Devonta Freeman gives back on same Miami field that gave him his chance

MIAMI -- The awestruck look on the face of the young boy told the story.

As Atlanta Falcons Pro Bowl running back Devonta Freeman offered instruction to a group at his free football/cheerleading camp, a boy decked in a sleeveless Freeman Foundation T-shirt gazed at Freeman with eyes bulging and mouth wide open, as if his favorite superhero stood a few feet in front of him.

The boy's reaction was the same giddy feeling Freeman desperately wanted to experience as a child growing up in the tough Pork n' Beans projects of Miami. But none of his favorite athletes back then ever hosted such an event.

That was all the more reason for Freeman to come back to Charles Hadley Park Saturday to interact with 540 campers, cheerleaders included. It was the same park where he excelled in football as a youth playing for the Liberty City Optimist Warriors.

"It means a lot, just to give back," Freeman said. "It's a good thing to see smiles on the faces of the parents and the kids. I think it's important because we motivate so many kids and kids get to come out and see us compete.

"At this same park coming up, we didn't have nobody to throw camps. I was looking up to a lot of guys. I won't name them. I wondered why they didn't do those camps. Knowing what I know now, guys get busy. Guys travel. Guys have endorsements they have to handle. But at the end of the day, it doesn't take much. It takes half a day. I'm just thankful that I have the opportunity to work with these kids."

Saturday's camp evolved into a star-studded event before all was said and done. Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown and Minnesota Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, both Miami natives, dropped by to show support. So did retired four-time Pro Bowl running back Edgerrin James, who starred for the Miami Hurricanes before shining with the Indianapolis Colts. Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Lavonte David, Freeman's NFC South rival, popped in for a few. And new Falcons defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel, who still calls Miami home, made a cameo appearance and ran some of the campers -- including his own son -- through cone drills.

Freeman and Brown ate lunch together in a room after the camp concluded, reflecting on how they were once like the campers: boys with aspirations to play in the NFL.

"We've got so many great players here in Miami, so to see us do things for the city and see Freeman do things for city and bring out kids for a positive impact, allowing kids to have fun and get the camaraderie to be around guys in positive positions, that's what it's all about," Brown said. "I had to come out here and show him some love and support. There's a lot of successful guys here in Miami, and we're prideful together. We all see what Devonta's doing, and we want to keep seeing him do what he's doing and let him know that we love him."

Bridgewater offered similar praise for Freeman.

"He's a great athlete, but he's a better person," Bridgewater said. "Everything that has come his way right now, I couldn't be happier for him. He's worked hard his entire life. Nobody thinks about all the right decisions he had to make to escape from the inner city of Miami. I'm proud of him, and I've proud of everything he's done. To see him give back like this makes you even more proud to say that you know him and that you grew up with him."

Freeman made clear Saturday was about the campers and politely declined to discuss anything related to his contract situation. He is expected to be rewarded with a new long-term extension before the 2017 season begins.

His agent, Kristin Campbell, also declined to discuss anything related to contract situation. But Campbell had no problem speaking about Freeman's contribution to his community.

"I remember seeing Devonta at this park at 13, so to see himself in these kids, I think, is everything," Campbell said. "To know he was once the guys out here with his friends, and (the kids) get to be amongst other athletes and say, 'I can be like you one day.' But Devonta likes to take it a step further and say, 'You can be whatever you want to be.' So I'm happy that he gets the opportunity to share this with kids that come from the same area, and kids that have been in the same situation. He can be a source of encouragement."