Saturday, November 18, 2017
Colleges

FSU's Freeman displays toughness of top back

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On a team of broadswords, no one notices the dagger.

He comes in quietly, surrounded by stars. Everyone pays attention to Jameis Winston, the Heisman Trophy winner. Everyone notices the razzle of Kelvin Benjamin and the dazzle of Kenny Shaw at receiver.

Devonta Freeman?

It seems like no one pays enough attention until once again he is in the end zone.

On a team of shining stars, who notices the rocket?

Freeman has become one of Florida State's finest players, and still, it seems no one quite appreciates the tailback enough. He is not the biggest weapon FSU has, and he is not the fastest. There are players with bigger personalities, with brighter smiles.

But every time Freeman touches the ball — every time — he attacks the defense. Stop me, he seems to say. I dare you.

There is a toughness to Freeman. The more football a guy plays with gunfire in the distance, the more he develops it. The more he sees his friends go to jail, and the more bodies he looks upon, the tougher he gets. In the Pork 'n Beans Projects in Miami's Liberty City, a guy grows up hard or he steps out of the way.

There was the time, for instance, when Freeman was 14 and playing football. For some reason, a guy started shooting. Instead of staying where he was, Freeman decided to break for his house. He still remembers the bullets skipping off the walls as he ran.

Tough place.

Tough kid.

"You could be in the wrong place at the wrong time, any time," Freeman says softly. "You never knew who was beefing with who, who had just had an argument. You could be walking, and suddenly you would hear gunshots. It happened to me so many times.

"I'm always telling the Lord how thankful I am. I came from nothing. At the end of the day, that's my motivation."

Freeman pauses, and he smiles. It is a small smile, but it tells the story of a kid who made it out. For Freeman, that might have been the best run of them all.

These days, life is good. Freeman is the starting tailback on the undefeated Seminoles, a guy who has made it to the end zone a staggering 29 times in his three seasons.

This year Freeman has rushed for 943 on only 162 carries. That's significant because it has been 17 seasons since Warrick Dunn rushed for more than 1,000 yards for the Seminoles. With 57 yards against Auburn, Freeman could be their next 1,000-yard rusher.

"It means a lot," he said. "If I don't get it and we win the national title, that's fine. But yeah, it means something. When I talk to Warrick, he's always saying to me: 'When are you going to get that 1,000?' "

Of course, Freeman would be there already if his team would give him the ball a little more often. But Freeman had more than 20 carries only twice all season. He carried it only four times against Syracuse, only six times against Wake Forest.

"It's good that I'm overlooked," Freeman said. "I like not being the big target. We have so many weapons, we can do anything at any moment."

That said, Freeman knows his role.

"I wasn't the best guy in my city," he said. "I was one of the hardest workers. I feel like I can do it all. I'm unselfish. Great heart. Physical. Tough. I bring consistency."

Oh, yeah. And touchdowns.

Freeman is one of those kids-from-a-hard-neighborhood stories that gives hope to the rest of us. He grew up looking for odd jobs — in the car wash, picking up trash on neighbors' lawns, mowing lawns — to have a little money to give to his mother. There are easier ways to make money — some of them illegal — but Freeman steered away from them.

"I didn't want to go to jail," he said. "Some people I was close to I lost to jail. I saw the time they got and how no one was there for them. I didn't want to go that route.

"I saw my momma struggling, and I saw her smile. But she was struggling a little more than she was smiling, so I tried to help. I couldn't imagine telling her that I had gotten into trouble."

And so he worked. When he was 14, he even got a job with a funeral home.

"I would bring in extra flowers," he said. "I would escort people to their seats, or be a pallbearer, or help them out of their limos.

"I kind of experienced death a lot. I didn't touch the bodies. I mean, if I wanted to touch a body, I did, but I didn't work on them much. I've seen them, though. I've seen a skull peeled open from the back of your neck over your face. I've seen the insides cut up. I've seen how they embalm a body."

Again, he was 14. What does it do to a 14-year-old who sees those sorts of things close up?

"It makes you stronger," Freeman said. "That's what it did for me.

"There are a lot of people less fortunate than I was. God puts you there for a reason. He puts his toughest soldiers there because they can survive."

Freeman thinks about the NFL. He thinks of making enough money to go back to Liberty City and help stop the violence. He thinks of making it a little easier on the next kid growing up in the Pork 'n Beans Projects.

For now, there is another game to play.

Tough game.

Tough back.

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