RICHMOND, Va. -- The gunfire rang out too close to home -- like right outside -- prompting a panicked phone message from a young Derrius Guice. Ninth grade had just ended; football workouts started the next day. But he had to let his coach know he might not arrive on time, if at all.
He left a message on Catholic High School coach Dale Weiner's voicemail.
"Grandma's coming to pick me up because they're shooting in our house!" Weiner recalled Guice saying in the message. "They're shooting in our house, coach!"
That is just a snippet of what the Washington Redskins running back overcame in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to reach the NFL. His dad, who was killed when Guice was 5, was part of that reality. Guice's neighborhood, known as "The Bottom," was not an easy place to grow up.
"His junior year, I picked him up at his house, and three different times when he got in the car, he was talking about someone who got shot last night that lived down the street," Weiner said. "One of them, the crime tape was across the street. [It was] one of his friends who went to another school."
Given all that Guice has lived through, his words on the first day of training camp were striking. He said last season was his toughest ever, and it showed him that he is mentally strong. He was upset that his character came into question before, during and after the draft. Then he tore the ACL in his left knee during the Redskins' first preseason game. Nobody created more buzz early in camp last season than Guice; it vanished in an instant.
"I got to this stage, and I felt like I'd seen it all. I felt like I'd beaten everything that came toward me," Guice said. "When this happened, when the love of my life was taken away, that was the most critical thing I had to go through and overcome. Football was never taken away from me ever in 15 years of playing. This ain't no wimp injury. This is one of the most detrimental injuries out there -- period. When it happened, I didn't know what to do with myself."
Football, Guice said, has been his salvation. After missing the 2018 season, he's a full participant in training camp, and his workload continues to increase in full-team drills. Last week, the Washington coaches were excited to see him catch a route down the sideline and run 80 yards to complete the play. On the next play, he ran an outside zone for 50 yards and then picked up a blitz in protection.
"I've been impressed with him," Redskins coach Jay Gruden said.
It was the full Guice package, the one that led the Redskins to believe he would have an excellent rookie season -- until the ACL injury. After the initial surgery, Guice had three procedures to help prevent an infection. Because of this, for two months, he needed an IV three times a day for three hours at a time.
"God works in mysterious ways," Guice said. "Sometimes he tells you that you need to slow down. I felt that was the message to me: Slow down, and let him do his work."
Playing for his dad
For Guice, this season is about returning to his passion. It began because of his dad.
"He told me I was going to be the football man of the house," Guice said. "He told me that when I was 5 years old, and then a few months later he got murdered. That's what got me into it, and I never left. I wanted to honor football for him because that's what he told me I was going to do."
Guice started playing at age 6 with kids three and four years older. He was a fast, straight-line runner at that age, and he needed to learn how to cut.
"But there was no fear, definitely no fear," said Terry Boyd, Guice's youth coach. "That's one thing he never had."
A year later, playing against kids his own age and having learned how to cut, Guice emerged. Boyd challenged him, proclaiming another player was pushing him for the job. Guice responded by doing things such as running extra laps in full gear. In his second season, Boyd said Guice scored about 50 touchdowns.
"Untouchable," Boyd said.
As a ninth grader, Guice enrolled at Catholic, hoping to follow in the footsteps of its football alumni: former NFL running backs Warrick Dunn, Travis Minor and Jeremy Stewart.
Guice's high school experience helped him grow, but that growth was accompanied by pain.
"It really brought the man out of me," Guice said last year before his injury. "Me coming from a poverty-stricken area to an all-white private school, I had to grow up quick. I was around all these kids that carried themselves like grown-ass men. I'm still over there trying to get used to what's going on. It was hard. I wasn't used to being around the opposite color and being around them [all] day, talking s--- all day. I'm not as smart as them. I'm only there for football. In my neighborhood, your first reaction was to fight. I already knew at a school like that I'm getting put out [for fighting], so a lot of s--- I had to swallow and take in and use as motivation."
That motivation showed itself on the field, where, as Weiner said, when Guice ran the ball, he was a "ball of butcher knives. ... He would not go down. He was as tenacious a runner as I've ever been around."
Guice persevered and used Catholic to help him stay out of trouble.
"Why would I want to be surrounded by people that could put me in jail?" Guice said of his neighborhood. "Football was what I always wanted to do. So any option to get me away from [that environment], I was taking it. That could be meetings, it could be practice or going to Catholic for extra tutoring."
Guice made good friends and remains tight with his high school coaches and other faculty members. The only trouble he got into was a brief suspension from the team for a minor offense, Weiner said. Guice also occasionally butted heads with his position coach, Gabe Fertitta, who is now the head coach.
"I grew as a coach because here's a kid who was really smart, who knew what was happening on the field," Fertitta said. "I would say, 'Would you rather run the play this way or that way?' Often times his answer was, 'I want to run that way because ...' and his answer was pretty darn good. This wasn't a one-way street with Derrius. He helped me grow."
As Guice was recovering from his injury, he suffered another loss. In June, his 3-year-old cousin, Radyn Terrell, found a gun in his home and accidentally shot himself. Guice immediately headed to Houston, where the boy was hospitalized. Two days later, Radyn died.
Guice said he has a Fat Head of his cousin in his locker. When asked about him, Guice was silent for seven seconds before responding.
"It reminded me on how precious life is and how short it can be," he said. "That's why every day I'm out here, I take it to the fullest. I don't take days off. I don't take reps off. Life isn't promised. Hell, football isn't promised. There's a lot of people that wish they were in our shoes. Nothing is promised, and to see my little man ... That s--- hurts, man.
"I look at him every morning. It's always going to be a sadness because I wish I could see him physically and touch him and love him, but I know I'll see him again. Football isn't always going to be there, but family always will be there. I'll never turn my back on family. Never."
Football has helped Guice survive the tough moments in life. Then it was taken away. Now football is back. That's why Redskins running backs coach Randy Jordan got a little choked up talking about Guice's return.
"I know what he's been through in his life," Jordan said. "That's a lot to overcome, but he has some resiliency. That's why I get emotional. I know where he comes from, and I know where he's trying to head."
Guice's journey didn't break him.
"It was the hardest thing I ever had to go through in life," he said. "I'm really a strong son of a gun."