Devonta Freeman takes verbal hits from Warrick Dunn to avoid real ones

Warrick Dunn and Devonta Freeman, shown in a postgame chat in 2017, have followed similar paths from Florida State to the Falcons. Vaughn McClure/ESPN

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Devonta Freeman has done a solid job emulating Warrick Dunn as a dual-threat back, but imitating how Dunn talks is another story.

Freeman, the Atlanta Falcons' two-time Pro Bowl running back, leaned on a set of bleachers, took a deep breath, lowered his tone and offered his best impersonation of Dunn, who had his most productive seasons with the Falcons from 2002 to '08.

"Warrick always tells me all the time -- you know he talks low -- but he tells me, 'Hey, man, you've got to do better. You can't be taking all these hits, man. It's all about longevity,'" Freeman whispered with a Southern drawl. "That's what he always says to me, and I appreciate that. I really appreciate stuff like that."

Dunn probably would have laughed at the way Freeman mimicked his tone, but at least his message seems to have resonated. The bond Freeman shares with Dunn, a fellow Florida State Seminole, extends beyond football talk. They keep in touch often, even if it means checking in just to say hello. In the bulk of those conversations, Freeman has grown accustomed to Dunn preaching to him about avoiding some of those vicious hits.

"Yeah, I agree with him 100 percent," Freeman said. "I've talked to a lot of people about it."

Dunn, now a Falcons minority owner, never regrets bringing it up.

"A lot of times, these guys always want to prove that they're tough or that they can get the tough yard, but sometimes you have to live for another down," Dunn said. "My advice to Devonta was, 'You have to learn how to protect yourself at the same time. You're picking up tough yards, but you have to be smart and strategic about it.'

"To be a better runner, it's not always about, 'Let me run over guys.' It's 'How can I avoid the big hit so I can have longevity in this league?' And I just try to encourage him to become a better overall runner."

Healthy approach

The 27-year-old Freeman, entering his sixth NFL season, played in two games last season because of foot, knee and groin injuries before he had season-ending core-muscle surgery. In 2017, he missed two regular-season games with an in-game concussion, missed preseason action because of a practice concussion and sprained two ligaments in his right knee during the regular-season finale. He also missed a game with a concussion in 2015.

Considering his size, at 5-foot-8 and 208 pounds, plus the fact that he has sustained at least three concussions, there are durability concerns.

"I've really never even thought about it because it's just one of those things where it's football," Freeman said. "No. 1, you already know you're signing up for a 100 percent gladiator sport. Anybody can get injured -- 100 percent.

"But it's never one of those things that I dwell on, like, 'Man, I've got this many concussions. I got hurt this many times.' As long as God is still blessing me to do what I want to do, I'm going to keep doing it because this is God's timing. This is not my timing. This is what God wants me to be doing, so I'm going to do it."

Freeman understands why folks chide him about taking hits. And Dunn isn't the one who rides him the hardest.

"Of course, my momma, she's No. 1," Freeman said of his mother, Lorraine. "She's like, 'Baby, you just need to get out of bounds sometimes' and 'Why you be trying to hit the big people like that?' and 'Why they trying to hit you like that?' Because my mom didn't grow up a football fan. She understands it a lot more now because I'm her son."

Dunn, unlike Lorraine Freeman, speaks from football experience. Listed at 5-foot-9 and 180 pounds, Dunn played 12 NFL seasons and was a three-time Pro Bowl selection. He started and ended his career with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but during his six seasons with the Falcons, Dunn had a stretch of starting all 16 games in three consecutive seasons (2004-06). In that stretch, he averaged 304 touches and 1,448 yards from scrimmage per season.

"If I was running, I wouldn't want to get hit at all," said Dunn, who started 154 of 181 career games. "I'm trying to avoid getting hit. I'm not going to take shots. So there's times that you need to run out of bounds."

Freeman agreed with Dunn's reasoning yet explained that he has evolved into a smarter runner since his rookie season.

"It's not like I'm out there trying to be a tough guy," Freeman said. "I'm not trying to run people over. I have before. I mean, some guys on the sideline, sometimes I just wanted to just run through people. But that was just my younger years. A couple of games, I ran some guys over on the sideline when I could have run out of bounds. It happened a couple of times when I was 1 yard away from the sideline, and I should have went out of bounds.

"Once I get going downhill, I'm going downhill. It's like a truck -- hard to stop. That's for anybody, though. But sometimes, you have to live for another down as well. I'm learning. I'm growing in that. I'm going to continue to get better."

In fairness to Freeman, it's hard not to take a pounding when you don't have adequate blocking in front of you. He didn't miss a game in 2016 when the Falcons started the same five offensive linemen all the way through the Super Bowl. The Falcons hope the 2019 version of the line, which features Pro Bowl picks Alex Mack and Jake Matthews and could include rookie first-rounders Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary, protects Matt Ryan and opens more holes in the running game.

Freeman, who looks rejuvenated after the surgery in October, is sure to carry the bulk of the load with Ito Smith and perhaps rookie back Qadree Ollison behind him. Freeman can help his cause by using his shiftiness to avoid tacklers.

"Yes, I can use my elusiveness, but it's hard to at certain times," Freeman said. "If I'm in the hole, it's hard for me to be elusive because I don't have the time to be elusive when you have these linebackers who are running 4.4 now. So I got to get it and go."

Role model

Freeman met Dunn during his junior season at Florida State, when Dunn came back to address the running backs in the meeting room. Dunn talked about the benefits of the outside-zone blocking scheme and offered pointers.

Freeman didn't get a chance to speak with Dunn afterward, but the moment left an impression.

"Of course, I knew all about Warrick Dunn because that was, like, the guy when I was at FSU. I was like, 'Man, I want to accomplish everything Warrick accomplished,'" Freeman said. "He's a great person, on and off the field."

Dunn is second on Florida State's all-time rushing list with 3,959 yards, behind current Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook (4,464). Freeman is ninth with 2,255 yards.

Dunn amassed 10,967 rushing yards, 4,339 receiving yards and 64 total touchdowns in his 181 career NFL games. In 2008, he became just the sixth player in league history to reach 10,000 rushing yards and 500 receptions, joining Marcus Allen, Tiki Barber, Marshall Faulk, Emmitt Smith and LaDainian Tomlinson.

Freeman has 3,316 career rushing yards (767 attempts), 1,605 receiving yards (198 receptions) and 37 total touchdowns in 63 career games. He admitted to being in a "dark place" last year while injured as the Falcons finished 7-9. But there are high expectations for a now healthy Freeman heading into this season.

"I'm not going to set any personal goals as far as [statistics]," Freeman said. "I'm going to play as long as I can play. As long as I can still be explosive and have fun with it and God gives me the ability to do it, I'm going to keep doing it. I'm not going to put no time limit on my career because I don't want to do nothing else but play football.

"Whenever it's time for me to hit something else -- maybe be a coach one day or something like that -- that's when the time comes. But for now, I just want to play football as long as I can."

Freeman also admires Dunn's body of work off the field. Through the Warrick Dunn Charities Homes for the Holidays initiative, Dunn's foundation has awarded 169 homes to single-parent families. Dunn created the program in honor of his late mother, Betty Smothers, who was a single parent and police officer murdered in an ambush at a Louisiana bank in 1993.

"Warrick lost his mom, and look at the way he carries himself," Freeman said. "He's got a lot of heart. He went and visited the man in jail. That's tough, to look at somebody eye to eye and ask them why they killed your mom. That's tough.

"Just him as a man, he's such a well-rounded guy. I would advise anyone to take after his footsteps. I mean, be your own person, but try to mimic that or come close to it in your own way."

Freeman, who grew up in the rugged Miami projects, has his own foundation and hosted a free camp a few years back at the Charles Hadley Park where he played as a youth. Freeman has partnered with an elementary charter school in Atlanta for laptop giveaways and shopping sprees, something he hasn't advertised and shied away from discussing in detail.

"You can tell Warrick is all about family and giving back to the community, and that inspires me," Freeman said. "Giving the houses away, that's something that's always motivated me.

"There's a lot of people who are unfortunate. It feels good when you have the caliber of legend of Warrick Dunn going back and giving back and showing he really cares. Football is huge, but at the same time, we've got a lot more to be thankful for."