All his life, Devonta Freeman has been looking for a way out of the Pork 'n' Beans projects in Liberty City. When the former Miami Central High and Florida State University star running back was 13 years old, I coached him in Pop Warner games for the Liberty City Optimist Club. Back then, I had to lay out a harsh truth for him. As the oldest of seven brothers and sisters, it was up to him to protect and take care of his mother and his siblings. I told him: "If you decide to go down the wrong road, the chances of your brothers ending up in jail or dead will be greater."
Devonta, who may well be chosen early in the NFL draft May 8, more than lived up to the challenge.
As a teenager, he worked three jobs while going to school and playing football. During his sophomore year, Devonta and his Central teammate and best friend, Durell Eskridge, worked at Richardson Funeral Home on NW 17th Avenue at 45th Street. They carried flowers and guided grieving families for $50 a service. The boys saw firsthand the pain and anguish gun violence has wreaked upon Miami's inner-city neighborhoods. "Most of the dead are young, just like me," Devonta said in a 2010 New Times story about him and his teammates.
Though he stood only five-foot-eight, his talent and hard work earned him a full ride to FSU. But pain and anguish were always close. Shortly after the 2012 season began, one of Devonta's best friends, Anthony Darling, was shot dead over a petty argument.
Yet Devonta persevered. He helped Florida State capture the national championship last year and became the first Seminoles tailback since Warrick Dunn to rush for more than 1,000 yards.
He never forgot where he came from. Last year, Devonta used some of his financial aid to buy $300 worth of clothes for two cousins after his aunt died. Watching Devonta accomplish his dream of reaching the NFL while remaining humble is the main reason I volunteer as an assistant head football coach. He's living proof that being a good, kindhearted person is more important than being a great football player. And that's what I teach every young man I coach.
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