In Liberty City, Super Bowl athlete confronted death often

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Atlanta Falcons’ Devonta Freeman confronted death often in Liberty City — but not in the way you might expect.

Devonta Freeman grew up as the man of his house in a small unit in Miami’s “Pork N’ Beans.” The hardships of growing up in the housing project in Liberty City pushed the Falcons running back to Richardson  Mortuary on 45th Street and 17th Avenue.

“I thought I was just going to see a lot of dead bodies,” Freeman said in a powerful documentary produced by ESPN. “I didn’t really think I was going to get any lessons out of it and I just wanted to earn some money.”

In the five-minute video, Freeman points out the bedroom window of his childhood home with familiarity, speaking proudly of how he made it out. Liberty Square, called the “Pork N’ Beans” for its yellow and brown paint, was one of the first government housing projects in the country.

Now it’s an epicenter of decay — the walls of its units splattered with mold and family’s homes infested with rats and other pests. The 24-year-old running back’s depiction of the streets paints an even more dismal picture.

“It was like so natural for somebody to just get shot. People come out and you looking over and ‘Dang, that’s such and such on the ground.’ He dead,” Freeman said. “[It’s] just a blessing not to be one of those kids laying in a casket.”

Freeman describes wanting more for himself than what his surroundings offered. He found that in a job that required him to confront death often.

Funeral director Dwight Jackson encouraged Freeman to avoid his own demise with some tough love, introducing him to the “back table” in his mortuary.

“If you want to make a positive impact in your life, then try to keep yourself off this table as a young person and try to do something positive,” Jackson recalled saying.

Freeman earned money to take home by carrying flower bouquets and opening doors during funerals.

Even as a celebrated athlete set to play in his first Super Bowl, Freeman said trips to see the deceased at Richardson’s are a necessary reminder.

“It motivates me to continue to do it. I know I want to set myself up for life,” he said.