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
Late on a Friday night in early September, Kingsland, Georgia, is a ghost town. Stores are shuttered, restaurants empty. Save for a Wal-Mart Supercenter and a mile-long strip of fast-food joints and cheap motels, the city of 15,000 is quiet and dark.
But on the edge of this suburban idyll, next to a creek singing with bullfrogs and cicadas, 10,000 people pack the bleachers of the Camden County High School football stadium. Tall, heavy folks with permanent sunburns and beat-up pickup trucks, they stomp and shout as if touched by the spirit. Blond cheerleaders in blue uniforms rise and fall to the blare of a 100-person marching band.
Below, on a forest-green field of artificial turf, the hometown Camden County Wildcats are knotted in a 42-42 tie with the second-best team in the nation: the Miami Central Rockets. With 5:27 left in the fourth quarter, Central kicks off for the eighth time. The ball hangs in the heavy Georgia air like a second moon and then plummets into the hands of Camden's kick returner. He barely has time to lift his head before three Rockets pound him with their helmets.
"Motherfucking swarming," yells Central assistant coach Tony Bryant, a monstrous six-foot-six former Oakland Raiders defensive end with a permanent scowl. But the teenagers around him don't look so confident. They expected a fight tonight, but not this. Not an all-out, seesawing slugfest. Not their national title threatened in the season's first game.
On first down, Camden's refrigerator-size running back, Hayden Boudreaux, crashes through Central's defensive line for five yards. Two plays later, Carrington Wright bursts up the middle for 29 yards, all the way to Central's 47-yard line. With four minutes left, the Wildcats are near field goal range.
Central's star running back, Devonta Freeman, paces up and down the sideline with his helmet off, his shoulder-length dreadlocks swinging, a football tucked under his arm. "Hey! Let's go, yo. Keep your heads up," he yells at his teammates. "This ain't over."
But the Wildcats — who have won two straight state championships — are relentless, grinding their way down the field while burning up the clock. On the backs of Wright and Boudreaux, they reach Central's 11-yard line with ten seconds left in the game. Wright surges forward one more time in search of a touchdown but is tackled by a half-dozen sets of hands as the clock runs down. With 2.6 seconds left, Camden County calls a time-out.
As the home team's field goal kicker trots out, Central wide receiver Durell Eskridge runs over to his team's huddle. "Coach, put me in," he begs. "Put me in. I can block it!" Eskridge, a star receiver benched with an eye injury, is tall and long-limbed like an NBA shooting guard. All night, he has watched from the sideline. Head coach Telly Lockette grabs the boy's shoulder pad and pushes him onto the field as the crowd roars.
For both teams, a win would be a first step toward a national championship. A Central victory would also help bury the demons of last season, when the Rockets fumbled away their first state title in school history.
For Freeman and Eskridge, who grew up together on the streets of Liberty City, this season is about much more than a trophy. It's a chance at an education their single mothers couldn't otherwise afford and a ticket out of one of Miami's most troubled neighborhoods — away from the gangs, drugs, shootings, and poverty that have hit their lives harder than any opposing player ever could. Yet the college degrees, fancy cars, NFL contracts, and condos for Mom ride on Central going all the way this year. And at this moment, it's looking grim.
The Camden kicker lines up and sights the uprights like a sniper taking aim. Before Camden even snaps the ball, Eskridge takes off, sprinting toward the line of scrimmage. Suddenly, a teammate drops to his knees in front of Eskridge. As the ball leaves the kicker's foot, Eskridge steps onto the teammate's back and launches into the air, arms outstretched.
"Football is like a religion at Miami Central," says Carl Hoover, a bear of a man from Chicago who taught history for ten years at the school. "The coaches take it very seriously; the kids take it very seriously; the teachers, the parents, the whole school takes it seriously."
But it wasn't always this way.
When Miami Central Senior High opened in 1959, both the school and the neighborhood were different. It was an all-white facility built to accommodate North Miami's blue-collar baby boomers. Until the county's school system was integrated in 1966, Central was the yin to the yang of nearby Northwestern, an all-black high school campus on NW 71st Street at 12th Avenue. By the early '80s, Central had become majority African-American, but the rivalry with Northwestern remained — especially on the football field.
Northwestern dominated Central on the way to winning state titles in '95 and '98. But by 2000, the playing field had leveled. The Rockets beat the Bulls for the first time that fall and soon replaced Booker T. Washington as Northwestern's biggest rival. By then, Central had begun sending kids to the pros: Six former Rockets who graduated between 2000 and 2005 made it to the NFL. Of the six, only Baltimore Ravens running back Willis McGahee became a star. But no matter how brief their professional career, each one inspired a hundred neighborhood kids to try out.
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.
"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.
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."
The ride to the game is silent, broken only by the crunch of the bus's wheels on the stadium's gravel parking lot and the wavering voice of Coach Lockette. "We're going to go after them with everything that we've got," he says. "All the flipping tires and two-a-day practices are going to pay off right here."
By game time an hour later, the stadium is overflowing and the Central squad is amped. The Rockets win the toss and choose to kick. When the ball sails into the air, a Central assistant coach assures his team: "Y'all gonna whip their motherfucking asses."
At first, it looks as if he's right. Camden's kickoff return man slips as he catches the ball, downing it at the five-yard line. After three feeble runs from the Wildcats, Central receiver Tommy Shuler drops back to catch the punt. But the ball bounces on the turf in front of him and over his head: an ill omen and bad field position.
Devonta clips on his helmet and trots onto the field. Durell, however, watches from the sidelines. Though he was expected to make all-state this year, that might not happen. During Central's preseason game a week earlier, he had misjudged a pass. The ball slipped through his hands and hit him in the face. Afterward, he could barely see out of his right eye. He sat on the trainer's bench and watched as Devonta ran for 130 yards and two touchdowns.
With Durell still sidelined, Central quarterback Rakeem Cato sputters at the start, nailing two of three short passes but missing the first down. Devonta comes back off the field without touching the ball. The Rockets punt, and two plays later, Camden's quarterback botches a handoff and the ball spills to the turf. Central recovers on the Wildcats' 30-yard line. Devonta jumps to his feet and snaps his gear into place: game on.
Durell begins pacing up and down the sideline, itching for a chance to play. He watches as Devonta gets his first taste, a handoff to the right. Immediately, six-foot-four, 240-pound Camden linebacker Brian Attaway slips his man and veers into the stocky running back's path like a runaway freight train. Devonta is stopped for no gain. The running back gets up slowly but stays on the field. He wasn't expecting such a beating. On second down, Cato drops back, pump-fakes, and guns the ball to a receiver who niftily dodges his man before high-stepping into the end zone. The Rockets have the lead.
Devonta flops down on an aluminum bench next to Durell. But the two friends can barely high-five before Camden returns the kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown. The stadium comes back to life, a sea of navy and light blue. "It's gonna be a long night," Devonta says as he runs back onto the field, yet again leaving behind his friend.
By the second quarter, it's clear this game is about offense. Two heavyweight teams trade attack after attack. The Wildcats use their size to stop the run, which means halting Devonta. On second and ten, with the game knotted at 21 and three minutes left in the half, Devonta finally breaks a tackle and powers his way nine yards to Central's 30-yard line, emerging from a pile of players with a growl.
The next play, however, he's hauled down just short of the first down. Central is forced to punt, and Camden takes advantage, scoring with 46 seconds left to take the lead, 29-21. Durell covers his head with a towel. "I knew that we were going to come back, but Camden was right there with us."
With 24 seconds left before the teams head to the locker room, Cato fakes a handoff and then dumps the ball over the defensive line to Devonta, who sprints 36 yards to Camden's 25-yard line — his first big play of the night. After a pass interference penalty, the Rockets have a chance to tie the game with eight seconds left. But the clock starts running before Cato gets the hike, and it keeps running after his pass sails out of bounds. Central players turn to the officials for an explanation, but they're already leaving the field.
"What's going on?" Lockette demands. "There were two seconds left!" But the officials ignore him.
Down by eight points, the Rockets retreat to a small, whitewashed locker room. As buxom Georgia peaches wave blue-and-white flags on the field, Lockette unloads. "Ain't nothing going to come easy. We knew that," he says.
Devonta is angry but upbeat, walking around the room, telling fellow seniors it's their time to step up.
Durell sits in silence. "I was just praying for a chance to get on the field," he says.
After ten minutes, they slowly trickle out of the locker room. Cato comes first, then Devonta, shaking his head. Finally, Durell emerges, head down. He knows he has to play if he is to get an offer from a top college football program. With every minute that expires, so do his chances to join his friend at Florida State in the fall.
Durell starts the second half the same way as the first: on the bench. But Devonta comes out inspired. On second down, he busts through a pair of 300-pound Camden linemen and runs for 28 yards. A thousand Central fans burst to life in the stands, among them a dozen of Devonta's aunts, uncles, and cousins from Baxley, Georgia. This is the first game they've seen him play, and he can feel their eyes following him on the field.
On the next play, Devonta grabs the ball and cuts left and then right. But a Camden player catches his legs. Then another comes from behind and slaps the ball out of his hands and onto the turf. The Wildcats recover. Devonta winces in anger as he jogs off the field. Camden kicks a field goal to go up 32-21.
"I was trying to do something extra, to make people miss, and they stripped the ball," Devonta says later. "I wasn't there when the team needed me the most."
When Central gets the ball back, his troubles continue. At the beginning of the fourth quarter, Devonta spins 360 degrees and picks up 12 yards on one play but then loses eight on the next.
Amid the desperation, Durell talks his way onto the kickoff coverage team. "Special teams had given up two touchdowns already," he explains. "Coach had nothing to lose putting me in, and I was going crazy sitting on the bench." But his first two trips onto the field are unremarkable: He's blocked from making a tackle the first time. The second kick flies into the end zone for a touchback.
Soon, though, Central ties the game 35-35 with ten minutes left in the fourth quarter. But the Rockets can't stop Camden's running backs. Four minutes later, the Wildcats' Boudreaux once again busts into the end zone. "We're used to putting up points on other teams," Devonta says. "But every time we scored, they came right back."
After the touchdown, Durell lines up to receive the kickoff. But the ball sails over his head, landing instead in the hands of a freshman running back. Durell lays down a perfect block, and the freshman punches through the crowd, across midfield, and past the Wildcats' hapless kicker to tie the game for the final time.
Trotting off, Durell finally breaks into a smile. He may not be catching touchdowns, but he's back to helping his team win. There's 5:27 left, though, and Durell's grin soon disappears under a towel. Devonta paces. Sure enough, Camden's two running backs take turns eviscerating Central's defense. The Wildcats reach the 11-yard line, and they let the clock reach 2.6 seconds before calling time-out.
Camden's kicker walks onto the field. Durell takes his spot across the line of scrimmage. In his mind, he can already feel the ball on his fingertips. One last shot at redeeming himself. One last shot to impress the scouts. One last shot to save Central's perfect season and national championship.
Camden snaps the ball. Durell steps on his teammate's back and leaps. But the kick is perfect, and Durell is only so tall. The ball soars through the uprights without ever coming close to his outstretched hands.
In Liberty City, there are few second chances. The gunshots and early funerals are final. But in football, the scoreboard resets after each game. Seven days after losing to Camden, Miami Central travels to DeSoto, Texas, to face Dallas Madison, a perennial playoff contender in the nation's fiercest football state. In the clean afternoon heat, they roll to victory, 48-6. Devonta runs for 130 yards and two touchdowns, and Durell catches four passes for 51 yards and a score of his own. Then they nail Miami Beach 41-6 and later crush Miami Springs 70-0, with Durell returning a punt 85 yards to the end zone. Their perfect season and national title hopes may be gone, but the Rockets are far from done.
View our Miami Central "Ghetto to Gridiron" slide show.