeSkills — a remedial school — to Miami Central. He had raised his grade point average from C to B-minus. That spring, he began practicing with the team even though he hadn't played in two years. By fall 2009, he was a starter. Devonta had also made a change — from Edison to Central. He had rehabbed his broken ankle all spring and bulked up to almost 200 pounds.
That season was a breakout for the best friends. By December's end, Durell had caught 30 passes for nearly 400 yards and six touchdowns. Devonta had run for 545 yards and two scores. A few months after the season ended, a package arrived in the mail for him. Inside was a letter and a red baseball cap: Florida State — one of the best football programs in the nation — offered Devonta a full scholarship. His mother sobbed at the news. "I'm following my baby to Tallahassee," she cried.
The buddies are vastly different. On the football field, the five-foot-11 Devonta is compact, explosive. At six-foot-three, Durell is like a stork, awkward, but after a few steps, he outdistances any predator. Outside the chalk lines, Devonta, one of two team captains, is collected and polite. Durell is a jester, splashing teammates in the face with water while they're sleeping on road trips or eating a third bowl of ice cream on a dare.
But experiencing the shooting — and growing up — has made them more alike. A year ago, Durell joined Devonta in working at Richardson Funeral Home on NW 17th Avenue at 45th Street. They carry flowers and guide bereaved families for $50 per service. Often, they work Saturday mornings, still limping from the game the night before. Then they look at the mourning families and forget their bruises.
"It's real hard working the funerals," Devonta admits. "Most of the dead are young, just like me."
Living so close to death makes them more likely to take chances, Devonta says. It also makes them cocky. "I think I'm number one in the nation," he says, pulling back sweat-drenched dreadlocks to reveal a tattoo he got three years ago: "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want..." He has the second half of the psalm down. "There is no fear in my heart," he says, tapping his chest.
During practice one day, he reveals his goals: 1,000 yards in his first three games this season, a new house for his mom, and an NFL career. Durell is less certain about his. The wall above the folded blanket he calls a bed is covered in scholarship offers — Purdue, Marshall, New Mexico — but not from the universities he'd like.
"Durell's got just as much talent as anyone," Luther Campbell says. "He's got the size and speed of an NFL player. But he hasn't been focused."
Twenty-four hours before kickoff in Georgia, Devonta, Durell, and the rest of the Central team run through plays one last time at a palatial middle school in Kingsland, just a few miles from the stadium. Four cops lean against the school's white picket fence.
"Y'all may be fast, but we're strong," says assistant police chief Wayne Peeples, a potbellied man in a red Florida State Seminoles T-shirt and faint blond cop mustache. "My son's the smallest one on the offensive line, and he's 275 pounds."
"Must be all the radiation from the nuclear plant 'round here," says officer Jason Seaward, the only clean-shaven one of the bunch. Then he spits his chaw into the grass and points to his partner, a six-foot-six mountain named Chad Palmer.
The Rockets are well aware of the size of the Camden Wildcats, the two-time defending Georgia state champs. In fact, Central players spend the next day watching videos of their opponent in the lobby of their hotel. One by one, their ankles and wrists wrapped in white tape, the teammates assemble around the TV screen. Durell listens to his iPod. Devonta walks around, shaking his massive head. "Pick yo' heads up, man," he says to no one in particular. "Y'all don't look like you're ready to play."