Devonta Freeman says baseball was his first love.
Wednesday afternoon, the 22-year-old former star running back at Florida State and Miami Central got to live out a life-long dream, throwing out the ceremonial first pitch at Marlins Park before the Marlins took on the New York Mets.
“I threw a strike,” Freeman said with a smile. “But it probably went 50 miles per hour. Not 90.”
“As a kid I played catcher, pitcher and first base. I was better at baseball than football. I loved it. It was an honor just to be on that mound and throw the pitch today. It’s something you always see on TV and never think, ‘This can really happen to me.’ ”
Freeman, who grew up the eldest of seven children in the Pork ’N Beans projects in Liberty City, has made a lot of dreams come true lately.
At Central, he led the Rockets to their first state title, rushing for 308 yards on 36 carries en route to earning MVP honors in the Class 6A state title game. This past January, he won a national title with the Seminoles, becoming the first FSU running back since Warrick Dunn in 1996 to run for more than 1,000 yards.
In a couple days, he’ll make another come true in the NFL Draft. Given a third-round grade by the NFL Draft committee in January, Freeman said he has heard he could go in Friday’s second round. Freeman says he has secretly wished for the hometown Miami Dolphins to take him.
‘I’D LOVE TO STAY HOME’
“I only visited two teams – the Dolphins and Vikings,” Freeman said. “I wish I could say where I’m going, but I have no idea at all.
“I’d love to stay home. This is home. Ain’t nothing like home. One reason I would love to be here is because I could give back to the community. I can relate to others from my area, my neighborhood. I can talk to them, tell them ‘Look at me, I made it. All you need is that tunnel vision and belief and take it one day at a time.’ ”
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That tunnel vision is what Freeman said got him and his best friend, Syracuse safety Durell Eskridge, out of the projects. That along with help from rapper Luther Campbell, a mentor and coach of their Liberty City Optimist team.
“Pork ’N Beans is the toughest neighborhood in Florida because you never know what you’re going to get,” Freeman said. “You can walk down the street and somebody could start shooting. An argument can break out, people start fighting. Somebody could rob you. How we kept our tunnel vision was we knew what we wanted in life.
“We saw so many people that fell victim to the streets. We said we don’t want this life. We wanted to change and do something different. We were basically the man of the house in our homes growing up. We knew we had to provide for our mamas and our families. And that’s what we did. Since that day we’ve never looked back.”
Freeman said he and siblings often went to sleep hungry while growing up. His mom worked in a warehouse making minimum wage and “there were a lot of times we had to wait until breakfast in the morning to eat because the fridge was empty.” Freeman helped as much as he could, working three jobs since the age of 12.
One of those jobs was at the Richardson Funeral Home, where Freeman delivered flowers and ushered grieving families to their seats. He would make $50 for each funeral.
Freeman also witnessed the macabre process of bodies being prepared for burial.
“I saw [the bodies of] a lot of people I knew, a lot of young people too,” Freeman said. “It was a hard-working job.”
When he wasn’t at the funeral home or working at a local car wash, Freeman said he would go over to Campbell’s house to do odd jobs.
“He would have us pressure-clean the pool or rake the leaves up, wash the cars, clean the walls,” Freeman said. “He’s always been a great help to the kids in our community.”
Freeman said one of the first things he plans to do once he signs an NFL contract is to stop by the old funeral home and donate school supplies.
“I know it’s not a lot what I’m going to get with that first check, but just to give back a little bit would mean something,” Freeman said.
“I love football. The money is going to put me in a better situation and my family in a better situation. But it’s not going to make or break me whether I have it or I don’t have it. I’m going to grind regardless.”
This story was originally published May 7, 2014 4:16 PM.