Freeney Expects to be Emotional Entering Sunday's Season Opener
INDIANAPOLIS – The wait was long, and the work was tough.
Dwight Freeney, the Colts' three-time Pro Bowl defensive end and the team's all-time sacks leader, spent much of the past 10 months rehabilitating a foot injury sustained last November. It is, he said, the longest he ever has gone without playing a real football game.
So, when Freeney is on the sideline on Sunday night in Lucas Oil Stadium awaiting the 2008 regular-season opener, he said it won't be just another experience.
He will think of the past. And of the future.
And as he waits, he said it likely won't be that normal pre-game feeling.
"I might get a little emotional," Freeney said as the Colts (13-3 last season), the five-time defending AFC South Champions, prepared to play the Chicago Bears (7-9) in the first regular-season game at Lucas Oil Stadium Sunday at 8 p.m.
"I'm not saying I'm going to cry, but I might hold it in or take it out on somebody."
If Freeney didn't feel such emotions in his previous NFL six seasons, it wasn't for a lack of on-field success.
Freeney, the Colts' first-round selection in the 2002 NFL Draft, had 60 sacks in six NFL seasons, registering double-digit sacks in each of his first four NFL seasons – 13 in 2002, 11 in 2003, 16 in 2004 and 11 in 2005. He recorded three and a half sacks during the first nine games in 2007, consistently getting pressure despite double teams and extra attention from tight ends and running backs.
He finished the season with 34 tackles, 29 solos, and despite missing nearly two months, he led the Colts with 19 quarterback pressures. He also forced four fumbles, and had a momentum-turning sack for a safety in the Colts' 29-7 victory at Jacksonville on October 22.
Then, on a rainy night in San Diego, Freeney limped from the field late in the Colts' 23-21 loss to the Chargers. A few days later, he was placed on injured reserve.
The seven games he missed – eight including a postseason loss to San Diego – were difficult, Freeney said, and he has talked several times this preseason of his relief to be back, and his anxiousness to return to full strength.
"I saw the excitement when he was able to come back and start practicing and playing," Colts Head Coach Tony Dungy said. "He's revved up, but it's nothing where you say, 'Oh, this is really different,' or, 'Now, he knows he can't take it for granted.'
"I think just the enjoyment of being back out there is what I've seen."
Freeney, who missed just one game in his first five NFL seasons, said the experience has had an effect on his approach to the game.
"I just want to go back out there and do what I do," Freeney said. "I want to go out and have fun. Every play matters and every play counts. I know I said that (previously), but now it's even more, because you never know. I'm going to have fun while I'm out there."
Freeney, after missing the final two months of the season, spent the off-season rehabilitating, returning to practice in mid-August and playing in the Colts' preseason loss to Buffalo at Lucas Oil Stadium on August 24. He missed the preseason finale against Cincinnati, a game in which only one Colts starter played.
Freeney said this week he feels close to 100 percent.
"I don't know if the conditioning is there, but I have no choice," he said. "I have to get back out there."
Without Freeney late last season, the Colts' pass rush – one of the NFL's best in 2004 and 2005 – struggled at times. With end Robert Mathis – the team's sacks leader a year ago – also injured late in the season, the team had just one sack in the final four games, including the playoff loss to the Chargers in which the Colts allowed 411 total yards and three second-half touchdowns while recording no sacks.
Freeney on Monday was asked if he looked forward to returning to his pre-injury form, seasons in which he had "bunches of sacks."
"Bunches of sacks," he said. "Now, you're talking my language. I'm going to try to get three sacks on the first three pass plays. That's just what it is. That's just my mentality. I'm always trying to have that big game – six sacks, the (New York Giants defensive end) Osi Umenyiora game, those types of games.
"I just try to have fun. If it doesn't come, it doesn't come. The next game, I'll be trying the same things. I don't care if they only pass five, six times a game."