I grew up in South Florida, Broward County. In 2013, the population was right around 1.2 million people. That’s double the amount of people that occupy the county I live in now!

Many of my friends growing up, myself included, were from divorced families. We had minimal supervision while our parents worked long days and late nights and some, my mom included, had more than one job. We were latchkey kids. 90’s style.

Now don’t get me wrong, I totally understand that adolescent struggles are a normal part of everyone’s life. If you don’t have at least one painful memory from your teenage years, consider yourself blessed! But I think if you ask anyone who was raised in a big city, they’ll you the struggles are different. Life is tougher: Faster. My friends and I dealt with things I hope my own children never have to experience.

Some were harmless. Like riding public transportation, a.k.a. “The City Bus,” to elementary and middle school, often times sitting next an adult who was on their way to work or on their way home from the bar! Or “cruising” the Fort Lauderdale strip, sitting in the back of a friend’s low rider truck drinking beer at 15 years old (remember the trucks that were so low the driver had to drop you and your friends at the entrance of your neighborhood because they couldn’t make it over the speed bumps?) Not an ideal situation for a young kid but harmless none-the-less.

Other aspects were far more dangerous: We had riots in my high school, gangs occupied almost every neighboring town and there was a regular threat of gun violence. But, what I’ve realized over the years is that all of my experiences made me tougher and, ultimately, more focused. I see those same qualities in many of the athletes, who also grew up in the South Florida area, I meet today.

A few weeks ago, I visited my alma mater, Florida Atlantic University. The Sports Information Director asked me to come down and chat with his student athletes. He was hoping my story, one that took me through the halls of FAU, and onto the sidelines for ESPN, would motivate his kids heading into the new school year. What I didn’t realize was that I was about to get my own lesson in motivation from a football player named Freedom Whitfield.

My first Jersey
My first Jersey

Before I spoke to the kids, a handful of us were involved in a few rounds of “Rock, Paper, Scissors”…just a fun game to set the mood of the night. I was paired up with Whitfield, a Senior Linebacker and team captain. Someone told me I should ask him how he got his first name. So, of course, I did.

“My mom was arrested when she was pregnant with me, and I was born in jail,” Freedom said, “so that’s how she picked my name.” Freedom went on to tell me how his mother was in jail for the first 13 years of his life. His father got out of prison this past July. He went to live with his grandmother, but she passed away when he was 7 years old and then he was on his own. He spent the next few years living with friends, sleeping on couches.

While Freedom was telling me about his childhood and the unthinkable things he had to deal with, I thought about my own children’s innocence. My sons are a year younger than Freedom was when he found himself alone. How scared would they be in that situation? Could they survive?

The turning point for Freedom came in high school when his strength and conditioning coach gave him a choice: Play football or hang with his friends on streets. Freedom pushed forward. He decided his past was not going to be his future. Why stop fighting now?

Next spring, Freedom will earn his college degree in Public Administration, and his resume will include four years of Division 1 football. “I look back at my past and I know how blessed I am to be where I am” Freedom told me. So what’s next for Freedom? Well, before I left FAU to head back to my hotel I asked him if he plans to play in the NFL, he quietly nodded his head and said, “Yes Ma’am, that’s the plan.”

You know what…I believe him!

Right after I lost Rock, Paper Scissors to Freedom
Right after I lost Rock, Paper Scissors to Freedom
Coach Schnellenberger's statue
Coach Schnellenberger’s statue

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