FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- In Miami, it was known as the Liberty City Massacre.
On Jan. 23, 2009, a masked man with an AK-47 assault rifle walked up to a street dice game and opened fire, filling the Miami night with bullets. There were about a dozen people on the sidewalk, including Durell Eskridge and two friends. Eskridge was 17 years old, a gifted athlete whose future was teetering between a life on the streets and the possibility of college football.
Everyone on the sidewalk tried to flee, but the odds weren't in favor of humanity at 9:50 that night in front of a grocery store on the corner of Northwest 15th Ave. and 70th St. At least 100 rounds were fired, based on the number of shell casings found by police in the street. Seven people were wounded and two were killed, Derrick Gloster, 18, and Brandon Mills, 16. They were Eskridge's friends. It was called one of the bloodiest mass shootings in the city's history. Eskridge got away, and he kept going and going, all the way to a full scholarship at Syracuse University and a free-agent contract with the New York Jets.
"They were killed in front of my face," the rookie safety said at training camp, remembering his childhood friends. "I could've been one of those guys, but I escaped. When I saw the gunman, I took off running. When I took off running, I was able to look back and I saw my friends getting shot up on the wall.
"That next morning, I walked down to the crime scene, just to see their blood still spattered right there. I said to myself, 'I can't do this; this isn't how I want to end up.' I couldn't do it to my mother. I had to find a way. I had to get up out of that place. I had to get my mom out of that place."
For some reason, Eskridge was spared. Maybe it was because he was a fast runner. Maybe it was the phone call he received a few minutes earlier from a guardian angel, warning him of potential trouble. Maybe it was just random luck. Not a single bullet from the hail of gunfire found his body, and he took that as a message. From then on, he decided to make changes in his life.
That Eskridge has made it to an NFL training camp is a small miracle. He grew up in the Pork 'n' Beans projects in Liberty City, one of Florida's poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods. He was homeless for a period of three years, living in shelters and later a car -- a green Mitsubishi Mirage. Green is the color of his new team, giving him an appreciation for the color that once symbolized his lowest point in life.
He lived in the car with his mother, two of his sisters and their belongings. Sleeping was difficult. As Eskridge said, "We were scrunched on bags of clothes. But we made it work."
His mother, Margaret, raised eight kids, including a daughter, Shantrell, with cerebral palsy. Margaret worked odd jobs, trying to make enough for food and housing, but there was a point when it became too much. They went to a homeless shelter, but the environment was uncomfortable for a mother with small children.
"The boys and girls couldn't sleep together, so I couldn't stay with my mom," Eskridge said. "I had to sleep in room with strangers, older men, homeless men. I was 10 or 11 years old. Having to sleep around those guys, my mom got sick of it. She didn't trust the guys that were laying next to me at the homeless shelter. She decided she'd rather sleep in a car, together."
So they checked into the Mirage, their four-door oasis in the middle of their poverty-stricken neighborhood.
By his own admission, Eskridge was no angel as a kid. He bounced around from school to school, attending a total of seven high schools and having to repeat ninth grade. There was no stability in his life, not at home nor school.
"I got kicked out of every one of them because I was so bad, trying to find myself as a young man, getting into trouble, little small things," said Eskridge, who graduated from Miami Central High School. "I couldn't control myself. Not having a father figure around, I was trying to figure out how to become a young man."
He estimated that 70 percent of his friends were killed in the streets; the rest are serving long prison sentences.
After the Mitsubishi, Eskridge moved into a Liberty City apartment, living under a roof with a bed. But when Margaret lost her job at Miami International Airport, the family had to split up. Eskridge was invited to live with his boyhood friend Devonta Freeman. Eskridge wound up staying four years.
Eskridge and Freeman formed a lasting bond, protecting each other from the drugs and violence on the streets. It was Freeman who called Eskridge on that fateful night in 2009, imploring him to leave the crowded sidewalk. He didn't have hard information. It was just a gut feeling that made him place that potentially life-saving call.
"I don't know, something didn't feel right, so I called him," said Freeman, a running back for the Atlanta Falcons, whom the Jets play Friday night at MetLife Stadium. "A few minutes later, they shot up his block."
The two boys worked small jobs together, pumping gas, carrying groceries for tips and doing yard work at the home of rap star Luther Campbell, the former member of 2 Live Crew and a well-known youth football coach in the area. They also worked at a funeral home, a harrowing experience because they saw corpses ravaged by gunfire from the streets. They were surrounded by death, reinforcing their determination to find a better life.
"He's more family than some of my family," Eskridge said of Freeman. "In those tough times, you're looking for somebody to lean on, and he was the person I leaned on."
"Durell is my brother, man. He's the best friend I've ever had," Freeman said. "I'm so proud of what he's overcome. He didn't know why he was living in a car or why he had no shoes or why he had no food. He didn't understand any of that, but he lived through it and got through it. I feel like God does things for a reason. He gives the strongest soldiers the toughest battles."
Freeman was recruited to Florida State, where he became an immediate star and a fourth-round pick of the Falcons. Eskridge caught the eye of Syracuse coach Scott Shafer, who showed up for a practice with a list of Miami Central's top players. His list didn't include Eskridge, but he was immediately struck by the 6-foot-3 junior's size and athleticism.
"Holy cow, who's this kid?" Shafer, Syracuse's defensive coordinator at the time, said to himself.
Eskridge was red-flagged by the NCAA for academic reasons, making him ineligible to play as a freshman. The statistics said there was little chance of him succeeding in a college environment. Damn the statistics; he hasn't graduated yet, but he has a degree-completion program in place.
The emotion in Shafer's voice tells you everything about his feelings for Eskridge.
"I fell in love with him," Shafer said by phone. "In my years at Syracuse, he's one of the best people I've ever been around. I was taken aback by his levelheadedness. He lost dear friends and family members, shot on the streets -- just horrific stories. It's hard to fathom. If I was in his shoes, I don't think I could've made it out of there. A lot of people don't, but he defied all odds."
Eskridge left school early to provide for his family, thinking he'd be a third-round pick -- the grade he received from the NFL advisory board. Evidently, he didn't impress scouts, tumbling out of the draft. More hardship. Right now he's the fifth safety on a five-safety depth chart, but the recent season-ending injury to Antonio Allen could create an opportunity. The statistics say Eskridge is a long shot. Where have we heard that before?
Friday night will be special. Freeman, who won't play because of a lingering hamstring injury, looks forward to seeing his friend before the game, even though they talk and text every day. They faced each other once in college, but this is the NFL, albeit the preseason.
"This is our dream," Freeman said. "Now, how far can we go from here?"
No matter what happens with the Jets, Eskridge is a success. He's treated like a hero when he returns to his old high school and attends football camps in the area. He speaks to kids, inspiring them with his words and his journey. He embodies the phrase, "Anything is possible," according to Freeman.
"There was a lot of adversity growing up, which could've led me in the wrong direction, but I stayed strong," Eskridge said. "My motivation was, not a lot of people from where I come from make it out. I want to show the kids it's possible to be somebody in life."