Syracuse free safety Durell Eskridge is on the cusp of living his dream of being an NFL draft pick, and his best football may still be in front of him. However, most people have no idea the hell he went through just to get where he is today. He grew up in the “Pork n’ Beans” projects of Liberty City in northwest Miami, an area engulfed in poverty where most could only afford cans of Chef Boyardee or green beans.
Eskridge knew his mother received one paycheck per month, but he wouldn’t dare ask for how much. It was a disability check for his young sister, Shantrell, who has congenital cerebral palsy, and all he knew was it gave them another month with a roof over their heads. That was the story until 2001, when Eskridge came home to the news that the family was getting evicted. Needless to say, he had to pack up and move out, but it wasn’t a move that he necessarily hated.
“I never asked why because it was the projects,” he said. “I wanted to move out of the projects. A lot of bad things going on and I didn’t want to live like that. We could barely go outside because there was a lot of shooting going on.”
He was officially homeless, and his bed at night wasn’t a pillow, but leaning on the front seat or the window of the Mitsubishi Mirage to sleep. And keep in mind this isn’t a spacious Cadillac Escalade or Hummer we’re talking about either.
“That was some of the tougher times of my life,” Eskridge said. “When you’re a kid and you can’t lay down and stretch out in your own bed or even lay down and stretch out on the floor, you’re sleeping in the car. Just imagine that.”
“We cried a lot, but we had each other,” his mother, Margaret, added.
After about three years of that, his family moved into a new apartment in Liberty City, with Margaret finding work at Miami International Airport. However, the living conditions were again deplorable, with drug usage infiltrating the area and the frequent sounds of gunshots piercing the night air. When Margaret lost her job, the family was split up, and Eskridge ended up moving in with his best friend, Devonta Freeman, the former Florida State and current Atlanta Falcons running back.
The two were thick as thieves, and grew up sharing a common bond-neither one had anything. Since money was always scarce, the two found ways to pocket extra, whether it be pumping gas for tips, carrying grocery bags or cleaning the pool of Luther Campbell, the neighborhood elder statesman and former member of the rap group “2 Live Crew.”
“How we carry ourselves, we always kept each other up,” Freeman said. “We were going to make sure our shoes were clean, our clothes ironed. A lot of people think we weren’t going through stuff. But they don’t know half of it.”
Campbell, who was known as Coach Luke, was a well-known youth football coach in the area and notes how inseparable the two became.
“If you’d see one, you’d see the other one,” Campbell said. “In the neighborhood where we came up, they don’t know who to trust. I reminded those two at a young age, you’re brothers, and you’ll be brothers forever.”
As the two got older, a coach named Dwight Jackson even gave them a job at the Richardson Mortuary, where they witnessed firsthand what could become of them if they didn’t keep a square head on their shoulders.
“The reality is, because this is the house of reality, I let them know that it could be you on this table, it could be your mother mourning, it could be you in this casket,” Jackson said. “Now, you have an alternative, you can either be here, you can be in jail or you can be somebody productive.”
He basically let them know they could be that somebody and make the headlines in the papers one of two ways-by their obituary or the sports section.
Football became their way out, and Eskridge eventually was offered a full ride to play at Syracuse, while Freeman went on to star at Florida State. The two kept close contact, texting everyday and talking about their respective futures, and finally extinguishing the poverty that has bitten their families for so long. At 6-foot-3 and 208 pounds, Eskridge is a large free safety prospect who isn’t afraid to tackle. After taking over for Shamarko Thomas in 2013, he led the team in tackles with 78 and intercepted 4 passes. He followed that up with another solid campaign in 2014 with 68 tackles and 1 interception.
He still is a bit rough around the edges and isn’t quite yet the sum of his parts, but he definitely looks the part, with the ability to pack on another 10-15 pounds of muscle in an NFL weight room. At the combine, he ran a 4.63 in the 40, a solid number considering Kam Chancellor, the Seattle Seahawks All-Pro, ran a 4.62. With his fiery leadership and “follow me” attitude, coupled with his large stature, Eskridge reminds of Chancellor in a lot of ways.
Many draft pundits think Eskridge would’ve benefited by staying in school another year.
“You always hear that when you come out a year early,” he said. “I don’t worry about what Mel Kiper has to say. I don’t worry about what any other analyst has to say. I’m looking forward to what the general managers, the head coaches and the defensive back coaches have to say.”
At Tuesday’s pro day, Eskridge worked out for Steelers scout Dave Petett and then said he also had a voicemail from someone within the organization, presumably defensive backs coach Carnell Lake. He admits he still keeps in close contact with former teammate Shamarko Thomas and thinks he’d be a good fit, in terms of his skill set and the way Pittsburgh utilizes it’s safeties.
“I know [Troy] Polamalu, he’s up in age even though he’s still played well at his age,” he said. “And he’s probably ready to rest his body and enjoy the rest of his life and go on the beach somewhere and go somewhere for the summer and just relax. So I’m ready to fill in his spot, I’m ready to fill in Ryan Clark’s spot, I’m ready to fill in anybody’s spot.”
Projected as a third or fourth-round pick, he is clearly on the Steelers’ radar, with the uncertain future of Polamalu, coupled with uncertainty when it relates to Mike Mitchell and Shamarko Thomas. With his first contract, he already knows the first thing he’s going to buy, and that’s a roof over his head.
“We never lived in a house, ever,” he said. “It was always apartments or projects, and my biggest goal is getting my mother that house.”
Pretty soon, his mother won’t have to worry about a thing anymore, a far cry from when she had to scrape and claw every last penny together just to make it to one of his games.
“It made me grind hard, it made me appreciate the little things in life, it made me appreciate being on this earth being able to even have a mom, be with a mom,” he said. “My biggest thing is my first contract, any money I receive I’m just going to give it to her and let her do what she wants with it. She’s going to be 60 soon, and my goal is for her to have her feet up and living comfortable by the time she’s 60.”