Tears formed in the eyes of Devonta Freeman.
He couldn’t help himself. A simple bus ride gave him pause for reflection and a chance for the Falcons rookie running back to realize just how far he has come.
The Falcons were on their way to Archer High School for their annual Friday Night Lights event. It was nothing more than a team scrimmage. Freeman has yet to play in an exhibition or regular-season game. However, the thought of playing in front of a crowd as a professional was humbling.
“Tell you no lie, I haven’t shared this with nobody, but (Friday) I really shed tears because I was riding on that bus going to that game and I was looking back to when I was 11 years old and I stayed in the (Miami) Pork & Beans projects, a rough neighborhood, and tears just dropped,’ Freeman said. “I was like ‘Lord, you really blessed me with this opportunity. I’m here.’ I am going to stay here and seize every moment.
“When I looked back where I came from, I just think of all the struggles that we had. The struggles my mom and grandmother had, when I lost my auntie. When I had to sacrifice a lot of things at a young age and I didn’t know what was going on. I just knew I had to sacrifice and work to help feed my momma. I did it. I was just, ‘Thank you Lord for everything.’”
Freeman, one of six children, worked several jobs as a teenager to help the family income as he grew up in Miami’s violent Liberty Square public-housing project. He is a world away now, competing for a spot on the Falcons to make his dream come true.
His moment is here now. With Steven Jackson out for training camp with a hamstring injury, the Falcons are turning to the fourth-round draft pick out of Florida State for more practice reps and an increasing role.
Freeman (5 feet 8, 206 pounds) won a national championship at Florida State. He played three years with the Seminoles and last season rushed for 1,016 yards and 14 touchdowns on 173 carries. He also caught a touchdown pass. Freeman, along with running backs Jacquizz Rogers and Antone Smith, are part on a Falcons’ insurance policy for Jackson. The three-time Pro Bowl running back suffered a hamstring injury in the second game of the season last year. He missed four games and finished with just 543 yards on 157 carries with six touchdowns.
“I feel like I’m blessed to be out here,” Freeman said. “It’s up to me. I feel like nobody can stop me but me. When the opportunity is there you have to seize the moment every time. I feel like I was eventually going to get to this point where the coaches threw me in the fire. It so happens to me in camp where I can get reps. Come live game action, I can get good at it.”
Falcons coach Mike Smith said Freeman is on the “fast track” and expects the rookie to contribute this season.
Freeman is adapting to his place in the NFL. There is a new offense to learn. He must read and pick up blitzes. There are catches to be made out of the backfield. Freeman says he has worked on it all, determined to get better every day, determined to stay.
He describes himself as a multi-faceted back. He can run straight-ahead. He can wiggle. He can receive and go. Freeman said he is willing and able to do whatever is asked.
“This is a system that fits me,” Freeman said. “A great running back, a running back who is constantly working on his craft, can fit any system no matter who you are. If you are a downhill back and you come into a spread offense, maybe you have to lose some and work on catching balls out of the backfield to fit that offense.
“They know what they are doing. They know I fit this offense and I was happy when they picked me. I already feel like this is home. I love it here.”
It’s all reason for Freeman to reflect on his past, emotional as it can get, but keep a focused eye on the future.
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Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com