Falcons' Devonta Freeman inspired by grandmother's breast cancer fight

Devonta Freeman's grandmother is beating cancer and will be able to see her grandson play for the first time in person when the Falcons meet the Dolphins on Aug. 29. AP Photo/Tim Ireland

Devonta Freeman entered the NFL driven from day one. As he approaches the start of his second season with the Atlanta Falcons, the talented running back has more reason to be motivated.

The inspiration has nothing to do with his ongoing competition with rookie Tevin Coleman.

Freeman referred to his 59-year-old grandmother, Calryn, as the strongest person he knows. He has watched her battle breast cancer courageously since 2012, and she took a major step toward recovery after a June 20 mastectomy.

"Yes, she’s beating cancer," he said. "My grandma, she’s strong. She’s a true survivor. She has always been the backbone. She always kept the family together. I really didn’t want to put it out there because I wanted to treat her regular so she could go about her everyday life, although she understood she had cancer."

Freeman couldn’t help but publicize the positive news after his grandmother’s surgery. He posted an Instagram picture of the two of them together after the procedure.

"He was like, 'I'm about to do this selfie right now,' and I was like, "I look a mess. I don’t even have any makeup on,'" Calryn Freeman said with a laugh. "I didn’t know he was going to put it on Instagram. That part, he tricked me. I thought he was kidding.

"He told me, 'You don’t need any makeup on, grandma. You look good the way you are.'"

Calryn still has obstacles to overcome. Among them, making sure no heart ailments or blood clotting occurs after the surgery.

"I’m not in pain right now," she said. "It’s God. I have the best doctor in the world and I’m feeling no pain. So I’m blessed.

"It’s been a big hospital bill, and Devonta offered to pay for everything. I told him, 'I can get my insurance. That’s what I worked all these years for.' … He loves me so much."

Freeman, who grew up in Miami housing projects, provided a little insight into the close-knit bond he has with his grandmother. She couldn’t attend his football games when he was a child, in high school or in college at Florida State partly because of her work schedule and partly because she said her scoliosis makes it uncomfortable to sit for an extended period. She also took in more children after her daughter and Freeman’s aunt, Tamekia N. Brown, died of a heart attack at 24. (Freeman wears the No. 24 in honor of his aunt.)

"She was always working," Freeman said of his grandmother. "Like I said, she was the backbone of the family. She would have to put in overtime. But she always prayed for me, and I always talked to her before every game. I always made sure to tell her how much I love her before the game."

Freeman often turned to his grandmother for advice.

"She always tells me I can do whatever I want to do," he said. "She always tells me, 'Be confident and never let anybody outwork you; stay focused and believe in God and trust in God.' She always tells me that I have a shield over me and I’m covered in the blood of Jesus. She prays for me all the time and tells me, 'Don’t ever let anyone look down on you. Don’t let anyone belittle you.'"

Freeman clearly took her words to heart en route to the NFL. Although he didn’t receive the number of touches he wanted during his rookie season, he never dropped his head. When the Falcons decided to draft another running back in Coleman, he didn’t flinch.

"The whole offseason was about staying patient and just working hard," Freeman said. "Back in the day, I tried to get it all in one take. I used to try to kill myself to get there. But now, I have a different focus."

The preseason should provide a glimpse of what to expect from Freeman as he looks to solidify a starting role. For the third exhibition game (Aug. 29), the Falcons travel to Miami to face the Dolphins. The matchup gives Calryn Freeman the opportunity to see her grandson play in person for the first time.

"I’m going to be there," she said. "God spared my life, so I’m going to be there. I have to see Devonta. That’s my baby, too."