Freeman picks up the torch

MIAMI -- The rest of his teammates already had funneled off the field and into the locker room after Florida State's 33-20 win over Miami, but Devonta Freeman lagged behind.

In the stands near midfield, a former high school coach beamed with pride. Freeman jogged over, and the two talked for several minutes, his coach reminding him to savor the moment.

"I already know," Freeman told him.

Freeman doesn't need to be reminded to appreciate these moments, and Saturday's performance might as well have been scripted in Hollywood. Freeman was in his hometown of Miami for the first time in nearly a month. The last trip had been for the funeral of his cousin, a man Freeman thought of as a brother. Until the second half of last week's blowout win, Freeman had been an afterthought in Florida State's offense, but when Chris Thompson went down with a knee injury Saturday, Freeman stepped to the forefront. His family has been rocked by tragedy in recent weeks, but Freeman has never had it easy. On Saturday, however, he offered a reminder that better days are always ahead.

"I wanted to give my family something to smile about," said Freeman, who racked up 70 yards and two touchdowns in relief of Thompson. "I've got little brothers and sisters, and I want them to be happy. I want to be their role model. I want them to see that anything is possible."

There were 14 tickets set aside for close family and friends, but there was a huge contingent of Saturday's crowd pulling for Freeman. There were 100 members of his old Little League in attendance, and 100 more from a local optimists club -- an organization he's worked with for years. He's the perfect poster boy for the cause.

A month ago, Freeman was awoken in the middle of the night by a phone call from his sister. Gunshots had erupted on the lawn of his family's home. His cousin had been in an argument, and he'd been shot. Freeman listened to the chaos unfold over the phone in a state of shock.

In the weeks since, Freeman has worked to find a balance between football and family. He has prayed with teammates and talked to a psychologist on campus. He has made a habit of talking to his cousin in quiet moments of sadness, and he has been amazed by how often he hears an answer.

When Saturday's game ended, Freeman simply said thank you.

"During the game I just set it aside," Freeman said. "I talked to him after the game and just let him know that was for him."

On Saturday, Freeman was hopeful, but for weeks the pain had lingered, and it affected his role in the offense. For three straight games before last week, Freeman went without a carry. He had slipped to a distant third on the depth chart, and his off-field troubles were enough of a burden without worrying about playing time, too.

When Thompson left Saturday's game with a knee injury early in the second quarter, however, the depth chart was shaken up, and Freeman was cast in a starring role.

The early word on Thompson's injury appears positive. X-rays on his left knee were negative, and an MRI is scheduled for Monday. Fullback Lonnie Pryor said Thompson believed it was simply a significant bruise, but the senior tailback was on crutches after the game.

At the time of the injury, Thompson was responsible for 94 of Florida State's 112 yards of offense, and with the Seminoles trailing 10-3, the injury had the potential to be devastating. Instead, Freeman and fellow back-up James Wilder Jr. carried the load.

Thompson got hurt after hauling in a 32-yard reception down the sideline, and Wilder capped that drive with a touchdown. At halftime, Wilder rallied his teammates around Thompson, with each of Florida State's remaining running backs inscribing "CT4" -- Thompson's initials and uniform number -- on their wrist tape.

In the second half, the makeshift ground game exploded. Freeman scored twice, including a physical 3-yard run early in the fourth quarter to open Florida State's lead to 10, and the Seminoles cruised to their third straight win over Miami.

"They took it to heart. They played for Chris," Pryor said.

Set aside two sacks and two fumbles in the backfield, and Florida State's ground game averaged 7.3 yards per carry after Thompson left the game, a ringing endorsement for a pair of reserves who largely had been ignored two weeks earlier in a loss to NC State.

It was a reminder of the depth of talent at the position, Wilder said, but Freeman thought it was something more. It was a chance to remind his entire community that he hadn't given up.

"A great game can't replace the losses he's had," Dustin Hopkins said. "But at the same time, coming out here in front of the people you love, family and friends, and having a great game takes a load off your shoulders. It lets you just breathe. I think that's how Devonta feels."

Freeman said he's hopeful Thompson's injury will be minor, that the starter will return to action next week against Duke. If that doesn't happen, Freeman is eager to pick up the torch.

Regardless of how it turns out, Freeman said, better days await. He's an optimist, in spite of so many reasons for negativity. It comes from a soft voice inside his head, a subtle push every time he needs it.

"I just have little conversations with [my cousin] all the time," Freeman said. "I just tell him I'm here, and I'm going to do everything he wanted me to do."