TALLAHASSEE -- It’s 6 p.m. and from the halls of the Moore Athletic Center you can hear the echoes of a football team reverberating off the tiles.
Young men recently off the Florida State practice field are migrating slowly to the dining hall, chattering about classes and a new semester, college friends, assignments, girls and anything else a 20-year-old might concern himself with.
Devonta Freeman is a 20-year-old sophomore, but his concerns are far different from most others’.
“With some of my financial-aid money, I just bought for my deceased auntie — her two boys — a whole bunch of school clothes. I just spent like $300 … and I’m not done,” Freeman says as his teammates chatter away in the adjacent dining hall.
Freeman pauses to gather his thoughts.
“It’s not a thing that I’m doing because I want a blessing or something like that. It’s just, I’m doing it because I know what it’s like to go to school without anything new. I don’t want them to go through that. They’re too young to understand. I was too young to understand.”
Freeman now understands plenty. He has seen death in his family, been close to death in his community, faced poverty, lived for several years in a project and been told he needed to give up his childhood.
But he also has had an unlikely guardian watching over him.
“I was playing baseball for this little park called Moore Park,” Freeman said, recounting his first meeting with Luther Campbell. “I think that my first year playing I was about 9 years old, and we came to Liberty City and I hit a home run. Ever since that day he wanted me to come play for him.”
Campbell is famous — and infamous — for many things, among them his association with the University of Miami football programs in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Over the years, he has denied allegations that he bestowed gifts on UM players during that era of Hurricanes football. Campbell, who once led the controversial rap-music group 2 Live Crew, ran for Miami-Dade County mayor last year and finished fourth among 11 candidates.
But to some, none of that matters.
“He used to take us on trips as the whole team, we used to go to fun parks in Orlando because we always went to Pop Warner little league. I was the starting [quarterback]. We won two national championships,” Freeman recalled. “We all used to go over. He’d invite the whole team to his house. We used to mess up his house. We were bad playing around.”
In Campbell, or Coach Luke as he’s known to his players, Freeman found a constant presence to push him in the right direction.
“He was always in my corner, even right now it’s the same way, and I know if I was ever to like make it to the NFL or whatever he won’t ever ask me for anything — and there’s other people out there that have helped me, too — but I’d do whatever for him,” Freeman said. “His child would be good if God forbid something were to happen to him, his family would be good. I’d be there for them.”
Coming from Freeman, who knows what it means to take care of a family, those words are not hollow.
After all the fun trips and the days at Coach Luke’s, Freeman always would be returning back to reality — back home.
“You know when you’re taking a kid home every day and you’re taking him to a neighborhood where he has to walk the red tape, the yellow tape, where people get murdered right at his doorstep and him being in a single-parent-household situation in the ‘Pork & Beans’ projects,” Campbell said, “I had to tell him one of the hardest things I ever had to say to him as a coach, mentor, dad or person.”
Freeman was living in a project in Liberty City, his mother, younger brothers and sisters sharing a small space along with his aunt and her children.
“There used to always be killing and shooting,” Freeman said solemnly. “But Luther always used to tell me, ‘You’re going to it make it out of these projects, so just keep grinding and keep doing what you’re doing.’ ”
Finally, there came a day when Campbell had to spell out a harsh, unfortunate reality.
On that day, as Campbell dropped off Freeman, who was 12 at the time, the two shared a conversation that thrust Freeman into manhood.
‘Man of the house’
“He had to be the man of the house because of the situation that they’re in,” Campbell said. “You know, he looked up as a little kid and started crying, but I told him, ‘Look, you’re going to have to start being the man of the house because you’ve got to protect your brothers and sisters, and unfortunately you’re not going to be able to have a child’s life like other kids.’”
‘You’re going to have to carry yourself in a way that your little brothers and sisters look at you so that they can become successful people and get out of the situation that they’re in, too.’”
Freeman took that talk to heart and became self-reliant — financially and in a greater sense. As a 13-year-old, he was working three jobs: at a car wash, at a funeral home and cutting grass on weekends.
He even told his mother to stop worrying about taking care of him, to focus on her younger children because he would be OK.
And all the while, Campbell and Freeman continued their relationship.
“He’s actually been like a real uncle or a father figure in my life because we’ve just been through a lot together,” Freeman said of Campbell. “I learned so much stuff. Just a lot of life lessons. School first — he always taught me school first, that I need to make good grades in order to succeed. … He used to have long talks with me about life lessons.”
Perhaps the most significant thing Freeman got from those talks with Campbell was to not take anything for granted, and he isn’t — not in college and not in life.
Freeman led the Seminoles in rushing last season as a true freshman. He averaged nearly 5 yards a carry and scored eight touchdowns as one of the lone bright spots in last season’s beleaguered rushing attack.
The maturity to handle such a role as a freshman came more easily than it does for most because, to Freeman, that’s not pressure.
“From that day when he was 12, when we had the conversation, he’s been a man the whole time,” Campbell said. “Coaches, whether it’s [FSU coach Jimbo Fisher] or [FSU running backs/special-teams coach] Eddie Gran, they say ‘man this kid is so mature.’ And I tell them, look, he’s been the head of the household from the age of 13.
“And a lot of people don’t know that, but that’s why he has his disposition.”
Never was that more apparent than in the days following the shooting death of Freeman’s cousin, Anthony Darling. The two were so close that they referred to each other as brothers. Just hours after FSU beat Wake Forest on Sept. 12, Freeman got the phone call from his sister back home that Darling, 20, had been shot and killed when an adversary Darling had gotten the best of in a fight earlier that night had returned with a gun.
During practices the week after Darling’s death, Freeman often could be found crying.
But following what he had learned about family, Freeman returned home to spend some time and help the healing process. Then he came back to Tallahassee more at peace.
There was a moment in Freeman’s childhood that taught him a different type of lesson.
“There was one time in the park when he broke his leg,” Campbell said. “When he was the starter in the park before he broke his leg, he was getting rides all over, people all wanted to take him out to eat, have Devonta come over to their house.
“When he broke his leg and it looked like he wasn’t going to be the star of the park that year, he couldn’t get a ride home.”
Freeman was 14 when injured himself on a diving board at the local pool after he sneaked in.
“[Luther] was disappointed because I was doing something I wasn’t supposed to be doing,” he said.
That experience also bore considerable weight in Freeman’s decision to choose Florida State over Miami.
Loyalty Is Key
After getting lukewarm responses from coaches during camps at Miami, Florida and Georgia, according to Freeman, he drew an immediate offer from Florida State during a summer camp after his junior year. Fisher told Freeman that regardless of how his senior season played out, the Seminoles wanted him.
Freeman wowed scouts during a historic senior season at Miami Central High School that culminated with a 500-plus yard performance in the state championship game. He had his pick of the college football world. He signed with FSU.
“Really, he’s the one that helped me choose the Seminoles,” Freeman said of Campbell. “He thinks Florida State is a better program, he knew Coach Jimbo, he knew Coach Gran, those are guys that he trusts a lot so he preferred me to come here instead of University of Miami. He wanted me to go to Miami deep down, but he wanted me to do what was best for me. He saw the big picture.”
Said Campbell: “He stayed true to the team that was there for him when nobody else was.”
That attitude is still with him Freeman.
Freeman understands family and loyalty.
He isn’t a typical college kid. He blends in well in the dining hall and in meeting rooms. He looks the part on campus. But unlike many of his peers, he isn’t focused on friends or parties.
“I’m trying to get my family out of their situation because my mama’s still struggling right now,” he said. “So I’m just trying to get her out of that.”