Freeman, Eskridge bonded brothers

In their neighborhood, sneakers were status, so Devonta Freeman and Durell Eskridge took their shoes seriously.

A new pair of Air Jordans might gobble up most of a week's pay from their mommas' pocketbooks, if this was one of the weeks they were working, so eventually Freeman and Eskridge found ways to pay for shoes on their own. They hung around the gas station, pumping gas in hopes of a tip. They carried bags for customers at the nearby Winn-Dixie, pocketing loose change for their efforts. They would visit Coach Luke -- former member of the rap group 2 Live Crew and neighborhood mentor Luther Campbell -- and clean his pool or mow his lawn for a few bucks.

Eskridge is nearly six inches taller than Freeman, but when they would scrape together enough for a shopping trip, they were careful to buy clothes and shoes that fit them both. They had different classes, so no one noticed when they would swap sneakers or T-shirts, doubling their wardrobe to keep a clean look on a tight budget.

After school, they would join pickup football games in an open field at the Miami housing project where they lived. They played in socks, bare feet or an old set of cleats to keep their shoes from getting scuffed. In a place where violence was around every corner, few things in Freeman and Eskridge's lives were so devoutly protected as those sneakers.

"Don't step on our shoes," Freeman said. "We didn't play about that."

Freeman and Eskridge shared shoes, meals and, for several years, a bedroom. They also shared a dream and the struggle to make it a reality. They pushed each other to work when drugs and gangs offered simpler options. They protected each other when their neighborhood felt more like a war zone than a home. They made promises to each other to escape their surroundings and rescue their families from poverty.

Growing up, they had almost nothing, but they had each other. In their neighborhood, that made them rich.

"How we carry ourselves, we always kept each other up," Freeman said. "We were going to make sure our shoes were clean, our clothes ironed. A lot of people think we weren't going through stuff. But they don't know half of it."

It's been more than a decade since Freeman and Eskridge first met in the "Pork 'n Beans" housing projects in Miami, and Saturday's game between Syracuse, where Eskridge is the team's leading tackler, and No. 2 Florida State, where Freeman is the team's top running back, hardly represents an end to their struggles. But it is a long-awaited intersection for two boys who spent their lives as teammates, on and off the field.

The boys met when they were 7 or 8, but they weren't instantly close. They lived on separate sides of a gang-controlled neighborhood, and one side didn't much care for the other.

"In Miami," Freeman said, "it's just beef with everybody."

Both boys loved football, though, and both were close with Campbell, who was a prominent youth coach in the area. When Campbell founded the Liberty City Optimist Club, a youth organization in Freeman's neighborhood, he brought Eskridge with him. The two boys clicked, and after a while, they were inseparable.

"If you'd see one, you'd see the other one," Campbell said.

Eskridge is tall, lean and athletic, clean-cut, with a bright smile and a lighthearted sense of humor. Freeman is smaller but powerful. He wears his hair in long dreadlocks, and when he speaks, it's softly. Eskridge could always make Freeman laugh, and Freeman always kept Eskridge focused. In their neighborhood, laughter and security were often in short supply.

Campbell saw potential in both boys early on. They excelled on the field, Freeman at quarterback and Eskridge his trusted tailback. Campbell worked to show his players the world beyond the walls of the projects, but he never spoiled them. If they needed money, they worked for it. A lot of his players stopped asking when the chores grew tough, but Freeman and Eskridge kept coming back for more work.

"There's nothing in life free, and he told us that from day one," Freeman said. "You've got to get out and grind for it, because nobody's going to give it to you."

In their neighborhood, little was ever given away, but much was taken. Campbell had seen too many swallowed up by the drugs and violence, and he knew Freeman and Eskridge would struggle to survive on their own. So on a drive home from practice one night, he offered some advice to Freeman: Keep Eskridge close, he said. Look out for each other.

"In the neighborhood where we came up, they don't know who to trust," Campbell said. "I reminded those two at a young age, you're brothers, and you'll be brothers forever."

The defining moment in their friendship came early. Eskridge was talking with some friends near the corner of 15th Avenue, where the boys from the neighborhood would often meet. Freeman had seen some of the boys arguing earlier, and he couldn't shake the bad feeling lingering in the pit of his stomach. He begged Eskridge to leave -- asking again and again. Eventually, Eskridge relented, upset with Freeman for pulling him away.

The two walked just a few yards before a crew from another building turned the corner, guns blasting. The boys ran, the pop-pop-pop of bullets echoing in the background. When the gunfire receded and the boys returned to investigate, the spot where Eskridge had been standing was riddled with bullets.

"If he hadn't called for me as many times as he did," Eskridge said, "I probably wouldn't be here."

The "Pork 'n Beans" projects where Freeman and Eskridge grew up houses more than 750 apartments and sprawls five city blocks in Miami's Liberty City neighborhood. It's most notable, Freeman said, for regular appearances on the documentary crime drama "The First 48." Drugs, guns and gangs were everywhere.

"You went to sleep with gunshots, you woke up with gunshots," Eskridge said. "You couldn't have fun because of all the gang shootings going on. You really had to watch your back."

Football provided an escape, but it was always temporary.

After practice, they would often walk home past bodies lying in the street. Freeman recalled the details with little sentiment. There was the white dude, cradling his friend who had been shot in a robbery. There was the guy force-feeding beer to a dying neighbor, hoping to keep him awake until help arrived.

When they got older, a coach named Dwight Jackson gave the boys jobs at the funeral home he ran. They'd wear suits, carry flowers and escort mourners to their seats. They also saw what happened to the bodies after the crime scenes were cleared -- chests opened at the sternum, skin peeled from the back of the head, exposing the skull. They saw people they'd known from the neighborhood being pieced back together for viewing after they were torn apart by violence.

For years, Freeman and Eskridge ran the streets, "trying to be somebody we weren't," Freeman said. But as they watched their coach embalm one corpse after another, the fragility of their own futures became abundantly clear.

"Life just teaches you to never, ever take anything for granted," Freeman said. "You've got to keep fighting, no matter how hard life is."

On the field, Freeman and Eskridge fought. They saw a way out of the projects, and they worked tirelessly to succeed.

They went to school so they could play football. They played football so they could have a better life. Eventually, their efforts even won over the local dealers, who would shake hands with Freeman and Eskridge as they passed by, congratulating them on big plays and promising to attend their next game.

"All the dope boys knew us," Freeman said. "They'd say, 'Y'all boys better show out now.' That was respect."

Football allowed Freeman and Eskridge to dream of a better life, but things were never easy. Money was tight, and Eskridge spent part of his childhood homeless, living in a car with his mother, Margaret, and two younger sisters.

When Margaret lost her job in 2007, the family was evicted from their apartment, again. No one had room to take them all in, but Freeman invited Eskridge to live with him. Freeman's mother, Lorraine, always opened her home to kids in need, and Margaret chipped in with food stamps and what money she could spare. There were already eight people living in the cramped apartment, but Eskridge was family, and there was always room for family.

A bed and warm meals were welcomed, but it was the first time Eskridge had lived apart from his mother, and the separation weighed on him.

"My mom was really all I had," Eskridge said. "I was down a lot."

Things weren't much better for Freeman. His aunt had died just a few weeks before Eskridge moved in. Tameka Brown was the youngest of Freeman's aunts and uncles, and she'd been his favorite. She was working toward a degree in criminal justice, and she'd always avoided drugs and alcohol, but at 25, she died suddenly of a massive heart attack.

"It's like the whole family was torn apart," Lorraine said.

For weeks, the house was crowded with family offering condolences. Freeman felt overwhelmed. He went to school to escape the mourning relatives, but he'd find himself sobbing in the hallways. Eskridge provided comfort.

The boys prayed and they dreamed. They'd talk about what life would be like after they made it to the NFL. It helped to think about a brighter future.

For months, Lorraine was inconsolable. She stayed glued to the couch, processing her grief. Eskridge would find her crying and prod her to smile. "I'm fixing to make you laugh, Miss Lorraine," he'd say before launching into an impromptu dance.

He'd tell jokes to Lorraine and playfully tease Freeman and, after a while, they felt better.

"It was Durell and football that kept me strong," Freeman said.

Eventually, it was football that pulled Freeman and Eskridge apart.

Both players were immensely talented, and both garnered attention as key figures on Miami Central's 2010 state championship team. Eskridge was a versatile athlete, playing receiver and safety and returning punts, but it was Freeman who blossomed into a star. He carried 36 times for 308 yards in that title game, and college offers poured in from schools throughout the country.

Freeman, Eskridge and another teammate, Charles Gaines, now a starting corner at Louisville, always planned to play together in college. They wrote out lists of all their options hoping to find a match. Georgia appeared a possibility, but Freeman had mixed feelings. He knew coaches wanted him desperately, but he worried Eskridge and Gaines were pawns in his recruitment. Other schools, Freeman said, pushed harder for his friends.

When Freeman finally settled on Florida State, he asked Jimbo Fisher to offer Eskridge a scholarship, too. Fisher was blunt. He'd be happy to recruit Eskridge, Freeman recalled, but the system wouldn't be a good fit.

After years as teammates, Freeman decided it was time to go his own way. Campbell called it "the saddest day in the world," but Freeman knew the easy path was rarely the right one.

"If I took them on my journey," Freeman said, "it would be my journey and not theirs."

Life apart has been challenging for Freeman and Eskridge.

Eskridge was red-flagged by the NCAA his first year at Syracuse, and he ended up redshirting. Without football or his closest friend, he felt adrift. He told Freeman he wanted to transfer, to come to Florida State or move home with his mom and young daughter. Freeman insisted Eskridge stay the course.

Freeman played early, leading FSU in rushing as a true freshman, but off the field, his family struggled. A cousin was shot and killed near their home last year, and his grandmother was recently diagnosed with breast cancer. From 1,200 miles away, Eskridge still offers comfort.

"We've always had to lift each other's spirits, keep each other up through tough times," Eskridge said.

Freeman and Eskridge still talk nearly every day. They trade texts constantly, sharing Bible verses before games as inspiration. During the offseason, when they return home to Miami, they're still inseparable. "Like Bonnie and Clyde," Freeman said.

They still talk about the future, about pulling their mothers up from poverty and ensuring their younger siblings don't have to witness the same horrors they did. Those dreams seem so much clearer now.

"To see both of them play, to sit there and reminisce on where they came from -- from being two little knuckleheads crying together and cheering together," Campbell said, "it's like a dream come true."

Campbell and a slew of other coaches who helped carve a path for both boys will be in Tallahassee for Saturday's game. Lorraine said she's eager to love on her two sons – one of them by birth, the other by circumstance. Margaret hasn't seen Eskridge play all season, but she's scraped together enough money to make the trip to Tallahassee.

Still, Saturday comes with its share of mixed emotions. It's a battle between brothers, and both have come too far to show any compassion on the field.

Florida State is undefeated and poised for a shot at a national title, but Eskridge told his mother he'd do anything necessary to win. Freeman knows if he cuts through a hole at the line of scrimmage, he's likely to find his best friend waiting. He promised to deliver a thundering blow on his way to the end zone.

And when the play's over, Freeman said, he'll reach out a hand, pick up his brother and wrap an arm around him.

"It's like that with me and him," Freeman said. "We're going to give each other that tough love, but at the end of the day, we're going to hug each other."