Staff Photo: John Bohn - North Gwinnett running back Donnie Miles (1) scores a touchdown during a game last season.
Before he ever reached high school, Donnie Miles experienced more heartache and loss than some people do in a lifetime.
The North Gwinnett senior grew up in Carol City, Fla., a city 15 miles north of Miami known for its high crime rate.
In a three-month span, six of Miles' friends, who he grew up playing football with, were shot and killed.
"They weren't bad kids," Miles said. "They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time."
The tragic loss of young lives was enough for Miles' parents Diane and Donnie Sr. to send Miles to Atlanta to live with his brother Rod.
Miles enrolled at North Gwinnett in the spring of 2010 and in two years has emerged as one of the state's top football players. He accepted a football scholarship offer to North Carolina this spring and with North graduating almost its entire defense, Miles will be relied on to lead the group this fall.
"He's clearly the most experienced and has worked hard going into his senior year to put himself in a leadership role," North Gwinnett head coach Bob Sphire said.
Miles played running back his freshman year at Carol City and when he moved to North assumed the same role as a sophomore.
"He obviously had the ability; he saw the cuts," Sphire said. "Physically, he really worked hard in the weight room."
Miles never played a down of defense in his life, but with North struggling to find someone who could play in the secondary, he was willing to make the change as a junior.
At the time, I had to do what was best for the team," Miles said. "Whatever we have to do to win games, I don't care where I played."
Miles rushed for 674 yards and nine touchdowns as he split time with Joe Jones at running back last season. He also made 24 catches for 269 yards.
Miles began the season as a safety for North, but eventually moved to cornerback and the defense began to flourish. With Miles on one side of the field and all-county selection Malcolm Jackson on the other, teams struggled to thrown the ball against North. Miles made 25 tackles and two interceptions on defense. With Jackson gone, Miles is now the Bulldogs' top corner.
"I'm trying to help the team the best I can," Miles said. "Our main goal is to keep the same tradition. Coach (Mo) Dixon always talks about carrying the flag. That's what I'm trying to do and win another region championship."
Since Miles came to North, he's helped the team to a 21-3 record, two Region 7-AAAAA championships and a pair of playoff appearances.
Miles committed to North Carolina in March, choosing the Tar Heels over Tennessee and Duke. He's taking two summer school classes so he can graduate in December and enroll at UNC.
"I may have a chance to get on the field early," said Miles, who maintains a 2.5 GPA. "That's my goal to get on the field as a freshman."
The opportunity to play college football is something Miles might never had if he still lived in Carol City. His parents still live in south Florida and he talks to them everyday by phone while he lives with a family friend.
"I have two families that love and support me very much," he said.
He still thinks about those six friends he lost a few years ago and the move to Suwanee that may have saved his life.
"It's a tough environment in Carol City," Miles said. "I can't tell you what would have happened (if I still lived there)."