FOOTBALL: Growing up tough
CLEVELAND – The lone car driving down East 97th Street slows and comes to a stop. Three young men tighten their coats and tug at hats and gloves as they leave the car's warmth for the cold March air. The street is barren, the kind where empty lots outnumber buildings.
Old, gray snow covers the block, hiding any evidence of property lines.
"Welcome to the ‘hood,'" one of the men says.
This bleak, forgotten street in a city full of bleak, forgotten streets is where Travis Freeman's childhood home once stood. The lot is now vacant, marked only by the tree standing in what was once his front yard.
Keep walking north down the street and you'll pass the corner store where Freeman made a few bucks, helping the owner clean up the apartments on the second floor.
At the end of the street, where 97th dead ends into Lamont Avenue, is Freeman's old elementary school. Well, at least the building where Charles Orr Elementary used to be. Now, the building houses an early childhood development center.
The former school's playground remains. So does the field where Freeman, Ball State's middle linebacker, first played football. As does the housing projects where many of his friends once lived. And … you get the point. This is where Freeman grew up, his home, his "hood."
For Freeman, the journey from East 97th to Ball State has been a long one, much longer than the five hours it takes to drive the 300 miles from Cleveland to Muncie. His journey is about beating the odds, about not becoming a statistic, about not settling for what's easy.
If there's one thing Freeman learned from the streets in Hough, one of Cleveland's most dangerous neighborhoods, it's that only the tough survive.
The three men approach what was Freeman's boyhood home, where he spent the first five years of his life.
He remembers that time in his life for what his family didn't have. The basics most people take for granted such as lights, a landlord and heat weren't always there. The deficiencies weren't always the Freeman family's fault. Sometimes someone else not paying a bill would cause the utilities in their home to go out.
At times it was too much for Freeman's mother, Gwendolyn. She was struggling to raise her three sons alone and work full time at the Cleveland Clinic.
"I think that was the worst-case scenario for my mom," Freeman says. "My mom was stressing with her job, taking care of her kids, and then situations like that she couldn't understand what was going on."
After his grandmother Lovie died in 1995, his mother packed and moved the family. East 97th was getting too dangerous for her liking.
"The neighborhood was way too bad," he says. "There was too much going on. Shooting, fighting, killing."
Hough has been a dangerous neighborhood for longer than many Clevelanders can remember. It was already a place most people avoided when race riots turned the neighborhood into flames for four days in 1966. Not much has happened to improve its image. If anything, it has gotten worse.
Yet some families can't escape the neighborhood. Freeman's mother moved the family a few blocks away, the first of many moves for Freeman. When asked how many times his family moved, he laughs. He thinks back, counting the times his life was uprooted as a child before settling on five.
But he always came back to East 97th to see his friends, he says, and especially for football practice on the field down the street.
Under the cover of snow, the practice field for the East 97th Bulldogs doesn't look much different than the empty lot where Freeman's old home once stood. A rusty fence surrounds the field, and it's easy to imagine parents, siblings and neighbors leaning against it, watching the boys play.
Freeman points to the different areas of the field the boys rotated through as they grew up. Playing tackle football from the start, the Bulldogs were a ragtag group that often didn't resemble much of a team.
"Everybody had a different color [helmet], but we had it," Freeman says. "This is where it all started right here."
Only it didn't almost start.
Freeman was 5 years old when he went to his first football practice. It was a sweltering August day in Cleveland, the air heavy with humidity. Freeman and his brother Giorgio went to practice and soon found themselves running under the sun's glare.
"We was like, ‘We quit. We don't want to do this no more," Freeman says. "It's too organized for us. We could be doing something else in the summertime."
But their oldest brother, George, was at the practice as well. Freeman said George snatched the pair before they could leave and made sure they stuck it out.
Freeman would practice on the same field for seven years. He played his Muny League games at a middle school nearby until he started his high school career.
Even from the start, Freeman was a linebacker. He did move around some, playing fullback and on the offensive and defensive lines.
"Anywhere that would help the team," Freeman says. "All you needed was a little bit of heart in Muny League."
Overlooking the practice field is the Amesbury Rosalind Estate, a Section 8 housing project. The white, two-story buildings hardly dominate the skyline, but there is plenty happening in the complex.
Freeman's mother always had enough money to make sure her sons never had to live in the projects, but many of their friends weren't so fortunate. They were trapped by the lifestyle woven into the neighborhood's fabric.
Entering the projects through a back entrance, Freeman sees a group of men in a huddle. They stand and chatter around a fistful of dollars, all loosely piled on the ground. They stop momentarily as old friends greet each other. Quickly, however, the dice roll into the snow again and the players are back to squabbling about a $2 bet.
For the players, their craps game is serious, much more than just a way to pass the time.
"Dice games are like another sport around here," Freeman says.
He remembers one time he picked the wrong day to stop and watch. It was after a football practice and the cops raided the game, sending the group scattering.
"I still had my football pants on and everything," he says. "You see other people run and you know you going to run."
The cops caught Freeman and turned him over to his mother.
"Your mother slaps you around, ‘What was you doing over there?'" he says. "You get your whuppin', but you never quite learn your lesson."
Freeman did learn enough to stay away from real trouble. He was never a gang member, something that can't be said for many of his childhood friends.
The Hough Heights Boys are the dominant gang in the neighborhood. Freeman estimates 90 percent of his childhood friends are in the gang.
"That's an easy 90 percent," his brother George says with a laugh. "You really don't have a choice around here."
Freeman did have a choice. Early on, he made the decision to play football. He was successful on the field and inspired by watching the NFL on TV. He knew he wanted to play on Sundays some day. But it was more than just wanting to play football; the game became a way out of Hough, a way to exceed the expectations for his neighborhood.
"Where we come from, everything around us was showing how to be unsuccessful," he says. "I guess football was my vehicle of transportation to get out of this place."
Once he made the decision to become an athlete and not a gang member, Freeman said it was easy to stick to his path.
"You get respect when they see you're going down another road, trying to do something different," he says. "Not living by the same status quo. Either you're going to sell drugs or end up in prison around here."
Drugs were plentiful around the neighborhood. At a typical dice game, Freeman says, enough drugs were sold to fill a medicine cabinet. Crack, dope and water – a cigarette dipped in embalming fluid – were all readily available.
Freeman remembers one day of football practice when a water addict stumbled onto the field. Freeman remembers the man was babbling about the end of the world and religion. Eventually, the addict left and practice went on. It was a startling sight, but not an uncommon one.
Even more dangerous than the drugs, would have been walking down East 97th if you weren't from Hough.
"If we didn't know you, you really couldn't walk down these streets," says George, standing in the middle of the road. "Guys pretty much almost got beat to death, right where we're standing. No exaggerating. Just for walking down the street. That's what kind of street it was."
Being from Hough wasn't always enough to guarantee your safety. As an SUV turns down East 97th, George recounts the dangers of being in the wrong neighborhood. Inside the SUV is a woman, who Freeman says is the mother of Kevin Joyner.
Joyner was something of a big brother to Freeman, someone who would look after him when George was gone. But one day Joyner was shot and killed.
His mother hasn't left, still living in the same house among the empty lots on Lamont Avenue.
Tattoos cover much of Freeman's upper left arm. A short-sleeve shirt would cover most of them, but one sticks out below the cuff:
Growing up, Freeman and Ronnie Stover were best friends. Their friendship began with the East 97th Bulldogs. The pair met on the desolate practice field in Hough, and became close over years. Stover was the running back and Freeman was the fullback blocking for him.
When Freeman was 11, his coach wanted to move him to a different position. He resisted, but it was Stover who made sure his fullback wouldn't be going anywhere.
"Ronnie said, ‘If Travis doesn't play fullback, I'm not playing,'" Freeman says.
Though the two lived in different neighborhoods and Stover only went to the same high school as Freeman for one year, they remained best friends.
Back in the car, the three men stop for a moment at Stover's old apartment building. It's boarded up and the surrounding area is deserted, but as a child, Freeman wouldn't have been able to be in this part of town, just a few blocks from his house, if he didn't know Stover.
Freeman knew Stover, and that was enough to grant him a pass to visit his friend.
Freeman was at work, painting a friend's house, when his cell phone started ringing May 7, 2009. He kept working, but when the ringing didn't stop, he knew he had to find out what was going on.
Something had happened to Stover. Details were sketchy, but Freeman quickly left work to find out more.
"Somebody told me he was shot," he says. "I didn't know what happened, but I rushed from the place I was."
He would soon find out Stover was dead.
Stover was shot in the head outside of Wade Park Plaza in the middle of the afternoon and died on the scene. Police would charge Mandre Taylor with aggravated murder and felonious assault charges in the slaying. Taylor pleaded guilty in January and was sentenced to 18 years to life in prison for killing Stover.
Freeman says he uses Stover's murder as motivation. When things get tough, he often finds himself looking down at the tattoo and thinking of his best friend.
"I know that he'd probably walk out of heaven just to get the opportunity to play football again," Freeman says. "When I don't want to practice or I'm just sitting in my room, I think of him and the opportunities he didn't have and that keeps me going."
In athletics, Glenville High School is the crown jewel of the Cleveland Municipal School District. Its dominance spans the sports, including track, basketball and baseball. Then, of course, there is football.
Since taking over the program in 1997, coach Ted Ginn Sr. has built the Tarblooders into a national powerhouse. Ginn's program has produced a Heisman Trophy winner and had five play in the NFL. Last year, it became the first inner-city Cleveland public school to play for a state championship. The Tarblooders almost came away with the trophy, but lost on a touchdown and two-point conversion with 64 seconds to play.
Freeman wasn't supposed to join Glenville's dynasty. He was supposed to go to East High School as both his brothers had. But as a standout player in Muny League, he caught the eye of Ginn and other top high school coaches.
Freeman could have escaped Cleveland's public schools for the Catholic school football factories at St. Ignatius or St. Edward, but he wanted to play for Ginn.
"I was recruited by a lot of Catholic schools," Freeman says. "But when I met Ted Ginn Sr., I was determined I was going to Glenville."
He applied for a transfer to Glenville and received one, clearing him to play for the Tarblooders. It was the right choice, because Ginn, a Glenville graduate himself, has a reputation for teaching his players far more than football. He uses the game as a way to get them out of the inner city and into college.
At Glenville, football isn't just a game anymore. Ginn knows many of the Tarblooders are playing for higher stakes than most high schoolers. He treats football more like a business.
Ginn takes his players on bus tours of various college campuses for the football camps they hold during the summer. The players go because they want scholarships, and this is another way for them to get the exposure they need.
Freeman rode the bus as a sophomore, the youngest player Ginn took that year. Even then, Freeman says he knew what the tour could mean for his college prospects. He remains thankful Ginn gave him the chance to be seen by so many coaches.
"No one's ever taken kids out of the city of Cleveland and show them what life could be like and promote them," Freeman says. "That's why people have the utmost respect for coach Ginn, because he does things like that. He takes kids from the inner city and takes them to places where people wouldn't come to see them."
The tour was Freeman's first to Ball State. He would be back soon.
Glenville doesn't have one trophy case or even a couple. It has an entire room.
The three men visit the high school just a few weeks after Signing Day. It doesn't look like anyone has done much to change the room since then. The tables are still decorated in the high school's red and black colors, and the trophies are still piled high behind the long table where the Tarblooders make their college choices official.
There are too many trophies to count. For some schools, this might be all the trophies their teams accumulated over the decades. At Glenville, it is just from the past few years.
It is in this room Freeman put on a Ball State baseball cap and signed his National Letter of Intent. The Cardinals were in a tumultuous time as coach Brady Hoke left the program and offensive coordinator Stan Parrish was promoted to replace him. They lost the final two games of the season and Nate Davis bolted for the NFL. No one knew it at the time, but it was just the beginning of the disappointments for Ball State football.
But this was Signing Day, a time for smiles. Parrish was happy to be keeping all of his recruits, and Freeman was happy to join the Cardinals, where he felt at home.
Freeman remembers a phone call he received from Parrish during the recruiting process. He took plenty of phone calls from plenty of coaches. But this one has stuck with him.
"I remember Coach Parrish calling me when all the recruiting was getting to a high and he said, ‘Just remember you have a scholarship offer to Ball State University,'" Freeman says. "I know that him and Coach Ginn have a great relationship with each other. Coach Ginn always used to tell me, ‘They're like family to me and I trust them.'"
Parrish's continued interest and Ginn's trust in the Cardinals' coaching staff were enough to sway Freeman. He and teammates Theon Dixon and Jason Pinkston committed to Ball State together, joining Tori Gibson who came to Muncie a year earlier. The group would be joined a year later by two more Tarblooders: Aaron Morris and Shane Belle.
"That's pretty much a blessing," Freeman says. "It's kind of like old times, right back in high school."
The heavy rain that had fallen all night continued to soak Waldo Stadium in Kalamazoo, Mich., which had been filled with 20,344 spectators. The place was now empty. The 2009 season had ended for Ball State and Western Michigan on this cold, wet November night.
Broncos' fans couldn't get away from the field soon enough. The Cardinals had ruined their Senior Night with a 22-17 upset, squashing any hopes of a bowl game. It was late, and there was school the next day. It was time to go home.
The Cardinals weren't in a hurry to leave. Thanksgiving Break was just on the other side of a three-hour bus ride to Muncie, a chance to get away from football and school for a long weekend. Still, this was a time to savor a rare victory to close out a 2-10 season.
Freeman looked at his jubilant teammates and saw a bright future.
"I remember the fight song after the game and just seeing the look on everyone's faces," he says. "I knew this program was going places from that moment on."
Freeman confesses he didn't feel so confident throughout Ball State's disastrous fall. The Cardinals entered the season with unattainable expectations after the most successful year in program history.
He wasn't at Ball State in 2008 when it made the run to No. 12 in the country, but he was used to winning. He went 41-4 at Glenville, winning four Senate League titles along the way. Watching some of his friends win the Big Ten with Ohio State didn't help matters.
He didn't understand losing and sometimes wondered what he could have done differently to avoid his fate. He kept coming back to the same answer, one that he can understand, rationalize and believe in.
"At the end of the day, you realize everything happens for a reason," he says. "I know I'm at Ball State for some reason. Whether it's to win or to lead, whatever it is, I have a purpose here."
Winning has continued to elude Ball State this fall. The Cardinals are 2-5, headed toward another season below .500.
But leadership, that's something Freeman can claim success in.
Despite his youth and the reality of strong leaders on defense like Sean Baker, Freeman commands a presence among his teammates.
"He's a team-captain type," Parrish says. "Very vocal and very emotional out there at practice all the time. When we got him out of Glenville, that's all coach Ginn talked about: ‘You're not just getting a player, you're getting a leader.'"
No matter whom he's talking to, Freeman always looks them in the eye. His brown eyes have a fire stoked with a determination to succeed that inspires confidence in those around him.
The look in his eyes stood out to Parrish during his recruitment. Parrish grew up in Parma Heights, a suburb on Cleveland's West Side. At 64, he's old enough to remember the Hough Riots. He has recruited from the East Side throughout his coaching career, and he has seen plenty of kids from the inner city.
But Freeman's eyes told Parrish this was no ordinary linebacker he was recruiting.
"Travis was a guy who had a goal and a look in his eye," Parrish says. "No. 1 to go to college and graduate. No. 2 to provide a role model for kids back there that were maybe still on the fence with what they wanted to do. Thirdly, he brought a leadership ability with him here."
The leadership everyone at Ball State talks about was evident to Ginn when Freeman was in high school. He was a captain his senior year and has continued to lead the five other Tarblooders on the roster.
"Travis is the general," Ginn says. "He is the man. He knows not just to represent himself, but where he came from as well."
Back on East 97th, Freeman looks at his old elementary school. The "Charles Orr Elementary School" sign is still visible, if dulled by the years since it closed. He remembers some of the fun times from his early days in school, some of the fights that toughened him up.
"We weren't perfect," he says. "We had to adapt to our environment. Couldn't be no sucker out here."
Freeman and his brother George laugh.
"You wouldn't have made it out here that's just being real," George says. "You had to toughen up one way or another."
Freeman picked football at a time when many of his friends were picking the Hough Heights Boys. The game that he learned to love on that ragged field took him out of Hough to Glenville and on to Ball State. He doesn't have to worry about drug addicts wandering into football practice or getting chased by the cops trying to break up a craps game.
He's left that all behind, but it's not in his past. Hough is where Freeman is from, the place where he found the sport he loves and the place where he learned the toughness that has carried him out of the "hood" and closer to his dreams.