The Grit to Take on the World

Under new head coach Dan Quinn, the Falcons are finally living up to expectations. But their undefeated record going into Thursday night’s showdown against the Saints has as much to do with Devonta Freeman, a breakout star who is always studying every angle
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FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Entering tonight’s game at New Orleans, it’s amazing how much the Atlanta Falcons’ breakout star, second-year running back Devonta Freeman, mirrors his overachieving 5-0 team.

Consider the Falcons’ running back ranks second in the league with 405 rushing yards, despite playing sparingly in the first two weeks. Or that he has more touchdowns (eight) than Adrian Peterson and Jamaal Charles combined. Or, in the Falcons’ 25-19 overtime win against Washington Sunday, the 5-foot-8 and shade-over-200-pound back pinballed for 95 yards outside the tackles on his way to a career-best 153-yard rushing day.

Freeman’s explosion onto the NFL scene in the last three weeks—made possible when starter Tevin Coleman fractured a rib in Week 2—is all the more notable because of what a complete back he’s been in the Atlanta system. In the last three games, he’s gained 193, 149 and 197 rushing-receiving yards. And he rarely comes out of the game, unlike some backs who leave the field on third down. “He has so much fight in him” said coach Dan Quinn. “He can’t back off, anything.”

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But Freeman’s story doesn’t end there. The football part of his life is good enough. The off-field part might be better.

After afternoon home games, on Tuesday off-days, and occasionally at the team hotel, Freeman logs onto his laptop and posts 150-word discussion board commentary on the causes, effects and curse of stereotyping and social perception.

Freeman is currently enrolled in two online courses at Florida State: Social Psychology of Groups and Intro to World Cities. Upon taking his finals—sometime around Week 13—he will be six credits away from the degree he postponed when declaring early for the 2014 draft. “Most guys are daunted when see they still need 18 credits,” LaToya Williams, his Florida State academic advisor, said this week. “They put it off until after they’re done playing. Not Devonta. He said, ‘OK, let’s begin chipping away.’ ”

Freeman contacted Williams during his rookie NFL season, and has taken courses each semester since—including this summer. Freeman figured he managed the workload while he was a student-athlete. Why not now when he has even more time?

“Wait, so he’s currently taking classes?” Coleman said this week. “Like during the season?”

“I had no idea,” said guard James Stone.

“I knew,” said Quinn, “But only because somebody told me. It’s just so Devonta. He doesn’t want to call attention to himself, he just wants to compete. Throughout his life he has had to overcome so much, but never found excuses, just tackled everything with tremendous grit. Then all of the sudden you have a 23-year-old who is ready to take on the world.”

* * *

Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

Freeman, a 2014 fourth-round pick, backed-up veteran Steven Jackson last season. He inherited the No. 1 role with Jackson’s release in February, but with a hamstring injury in training camp, lost it to Coleman, a rookie.

When Coleman got hurt in Week 2, Freeman took over. But no one saw this breakout three weeks coming. Except for a guy who has seen this movie before.

In 2009, Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher visited Miami Central High School to scout Brandon Gainer, a hot running back prospect. Gainer wasn’t at practice, instead taking night classes to get in good academic standing. Fisher stayed anyway, and couldn’t take his eyes off the undersized junior blazing through drills. He was the most passionate player on the field.

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Freeman, at the time, was a zero-star recruit, not even listed on any scouting services.

“I walked up to the coach,” Fisher said this week, “and said, ‘That young tailback? He’s better than the one you’re starting.’ ”

Fisher offered Freeman a scholarship that summer— “everyone thought we were crazy,” Fisher said—and when Freeman broke out for 2,208 yards and 26 touchdowns as a senior, Auburn and Florida and Miami, his childhood dream college, came recruiting.

Freeman remained loyal, and just as intense. In Tallahassee, it was common for Freeman to frequent Fishers’ office after practice. Once, the running back was somber, incessantly apologizing for not picking up a block—in the first 10 minutes of practice, even though he played flawlessly for the next hour. “I am so, so, so sorry,” Freeman said. “That will never happen again.”

Fisher’s only response: “I know.” (“I mean, I felt bad anytime I got on a kid like that,” the coach said. “He just cared so much.”)

Williams, the academic advisor, initially thought Freeman would be a problem-student because it took her nearly two weeks to get in touch with him when she was first hired. They played phone tag, text-tag, and she figured Freeman might be a flake. Turns out, Freeman was in the training facility, or class—doing exactly what he was supposed to be doing, just didn’t always have his phone handy.

In Atlanta, Freeman stays equally busy. On Monday, he asked Quinn if he can do boxing drills, one of his favorite coordination exercises, after practice. He kept a reporter waiting until 6 p.m. on Tuesday—five hours after media availability—because besides the walk-through and position meeting, he also wanted to go in the cold tub, and the hot tub, and get a massage, and meet a coach one more time.

When he sat down for an interview, he first apologized, saying he needed to get all his football stuff done first, but was happy to stay as long the reporter needed. He has a gentle voice that matches his boyish face, and a disarming quality; he pulled up a chair two inches from the reporter, and leaned in to speak.

“I don’t want to be average,” he said. “I don’t want to play just to collect the check every week—actually, I don’t even know how often we get paid because I don’t pay attention to it. The point is, I love football, and I want to be the best at football, and if there’s anything I can do to get my body right and be better I’m going to do it.”

On the morning of the 2014 draft, Falcons assistant general manager Scott Pioli called Fisher. Atlanta already had ample research on Freeman, but wanted to put one more call in. Fisher told Pioli: “Trust me, you won’t regret having Devonta Freeman once he’s on your roster.”

* * *

As the oldest of seven children, Freeman helped his mother and grandmother as much as he could in Miami’s Liberty City neighborhood. Freeman got his first job at age 12. His longest-standing gig was at the Richardson Funeral Home, where he opened the limo doors for the grieving families and handed out flowers. He was paid $50 per funeral, sometimes working as many as four per day.

He played for the Optimist Club Pop Warner team, and was coached by Luther (Uncle Luke) Campbell, of the rap group 2 Live Crew. Campbell mentored Freeman, driving him home from practice, inviting the team over for pool parties and offering advice on how to stay out of trouble. Campbell’s wife, Kristin, now co-represents Freeman.

Though Freeman followed their guidance, his heart stayed home. Anytime he got a Pell Grant in college, he sent most of it to his mother and grandmother to help pay bills. At Florida State, he tried to focus solely on football, but that wasn’t always easy.

In 2011, he invited his cousin, Antony Darling, to live with him on campus. Darling and Freeman grew up playing for the same Pop Warner team, attending the same schools and often sleeping in the same room in Freeman’s home. Freeman wanted to keep Darling out of trouble and had him stay for a few months at Florida State so “he could get his head right.”

Darling returned to Liberty City in 2012 during Freeman’s sophomore season. The night after the Seminoles’ 52-0 win against Wake Forest, Freeman was awoken by a call from his sister. She was wailing, her words as incoherent as they were incomprehensible. Darling was killed in a gunfight. He was 20.

It was the only time teammates ever saw Freeman despondent: not wanting to eat, not wanting to talk, not wanting to practice.

“No matter what, that’s why I’ll always go back to Liberty City,” he says. “That’s my hood. There’s kids there who are like me, kids I can help.”

Last May, Freeman finished a morning workout in Miami and felt the high of endorphins. With time to spare before an evening session, he went to Sports Authority and bought 60 footballs, then posted a photo on Instagram: “Giving out footballs before I go work out in the Pork n Beans Projects with my signature on it!! First come first served! Meet me on 62st and 13Av #YallComeOn.”

Nearly 100 kids showed up. “I felt so bad,” Freeman said. “I didn’t have enough for everyone. I had no idea I had that kind of impact.”

* * *

The influence of first-year head coach Quinn, the former Seahawks defensive coordinator, is the biggest overarching storyline in the Falcons’ scorching start. The 45-year-old hired a DJ to spin hip-hop at practice, mashes team meetings with YouTube clips (MMA is a favorite), implemented his simplistic but aggressive defensive schemes and stresses urgency—the latter of which was lacking at the end of the Mike Smith era.

Of course, Quinn also inherited a sturdy quarterback (Matt Ryan), a rare-breed receiver (Julio Jones) and a strong general manager, Thomas Dimitroff, working in tandem with long-time friend and former Chiefs GM Scott Pioli as his assistant.

Together, they have given Freeman the opportunity to succeed. Pro Football Focus ranked the Falcons’ offensive line 30th in 2013 and 26th in 2014. Last season, it was so ravaged by injury that at one point tight end Levine Toiolo lined up at right tackle.

With new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan implementing a zone-blocking scheme, the Falcons shifted pieces all offseason to figure out what would work. Of Atlanta’s nine offensive linemen, six are new this season and four—Andy Levitre, Gino Gradkowski, Bryce Harris and Jake Long—weren’t even on the roster for the final preseason game.

Through five weeks, PFF ranks Atlanta’s offensive line as best in the league.

Freeman’s best attributes are his vision, and ability to cut through open holes afforded by zone-blocking and burst his speed from there. Freeman also splits out wide, and has 24 catches for 240 yards. His dual-threat status has taken some pressure off the consistently double-covered Jones. Coleman is now healthy enough to play, and was active in the Washington game, but Quinn plans on going with the hot hand, which for now is obvious.

“When you come in, you take inventory,” Quinn said, speaking of taking a job and examining everybody on his roster. “Not everybody fits what you want to do, but we had a lot that did. Devonta Freeman is the perfect example of that.”

The team loves playing for Quinn because he empowers them.

“You can just be you,” Freeman says. “Do whatever you want to do. All you need to do is compete every day, be urgent, and no excuses. It’s the easiest three rules ever.”

Because it is so easy, perhaps that is why Freeman has time to finish his studies. Others may follow suit. When told of Freeman’s dual life, Coleman, who left Indiana after his junior season, looked as if his interest was piqued.

“Maybe I should do that too,” he said.

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