Heading north for Freeman meant all the way to Saskatchewan and the Canadian Football League when a free agent NFL tryout in 2008 did not work.
Freeman, from Mary Hardin-Baylor, played three seasons in the CFL, twice appearing in Grey Cup Championships.
Freeman’s path to the NFL coincided with the hiring of Ryan Grigson as general manager. A grinding personnel ace, Grigson brought Freeman, among others, to Indianapolis and watched as he amassed 13 double-digit tackle games on the way to leading the Colts with 203 stops.
Asked in late November if Freeman had exceeded expectations, Grigson was not surprised by the first-year player’s production.
“That’s hard to say because he was the most dominant defensive player in the CFL last year,” said Grigson. “He basically made the most of his opportunity here using the skills he already had, but just doing it on a bigger stage.
“The lights haven’t been too bright for him. He has bought in with this team and coaching staff from day one, and it’s paying off.”
Freeman provided early dividends. The club’s first 2012 touchdown? It was a four-yard interception at Chicago, making him the NFL’s first undrafted free agent since 1987 to score in a career debut, the first such Colts player to do so.
Freeman made a splash and perhaps it told him he belonged. He never worried truly about that, he just wanted to make a team after being cut by Tennessee five years ago in his only chance.
“Just coming in, I wasn’t really thinking about me just belonging. I just played and did what I could to make the squad,” said Freeman. “As a player, if you don’t believe in yourself, nobody else is. I believed I could play at this level. As far as belonging, that wasn’t up to me. It was up to the coaches and who else puts the 53-man roster together.”
After 144 tackles and 13 sacks in the CFL, and its larger playing field, Grigson asked defensive coordinator Greg Manusky to view a tape of Freeman.
“I saw pretty much what he is doing today,” said Manusky. “He made a lot of plays up there in Canada. He was more of an off-the-line linebacker. At first, I didn’t know where he was playing. Just seeing him running down players, he was a good player there. I’m happy as heck we have him.”
Manusky watched live action, too. Freeman led the team in tackles in his first seven games, then did so in six of the last seven outings. Coaches totals put him over the 200-tackle mark, and he topped the previous franchise mark of Jeff Herrod (200) from 1994.
“I think he’s a slippery player when it comes to the run,” said Manusky. “He has instinct in regard to where the ball’s going and where it’s going to cut back. He has good vision. He’s got good coverage ability on tight ends and backs. That’s what you look for.”
With all the new faces on the team, one prominent one,
“I did not. We quickly learned who he was through his hard work and (being) a guy who brought his lunch pail to work every day,” said Mathis. “He out-lifted everybody, out-ran everybody. Whatever was asked of him, he did.”
With 16 starts completed and his first NFL playoff action looming, Freeman knows the nature of CFL post-season is not a true apple-to-apple comparison to this Sunday.
“(Laughs) this is a totally different game,” said Freeman. “The same pressure of understanding what you have to do, ‘It’s win or go home.’ I’ve played some big games. The CFL is a totally different game, but the aspect of being in the games and having the same pressure, I’d say it prepared me a bit.”
There is a chance that Freeman’s first NFL playoff field could be the last one for future Hall-of-Famer Ray Lewis. Freeman, who grew up admiring
“I’m a linebacker, right? Definitely (I’m a fan),” said Freeman. “It’s Ray Lewis, probably the best linebacker to play the game.”
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