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A Look Back: Uncle Luke and Devonta

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An excerpt of this story appeared in the Miami Herald on November 2, 2012, here it is -- a year later-- in its entirety...

It’s 6 PM and from the halls of the Moore Athletic Center you can hear the echoes of a football team reverberating off the tiles.

Young men in their late teens to early 20’s, all recently off the Florida State practice field, fresh from the showers are migrating slowly to the meal hall, chattering amongst themselves about classes and a new semester, college friends, assignments, girls and anything else a college kid might concern himself with.

Devonta Freeman is 20 years old, a sophomore, but his concerns make most others' -- regardless of age -- seem trivial.

“I just bought 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 dollars on their school clothes and I’m not done,” says Freeman as his teammates chatter 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.”

Like an Uncle

Saying Devonta Freeman has faced more than his share of adversity in his young life wouldn’t do it justice. He’s seen deaths in his family, been close to death in his community, he’s faced poverty, lived for several years in a project and been asked to give up something no child should ever be asked to give up.

But he’s also had an unlikely guardian watching over him along the way.

“I was playing baseball for this little park called Moore Park,” said Freeman, recounting his first meeting with Luther Campbell. “I think that my first year playing I was about nine 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.”

Luther Campbell is famous for many things. A simple internet search yields results about supreme court battles, raunchy hip-hop lyrics and even a football scandal at the University of Miami. What’s harder to find is the work the former 2 Live Crew star is doing with troubled young men in south Florida via athletic programs.

Young men like Devonta Freeman and the University of Miami's Duke Johnson.

“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 the Pop Warner little league [championships]. I was the starting QB, we won two national championships,” recalled Freeman. “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 kids, Freeman found a constant presence to push him in the right direction. He found an escape from his everyday life filled with football trips and pool parties. But most importantly he found someone to set him straight when he needed it most.

“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,” said Freeman.

“Like his child, 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.”

Spoken From Experience

Those are not hollow words. Devonta Freeman knows what it means to take care of a family because it’s something he stepped into at a far younger age than anyone should have to.

After the theme park trips and all the days at Uncle Luke’s, Freeman would inevitably have to settle back into his own reality.

“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’n’Beans projects, I had to tell him one of the hardest things I ever had to say to him as a coach, mentor, dad or person,” said Campbell.

“I had to give him the harsh reality talk.”

Freeman was living in a project in Liberty City, his younger brothers and sisters and mother were living in a small space along with his aunt and her children. Money was extremely tight.

“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 a day came when Campbell had to spell out a harsh, unfortunate reality.

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“I was the oldest at the time, I was 12, but I was the oldest,” Freeman remembered. “He helped me out the best way he could, when we were talking and stuff he just told me that I’ve got to be the man of the house. I’ve got to take over, I’ve got to do things that nobody else, no other man could for my family. I had to get out there and grind.”

There are guys well into their 30’s who still haven’t mastered adulthood but at just 12 years of age Freeman was being asked to become the man of the house.

On that fateful day as Campbell dropped Freeman off the two shared a conversation that would end Devonta’s childhood and thrust him, necessarily, into manhood.

“I [told] him he to be a man, be a man for his little brothers and sisters and his mom as well,” said Campbell. “He had to be the man of the house because of the situation that they’re in. 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 as an example so that they can become successful people and get out of the situation that they’re in too.”

Never Look Back

Devonta Freeman took that talk to heart.

“From that point forward, the kid said, ‘I’m going to do that’ and he always did from that period of time on,” remembered Campbell.

“When he was talking to me, I had to grow up,” admitted Freeman. “Like, ‘ok, I’ve got to sacrifice this to get that.’ Or like, start getting my own school clothes to help my little brothers and sisters, like everything I got, I got on my own, schools clothes, shoes, everything.”

He became completely self sufficient, capable of looking after himself financially -- and in a greater sense.

As a 13 year old Devonta was working three jobs. He worked at a car wash and at a funeral home and then on weekends he would make whatever money he could doing yard-work for neighbors.

“I was going around asking people ‘can I cut grass?’ just so I could help feed the family,” said Freeman. “There was just a lot of stuff I had to do.”

He even told his mother to focus on her younger children because he would be OK.

“I told her to stop, like, let me do it. Let me get it all on my own, I chose to go that route,” said Freeman. “I wanted to live that grown man life because I’d rather my mother focus on my younger brothers and sisters than me.”

All the while Campbell and Freeman continued their relationship, continued to have their ‘grown man’ talks where Campbell would help guide the teenager through some of life’s most challenging moments.

“He’s actually been like a real uncle or a father figure in my life because we’ve just been through a lot together,” said Freeman. “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 was straightforward with me -- he told me if I needed to get better at something -- I got chewed out by him sometimes. He’d get mad at me, he used to have long talks with me about life lessons and stuff. A lot of stuff like that.”

Focused, But Not Unscathed

One thing is for sure, his history of ordeal -- of forced self-sufficiency and hard work -- has given Freeman a maturity well beyond his years and an appreciation for where he is.

Devonta Freeman is not taking anything for granted, not in college and not in life.

“Most kids are jumping into college in the first year and they lose their mind. And then they ask me, ‘how did Devonta play so early,'” said Campbell.  "Because Devonta carries himself like a man."

Freeman lead the Seminoles in rushing as a true freshman. He averaged nearly five yards a carry and scored 8 touchdowns as one of the lone bright spots in the 2011 season’s beleaguered rushing attack.

That ability to contribute instantly, the maturity to handle the situation at such a young age came easier 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,” said Campbell. “Coaches whether it’s Jimbo or Eddie Gran they [used to] 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.”

Freeman isn’t the kind of guy who’s going to open up. He’s not aloof, he’s actually quite engaging, but there’s a wall there that separates everyone else from parts of the life he’s experienced and the family he holds close to his heart.

There was a seminal moment back in Freeman’s development that cemented his disposition and still lingers with him to this day. A moment that taught him a lesson that Luther Campbell’s words never could.

“There was one time in the park when he broke his leg,” said Campbell. “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 he hurt himself on the diving board at a local pool. He shouldn’t have been there in the first place.

“[Luther] was disappointed because I was doing something I wasn’t supposed to be doing,” said Freeman. “I broke my leg sneaking in the city community pool, off a diving board, I stuck and broke my ankle.”

Campbell told Freeman he had to make better decisions, that he could have ended up in jail.

And where Campbell’s words missed their mark the obvious karmic consequence of Freeman’s childish decision filled in the blanks.

“I was only 14 at the time, he was giving me a life lesson. A lot of that stuff carries over now, like everything I do I think before I do it," said Freeman. "That’s why I don’t have a lot of friends. I mean I’ve got friends but there’s nobody like my family.”

Loyalty Is Key

That experience also bore considerable weight in Freeman’s decision to choose Florida State over Miami.

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After getting lukewarm responses from coaches during camps at Miami, Florida and Georgia, Freeman drew an immediate offer from Florida State during a summer camp after his junior year. Head coach Jimbo Fisher told Freeman that regardless of how his senior season played out, the Seminoles wanted him.

“So when Florida State offered him, and then he had this great year of high school football the Florida’s start calling him, the Miami’s start calling him, the Georgia’s and everybody started calling him and he stayed true,” remembered Campbell.

Freeman wowed scouts during a historic senior season at Miami Central High School that climaxed with a 500+ yard performance in the state championship game. He had his pick of the college football world. He signed with the Seminoles.

“He stayed true to the team that was there for him when nobody else was,” said Campbell.

That attitude is still with him even today. Freeman 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 at the end of the day his concerns weigh a bit heavier than those of the average college student. He isn’t focused on friends or parties, he’s worried about life.

And for now that wall is still up. Those blinders are still on.

“‘It’s what’s up, how you doing?’ I’m going to respect you like I want to be respected but it’s nothing like ‘you’re my best friend,’ like I don’t got that, I’m not interested,” said Freeman.

“I’m just focused right now. I’m trying to get my family out of their situation because my mama’s still struggling right now so I’m just trying to get her out of that.”

 

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Comments

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BHEN

What a story. Very nice. Just imagine how many stories are out there like this that we aren't able to hear.

John

Devonta -- I'm glad you are a Nole... Thank you for your sincerity and being a great example of a football player, a team mate, student athlete, and finally a great son.

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