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Schultz: Devonta Freeman healthy, not fazed by doubters, given where he came from

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One of the most prevalent tattoos on Devonta Freeman’s well-decorated two arms sits above his left bicep, just below an arch of stars: “Failure is not an option,” it reads.

Consider it a promise he made to himself to escape the horrible surroundings of his childhood in Miami’s housing projects, make something of his life and not end up dead in a pool of blood in the streets where he often walked or on a table in the mortuary where he once worked.

“It’s one of my first tattoos,” he said, looking at the words. “It was a mindset growing up. Failure is not an option. You can’t go back.”

This will be an important season for the Falcons in general and Freeman in particular. The team is coming off a 7-9 season, and Freeman played only two games, missing most of the year after groin surgery. He’s only 27 years old and should be viewed as being in the prime of his career.

Freeman is the running back for one of the NFL’s (potentially) most explosive offenses. He was only the 103rd player taken in the 2014 NFL Draft, but he earned consecutive Pro Bowl honors in 2015 and 2016, rushed for 1,000-plus yards twice, combined for 27 touchdowns and 3,175 rushing-receiving yards in those two seasons and helped the Falcons get to a Super Bowl. Next came his reward: a five-year, $41.25 million contract extension. The little kid who survived the “Pork n Beans” projects in Liberty City was guaranteed more than $22 million in the first three seasons (ending this year).

But the two seasons following the Super Bowl were filled with disappointment for the Falcons, and Freeman has struggled to stay healthy: concussions, knee, foot and ultimately the groin injury.

Offensive line and occasional play-calling issues notwithstanding the past two years, the Falcons are at their best when Freeman is slashing defenses with his violent running style as a rusher or receiver. The first hint of that return came in 11-on-11 drills Thursday at OTAs, when Freeman caught short passes in space and took off.

“You forget in the pass game the explosiveness that he has,” head coach Dan Quinn said. “The short plays that turn into long ones because he can break off (from) a linebacker or a safety.”

There are doubts in the internet’s underworld of basement blogs. One carried a headline the other day: “Devonta Freeman is one of the worst signings in Falcons’ history.”

Really? No room for debate?

When you grow up like Freeman, words don’t account for much.

“Where I’m from, people die,” he said. “People get shot in the head and never come back. That’s it. I’ve seen some crazy stuff. So, like, are you kidding (with doubters)? This is nothing. That’s not me just saying, ‘It doesn’t faze me.’ It’s reality. I’m from Liberty City. You can walk down the street and get shot in the head. You think I care about what somebody says? That’s cool. That’s good for them. Let them have that. I don’t entertain it because it doesn’t have any effect on me. It can’t affect me. I’m blessed. I made it here.”

Freeman is a special guy, a spiritual guy, beloved by his teammates, always smiling and approaching each day as a gift. So it’s not surprising he would easily deflect criticism. In a game two years ago when New Orleans head coach Sean Payton famously tried to taunt Freeman with a choke sign, the Falcons running back actually laughed and said later, “That man don’t know nothing about choking. He ain’t from where I’m from.”

Dealing with injuries, particularly last season when he was limited to two games, was difficult. When asked whether he has searched for any reason why he has had to go through this after the highs of 2015 and 2016, he said, “Sometimes you just have to be mindful. Nobody said it was going to be easy. My faith got stronger. My belief in God got stronger. He needed to sit me down so I can see stuff and learn. When you’re in a position where you can’t move, you have no choice but to visualize, see things, hear things, get other perspectives. The information I gained is priceless.”

Such as?

“Patience. Timing. Understanding the process,” he said. “Consistency, in terms of living it every day. Staying in the middle, not too high or low. It’ll make me a better player. I had to get injured, I had to have surgery, I had to go through that. I wanted to be out there competing with my brothers. But what do you do now? Go around moping and being mad at the world, or do you try to get better? I’m going to get better. I’ll be better. I am better.”

Freeman said he got his most recent tattoo five years ago. It’s a large red star on his left forearm: a red star with the name of his late aunt, Tamekia N. Brown, who died suddenly at the age of 24. Freeman was 14.

“She’s the reason I wear 24,” he said. “I was in the hospital when my auntie was lying in the bed and the white things (tubes) were in her mouth. She had already been pronounced dead, but I didn’t know you could die so young like that and not come back. I didn’t believe it. She was the one I connected to the most because we were both so young. We were both the babies.”

Tamekia gave Freeman some advice at a young age that he has carried with him.

“She told me, ‘Don’t put no lid on your bottle. Anything is possible,’” he said. “So I ran with that.”

The Falcons need him running again.


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