Running back carries heavy burden

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The call came in the early hours after Florida State's thumping of Wake Forest. Devonta Freeman was sound asleep, and at first he thought the whole thing was a dream.

Freeman's sister was on the phone. She was yelling hysterically. She screamed something about his brother, but Freeman was groggy and confused.

The commotion jarred him into coherence, but the words still made no sense. His brother had been in an argument. He'd been shot. The details were sketchy. The phone allowed him only to eavesdrop on the chaos.

"Everybody kept calling me, but I didn't want to hear that stuff," Freeman said. "That was my brother."

Three weeks later, Freeman's understanding of what happened that night outside his family's home near Miami isn't much clearer. Anthony Darling, the man he'd always known as a brother, was dead. Darling had been in a fight, and he'd won, but a short while later the man he'd argued with returned with a gun and exacted revenge. The police investigation is ongoing.

Those details weren't Freeman's concern, though. They intertwine with all the other details that now seem far less important -- things like football. The emptiness and the loss are what overwhelmed him.

"After he died, I just didn't want to do anything," Freeman said. "I felt weak, I couldn't eat, I didn't want to practice. I didn't want to be here anymore."

Freeman and Darling were actually cousins, but Freeman's mother took in Darling after his own mother died. After that, the two boys were virtually inseparable, and by any definition that mattered to Freeman they were brothers.

When Freeman left home to begin his career at Florida State, Darling followed. He played football, too -- a fullback at Rickards High with an unlikely burst of speed. He rooted for Freeman, and he wanted desperately to follow in his footsteps.

In the days after Darling's death, Freeman found an old picture of the two of them when they were younger, playing football in the yard outside their home. The memories flooded back.

"We did everything together," Freeman said. "We went to the same school, wore the same clothes, slept in the same bed. Everything."

The immediate aftermath of the shooting was a blur for Freeman.

The tough-as-nails running back isn't fond of showing emotion, particularly around his teammates, so he did his best to put forth a strong facade and continue with football.

He went through the motions during practice, but his heart wasn't in it. During breaks, he'd wander off by himself and sob uncontrollably. Florida State was just days away from its biggest game of the year, and Freeman was a million miles away.

"The coaches could tell," Freeman said. "They knew something was bothering me."

While his family at home was in the midst of crisis, his family in Tallahassee was rock solid.

Chris Thompson didn't claim to understand the depths of Freeman's pain, but he could relate. Thompson's freshman season was marred by the death of his grandfather, and he had trouble separating his emotions from his responsibilities. Football demands so much, and Thompson understood how it felt to have nothing left to give.

Freeman's tough exterior looked familiar, and Thompson knew there was turmoil brewing beneath the surface. He offered Freeman a shoulder to lean on, but mostly he just listened. Thompson talked to Freeman about the death of his grandfather, let his teammate know he wasn't alone. He told Freeman to pray, and he told him to go home to Miami and deal with his emotions.

"Once he goes home, that's when he starts to think about it," Thompson said. "I felt like he needed to go home and deal with actually seeing his brother again."

A day after Florida State's emotional, come-from-behind win over Clemson, Freeman left the team. He spent less than two days at home, attending Darling's funeral and grieving with his family.

The trip was both necessary and traumatic, but Freeman had been given counsel on dealing with his emotions.

A few days after Darling's death, on the advice of a team trainer, Freeman visited a psychologist on FSU's campus. During their meeting, the psychologist told Freeman that he didn't have to let go of his brother, that Darling's voice could still be heard.

The advice felt incongruous, given the emptiness Freeman was feeling, but at his lowest point he decided to put it to the test. He was hurting, unsure of what to do next. So he asked his brother for help.

Darling's life wasn't easy. He wanted more, wanted to be like his brother. Freeman was his hero, and for all the steps in the wrong direction his goal was always to find a way to follow Freeman's path. More than anything, he was thrilled to see Freeman succeed.

So when Freeman asked his brother what he should do next, how he should move on in spite of so much pain, Darling's answer was loud and clear. Freeman had heard it so many times before.

"We've been together so long, I know what he would say," Freeman said. "I can just remember him saying, 'No, you have to keep going and things will get better for you.' "

Freeman is not healed. The pain still resides just below the surface, and the loss resonates every time he thinks of his brother, which is often.

But he feels better now. He has direction. He doesn't want to mourn his loss when he knows Darling would insist he appreciate what lies ahead.

When Freeman returned to practice last Tuesday, it was with a renewed enthusiasm. Despite a reduced role in the offense and the lingering sadness swirling inside, Freeman turned in one of the best practices he'd had at Florida State, Jimbo Fisher said. Freeman had collected himself, found a purpose in pushing forward.

"My mom always taught me that sometimes there's going to be dark, dark clouds," Freeman said. "You can't try to work it out yourself. You've just got to let that cloud clear. It's been clearing up slowly for me right now."