Devonta Freeman missed two games with a concussion and returned like nothing had happened. No pain, all gain. He hasn’t avoided collisions. He has, to the contrary, seemingly sought out bodies to plough into and step over. It’s a style borne out of the “throwback” sandlot football games of his youth in the Miami projects, a game of survival that reflected his surroundings.
“It was every man for himself,” Freeman said. “You throw the ball back to the group, the pile and whoever gets it, everybody else tries to tackle you.”
So Freeman dodged them. Or he ran through them. He played offense the way others played defense, a strong safety’s mindset tucked into a running back’s head.
“I always wanted to play defense,” he said. “I love contact.”
“If I played defense now, I’d get fined way too much.”
The Falcons, nearing a playoff berth at 9-5, enter the final two weeks of the regular season, still clinging to a chance to win the NFC South Division again. To do that, they will need to upset New Orleans (10-4) in the Superdome Sunday, then finish off with a victory over Carolina.
Those accomplishments require continued ferocity and greatness from Freeman. He has become the heartbeat of this offense. In consecutive wins over New Orleans and Tampa Bay, he had 46 carries for 217 yards, two touchdowns, five receptions and left a trail of bruised bodies behind him. In his three games back, he has averaged 5.02 yards per carry.
After Freeman ran over Tampa Bay safety Chris Conte on Monday Night Football, analyst and former coach Jon Gruden said, “If you’re a young running back, get some tape of Devonta Freeman.”
When Freeman sees a safety or a linebacker closing in on him, coach Dan Quinn said, “He sizes him up.” Should he juke him? Should he pound him, lowering his shoulder and his head and driving into him with the force of a raging bull? Seemingly more often than not, he chooses the latter.
“Because he’s short and he has power downstairs, he can deliver a punch,” Quinn said.
Freeman’s sports analogy: “It’s like when LeBron James slam dunks over somebody and the whole crowd goes crazy, it’s that monster (coming out). When I run somebody over it feels like that. When I line up, there ain’t no friends.”
He runs with no fear. He runs with passion. He runs with that unique blend of joy and violence.
It makes perfect sense.
Freeman knows he is here for a reason. Not in football, in life. So many friends didn’t make it out of the “Pork and Beans” projects in the open sore neighborhood of Liberty City, which grew out of old “Jim Crow” laws that barred African Americans from living in many areas of Miami.
When asked where his passion and aggression comes from, he smiled and said, “It would take all day for me to tell you.”
He continued, “Growing up. Seeing things in the neighborhood I was in. Watching my momma. Watching my grandma and my auntie, may they rest in peace. I feel like my childhood prepared me for everything that’s coming my way now. At the time, I couldn’t see why I was going through this. I couldn’t see why there wasn’t food all the time. I couldn’t see why we didn’t have some of the best Christmases. When I had to walk four miles to school. When my grandma had to walk through the projects with a big purse and no type of protection, just to go to work, back and forth.”
Violence surrounded him every day, a way of life most fans who watch him on NFL Sundays can’t relate to or even comprehend.
“Just being in shootouts. Being in the middle of the ‘O,’ as we used to call it. It was like a big ‘O’ in the middle of the projects, where we played football. There was a dice game over here. There were guys selling drugs over there. A shootout just started over there. And we were playing football. You start thinking: To get out of this, what are you going to do? I had to have tunnel vision. I had to have discipline.”
It was almost 10 years ago to the day when his life could have ended.
He was 15 years old. He was in Overtown, long infamous for violence and riots, including one during Super Bowl week in 1989.
But on this particiular day, one or two days before Christmas, Freeman can’t be certain, he was at a neighborhood get together in the ‘O.’
“I had on a fresh pair of shoes, a fresh outfit, a red hat,” he said. “We were all just hanging out. A lot of high school kids. A couple of adults. Guys and girls. Just chillin’, talking to our friends. Then we heard something. I don’t know if it was a 22-millimeter gun, or a .380 or a firework. The sound was like a little pop. Then there was another pop. Then pop-pop-pop and…” Freeman makes a sounds almost like a machine gun.
“All types of guns are going off. It was cross-action. There’s a guy shooting from there and a guy shooting from here. Everybody starts running. I’m running to get across the street. And as I’m running, I just see people dropping.”
“Getting hit. There was a football player I knew. He played for Booker T. Washington. He passed. I went to his funeral. I actually worked his service. There were girls who got shot. That could’ve been me. I heard bullets flying past me. I wouldn’t want anyone to have to go through that.”
Does Freeman ever wonder how he survived, why he’s here?
“I don’t want to say God has his picks or his chosen ones, because I feel like we’re all equal,” he said. “But I feel like He definitely had angels around me to protect me in that environment and that situation. Everything He prepared me for is now how my life has turned out.
“I don’t feel like there’s anger in me. It’s a passion. It’s not like I’m bitter about something. I’m thankful. I’m scratch-free.”
Last season ended badly with a Super Bowl loss. But Freeman was rewarded with a five-year, $41.25 million contract extension, with slightly more than $22 million guaranteed. Nobody in his circle is going hungry any more.
Freeman has been dinged a few times. But he’s not changing.
“I feel like I’d be cheating myself if I tried to change my running style,” he said. “In this business, anybody can have a concussion, anybody can get injured. So you just have to go out and leave no doubt.”