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Devonta Freeman's bond with 'Uncle Luke' kept him focused on overcoming the odds

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Freeman: 'I was one of the fortunate ones to make it out' (5:29)

Falcons running back Devonta Freeman discusses his upbringing in the Pork 'n' Beans projects in Miami and how he learned about life and death by working at a funeral home. (5:29)

HOUSTON -- Atlanta Falcons running back Devonta Freeman could have earned his big payday years ago. He avoided the temptation instead.

Freeman was a hardened, 11-year-old boy growing up in the rugged Liberty City housing development of Miami better known as the Pork 'n' Beans projects, a label that apparently surfaced because residents couldn't afford much more than such canned meals. Freeman grew immune to nightly gunfire and the sight of body bags but nearly succumbed to constant pressure from drug dealers he said dangled $1,000 a week in his face.

"Just because it was like good money, guys were like, 'We'll give you this, we'll give you that, just tell us when you see the police,'" Freeman said. "They said, 'Tell us when you see jump-out.' Jump-out is police in regular cars with tinted windows.

"I had guys that tempted me, 'What do you think about selling this or selling that?' Some of it was tempting because we didn't have money back then. It was hard. But I was like, 'That's not the route I want to go down. That's not what I want to do. I want to make it to the NFL.' And I had that vision. I had a game plan. I just stuck with it and tried to focus as much as I could."

Freeman never wanted to lean heavily on his mother, Lorraine, who was burdened enough working two jobs to support her six children. He couldn't rely on his father, Cleveland Thomas, who Freeman said was in and out of jail and not too involved. So one of the people Freeman turned to was Luther Campbell, a nationally known rapper, producer and promoter who went by Luke Skyywalker of controversial group The 2 Live Crew, then went on to become a coach/mentor on the Miami youth football circuit. Campbell gained even more fame for his association with the Miami Hurricanes football program throughout the years.

"It was just that instant bond," Freeman said of Campbell. "He took me in, and I accepted him automatically. It turned out phenomenal for both of us."

The bond was so tight that Campbell became like a father figure. His attorney wife, Kristin, became Freeman's contract agent once Freeman was selected in the fourth round of the 2013 draft out of Florida State. She is now making a public push to secure Freeman his first big NFL payday as the two-time Pro Bowler and integral figure in the Falcons' Super Bowl run moves toward the final year of his rookie contract.

"One hundred percent," Freeman said of the support from the Campbells. "It feels really good. You've got family. You've got someone who wants to see you do well and has got your best interest. It's people who I trust. It feels good."

Freeman knows "Uncle Luke" has had his back from day one.

Talk the talk

Campbell, 57, laughed when he recalled the first time he saw Freeman. It was on the baseball diamond, and Campbell couldn't get over how much the 11-year-old ran his mouth.

"He was playing catcher, and he was back there talking all kind of smack," Campbell said. "He was a trash-talker, listen."

During one game, Campbell said Freeman was trying nonstop to intimidate the opposing pitcher. That pitcher happened to be Teddy Bridgewater, now a quarterback for the Minnesota Vikings.

"He had Teddy Bridgewater crying on the mound," Campbell said.

Freeman didn't exactly confirm Campbell's account, but he certainly remembered the moment.

"I know I slapped a home run across the fence, and I was just talking junk," Freeman said. "You know, it was being a competitor. My Uncle Luke is a dog. He likes dogs. He likes competitors. He likes guys that talk smack."

Campbell appreciated Freeman's "swag" so much he talked him into joining the Liberty City Optimist Warriors football program he co-founded, which has produced NFL talent such as Chad Johnson, Antonio Bryant and Lavonte David. Freeman originally played for the nearby Moore Park Generals.

"The Moore Park teams, they weren't that good and they would get beat up all the time," Campbell said. "The kids who got cut from our program would go play for them. That's why when we messed with Devonta, we'd call him, 'Moore Park.' Call him that and see what he says."

Freeman actually was the backup running back his first season with the Warriors to a park legend named Raymond Taylor. Then the next year Freeman was forced to play quarterback when the projected starter didn't get to move up in weight class.

"Devonta didn't like that too much because this was his time to be the running back," Campbell said. "There was a little bit of crying like, 'Coach, I want to play running back.' I had to convince him, 'Look, you've got the football in your hands. You can do whatever you want to with it. What better job than that? Then when he went to high school, he went back to his regular position."

The relationship between Freeman and Campbell continued to grow and extended well beyond the football field. Although Campbell enjoyed the luxuries that came with his fame, he remained sensitive to the depressing environment Freeman had to return home to every night. There was one instance when Campbell noticed a sulking Freeman slouched in the car, trying to comprehend how he could make life better for himself despite the dire circumstances.

That conversation remains fresh in Freeman's memory.

"Two things happened in my life that let me know there's a God: when they told us my wife couldn't have any kids and she had our son, and Devonta being able to go from rag to riches."

Luther Campbell

"Uncle Luke was dropping me off in the Pork 'n' Beans and he was like, 'Hey, man, you've got to be the man of the house,' " Freeman said. "I'm like, 'What you mean by that?' Then he was like, 'You might not understand now, but you'll understand later.' And now I understand it was just responsibilities, taking care of my family and being the leader of my household at the age of 10.

"I didn't understand, but I knew I had to help my mom out. At that point, I told myself I'd never ask my mom for no money. It turned out to be one of the best things I've ever done -- take on those responsibilities and be the man of the house."

His first such move was a job at Richardson Memorial Funeral Home, set up by another of his mentors, Dwight Jackson. Freeman's responsibilities included opening the limo doors for the grieving families and handing attendees flowers to place at the grave site. "I'd make $150, $200, depending on how many funerals," Freeman said. "On a packed day, we'd have like four funerals, which meant $250. That was a lot of money."

Freeman also washed any of Campbell's three cars -- a Range Rover, a Mercedes-Benz and a Viper -- along with other vehicles in Campbell's neighborhood.

"I always liked washing the Range Rover because I would find like $20, $30 under the seat that I know had been there for two, three months," Freeman said. "And I'd just keep it. He didn't care. He knew. He would say 'Whatever you find, just keep it.'"

Campbell gave Freeman $50 for each car he washed.

"I overpaid him," Campbell said. "He knows that."

Freeman knew Campbell had plenty of spare change based on his profession. He also knew Uncle Luke's music wasn't exactly G-rated, with song titles such as "Me So Horny" and "Banned in the U.S.A." Freeman was too young to know them all but, of course, was a fan of Campbell's music.

"I knew it got you hyped," Freeman said. "It was throwback. It got the women going back in the days. And it got the guys going because the women got going. It was old school, but I liked it because it was that get-hype music. It was that 'krunk' music.

"Rap now is much different than it used to be back in the day. And Luke did his thing with it. He had a game plan."

So did Freeman. And he eventually executed it.

Miami motivation

Around Freeman's freshman year of high school, Campbell packed Freeman and a handful of other players from his program in a car one summer to check out various football camps.

One of those stops was at the University of Miami, where Campbell had allegiance and a place Freeman thought he might call home at some point. But during the camp visit, one of the Miami coaches gave Freeman all the motivation he ever needed.

"When I brought Devonta there, the coach told me, 'He can't play running back here. He's not good enough,'" Campbell said. "And that lit a fire under Devonta's ass."

Freeman agreed.

"It fueled me a lot because it was another slap in my face, like, 'OK, I'm not good enough, I'm not on their level,'" Freeman said. "When somebody tells me I'm not good or I can't do something, the good thing about me is it don't mess with my confidence. It don't get to me no type of way. It's just, 'OK, I'm going to show you.' I don't walk around with my head down because I know what I can do.

"I don't care what man says. Man can tell me nothing because, nine times out of 10, the guys who says what you can and can't do be the guys that never even got close to where you're at."

Freeman, who started his high school career at Miami Edison but ended up at Miami Central -- where Campbell was an assistant coach -- eventually earned a scholarship to Florida State after coach Jimbo Fisher watched the four-star recruit perform at a camp. By the time he left school, Freeman had become the first Seminole to rush for 1,000 yards since Falcons minority owner Warrick Dunn in 1996.

Success eventually followed him into the NFL, although Freeman struggled through his rookie season as the Falcons featured veteran Steven Jackson. Then the past two years, he posted back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons while compiling 22 touchdowns. He became a fantasy football star, a household name.

Now Kristin Campbell's goal is to have Freeman paid like an "elite" back. There still are some questions about where the Falcons will lean with the situation, considering they hold fellow running back Tevin Coleman in high regard, as well. And the two-back monster created by the two probably won't last forever.

Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said the team would consider the possibility of an extension for Freeman after the season, with Freeman scheduled to make a meager $690,000 base salary next season.

"I can tell you quite frankly, by him being a two-time Pro Bowler, we're not happy about how he's being treated," Campbell said. "It's a constant reminder of where you're from, what you went through, and this ain't no different. You have to prove yourself. Ain't nobody going to give you nothing free. You've always worked for it."

Before any of that happens, the Campbells want to see Freeman handle the business at hand. The kid who stuck to his game plan when the drug dealers tried to bring him down is on the verge of winning a Super Bowl ring.

"When you see where this kid came from, when you see what he had to go through in life, and now to see him playing on the biggest stage in the world ... you can't even write this stuff up in a script," Luther Campbell said. "This guy comes from the bottom of the barrel. It don't get no deeper than where he was. And I've seen a lot of other kids in that same situation and they just revert back to becoming a product of their environment.

"Two things happened in my life that let me know there's a God: when they told us my wife couldn't have any kids and she had our son, and Devonta being able to go from rag to riches."