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Devonta Freeman sets sights on NFL, lifting others out of Miami’s projects

After growing up around gangs, drugs and violence, running back aims to inspire others

MIAMI — By the time he was 13, Devonta Freeman had grown accustomed to using embalming fluid on the bodies of friends and peers. Growing up in the Liberty City neighborhood of Miami, Freeman, when he wasn’t playing football, took on three jobs — including one at a local funeral home. For $50 a service, Freeman, the oldest of seven brothers and sisters, would prepare the bodies of guys he’d seen around Liberty City’s infamous Pork ‘N’ Beans housing projects — which got their name from the old colors of the buildings — many of whom were victims of gang-related cocaine deals or robberies.

“It’s easy to get influenced in Miami, especially in the neighborhood where we grew up,” Freeman said. “You had guys that were gangsters, you had guys who wanted to rob us, you had guys who wanted to shoot, and you had kids that just wanted to get in trouble.”

For the seven years he lived with his mother and siblings in Pork ‘N’ Beans, the unofficial war zone of Miami, Freeman’s nights were usually restless, with the sounds of nearby gunshots sometimes more than once a week. Durell Eskridge — his best friend, high school teammate and funeral home co-worker — slept on Freeman’s couch after Eskridge’s mother, Margaret, lost her job at the airport and had to move to Fort Lauderdale. Between the two, they witnessed about 20 family members and friends die as a result of the gang violence within the avenues of Pork ‘N’ Beans. They’d stay up late at night, across from each other, and have the same conversation: How do we get out of here?

“We said, ‘Man, this is not us. Let’s not go down this road,’” Freeman recalled. “We had a lot of conversations like that at a young age. We had nothing else to do.”

Devonta Freeman works out for scouts at the NFL Combine in February.
Devonta Freeman works out for scouts at the NFL Combine in February.
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Six years after leaving Pork ‘N’ Beans, Freeman made good on those late-night conversations. Last season, he got a chance to start as a junior and became the first Florida State running back to run for 1,000 yards in a season since Warrick Dunn did it in 1996, breaking the longest drought for a program at the Football Bowl Subdivision level. As part of a pass-happy offense headlined by Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston, Freeman reached the milestone despite splitting time with two other running backs and was arguably one of the more underappreciated cogs on a team that went undefeated en route to a national championship.

Now, Freeman, a bowling ball of lean mass and flowing dreadlocks at 5 feet 9 and 203 pounds — the self-described "most complete bacK" in this year’s NFL Draft — is projected to go in the second or third round later Friday. 

But as Freeman is set to begin the next stage of his football career, it’s a reminder that for youth to come out unscathed from Pork ‘N’ Beans, an area in the middle of an ongoing turf war involving kids as young as 15 and 16, is as steep a climb as ever.

“There’s only three routes to go,” Eskridge said. “You’re going to play sports, you’re going to be dead, or you’re going to jail.”

Meeting Uncle Luke

It was the home run that changed Freeman’s life. When he was 9, he was playing youth baseball in Liberty City when he caught the attention of “Uncle Luke,” otherwise known as Luther Campbell. Freeman’s athleticism was exceptional for his age, but it was the young boy’s character that captivated Campbell.

“He smiled and was really respectful for a kid his age,” Campbell said. “Most kids out of the ’hood are angry. They have an attitude, and you’re trying to break that out of them. Devonta didn’t have anything. It was like life was beautiful for him.”

Campbell, the former leader of the rap group 2 Live Crew, is a big brother to Miami’s inner-city youth. He’s also had his finger on the pulse of the city’s booming high school and college athletics scene for decades. Campbell’s past association with the University of Miami’s football team in the late 1980s and early ’90s, which accused Uncle Luke of rewarding players in cash for big plays, has been well documented. But his contributions to inner-city youth in South Florida grab fewer headlines.

If you go to jail, your brothers will follow you, and nine times out of 10 they will be killed.

Luther Campbell

Freeman’s mentor and former leader of 2 Live Crew

After seeing Freeman on the baseball field, Campbell, founder of Liberty City Optimists — a youth sports program for inner-city athletes — persuaded the Pork ‘N’ Beans prodigy to join up with his team for youth football. From there, Campbell took Freeman under his wing, and the two were inseparable. Freeman, who grew up while his father was in prison, was attached to Uncle Luke’s hip.

“He’s like a second father figure in my life,” Freeman said of Campbell. “He didn’t have to help me, but he did.”

Even with the highs of their relationship on the field, Campbell, a product of Liberty City, understood what he had to say to Freeman to motivate him. Campbell would take Freeman and Eskridge to the corner store, where men often approached him to beg for money. Driving him back to Pork ‘N’ Beans, Campbell laid it out to Freeman, then 12: You have to be the man of the house.

“‘Wherever you go, your brothers will follow,’” Campbell recalled telling Freeman. “‘If you go to jail, your brothers will follow you, and nine times out of 10 they will be killed.’”

‘The blind leading the blind’

Driving through the Liberty City projects where they once grew up, Eskridge pointed out the faded green building that he and Freeman once called home. Outside is the wide field in the middle of the building complex where they’d play pickup football for hours. Their time playing together brought temporary relief. They’d often walk by bodies on the street, people in the process of dying or already dead.

“It’s an every-person-for-yourself kind of neighborhood,” Eskridge said. “Nobody really cares about you. You’re pretty much on your own out here. We saw people killed in front of us. We saw everything.”

As children walked to and from Lenora Braynon Smith Elementary School, Eskridge pointed out one specific corner of the local school. On that corner, he said, a friend of his was killed over a beef. During the drive, he pointed out a couple of other spots where friends he and Freeman would see around the projects were victims of gang violence. Not much has changed since he and Freeman grew up here, Eskridge said, explaining the turf war between the teens on 12th and 13th avenues.  

“It’s a constant cycle,” said Eskridge, a senior safety who is rising at Syracuse. “Right now, it’s like the blind leading the blind. Everyone is falling into the same ditch.”

A look at the Pork 'N' Beans public housing project.
A look at the Pork 'N' Beans public housing project.
Timothy Bella

Built in 1937 as part of the New Deal and acting as the first public housing project for African-Americans in the South, Pork ‘N’ Beans was originally meant to help lessen the rate of spread of diseases like tuberculosis among the black population. The gang violence that dominated the project, officially known as Liberty Square, throughout the 1960s remains commonplace today.

Through the rows of 753 now-pastel-colored units are dumpsters overflowing with trash, clothes on clothespins blowing in the wind and young men in white tank tops shooting glares from their respective stoops.

Even with Miami’s murder rate dropping in 2013, a new wave of violence has raised concern among community leaders, and much of that concern stems from Freeman’s former home. In March, residents urged the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to create neighborhood “safe” zones to block off streets, saying it would keep crime out of Pork ‘N’ Beans. Eric Thompson, president of the Liberty Square resident council, told the Miami Herald in March that requests made to HUD to improve safety features in the neighborhood have gone unanswered for 10 years.

“Politics aside, everyone agrees we have a quality-of-life issue here,” Thompson said at a March press conference. “So, what are we going to do about it?”

Tunnel vision

After that talk with Campbell nearly a decade ago, Freeman took off toward manhood. Aside from working at the funeral home, he did shifts at a local car wash and was a handyman for Campbell and his neighbors, painting or mowing lawns.

“He wanted to focus on being the man of the house,” said Telly Lockette, Freeman’s coach at Miami Central High School and now the running backs coach at the University of South Florida. “If it meant working on the weekends, he did that.”

Freeman said he didn’t want to ask his mother for any money. He said he saw her cry when she couldn’t afford new shoes he had asked for, and he said he didn’t want to see that again.

“Some nights we had to sacrifice and not eat in order to let our younger family members eat,” Freeman said. “That’s just what we did.”

With everything he was going through off the field, he made football look easy. He capped his senior year at Miami Central, one of the most dominant programs in the state, with more than 300 yards in the state championship game in 2010 (PDF), which his team won. Even the dealers and gang members came to laud Freeman for his play, a true sign of respect. By the end of the year, Freeman, once an unheralded recruit, became a hot commodity among college teams before landing at Florida State. His mother was crying again, but this time weeping with joy. The family followed the man of the house to Tallahassee and moved out of Pork ‘N’ Beans.

Even after a much-celebrated season in Florida State, Freeman doesn’t know where he’ll land in the NFL Draft. He does, however, recognize he has to play a role in helping motivate the kids who get caught in the “constant cycle.” He’s already done that with his family, using a portion of his financial aid package last year to provide new clothes for two cousins after his aunt died.

Freeman still regularly drives by Pork ‘N’ Beans. He prefers to reminisce about the good times instead of recalling the gunshots and working with embalming fluid on friends and peers who are no longer around. Still, those memories — the bodies, the cocaine and the funerals — push him to helping others get out as he did.

“We need to show the kids we’re from the same area, and that anything is possible if you have tunnel vision,” Freeman said. “A man with a vision is a dangerous thing.”

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