INDIANAPOLIS –NFL players come from everywhere and some take different paths to reach the sport's highest league.
Jerrell Freeman is one of many players lining up across the league this Sunday who took an indirect path to an NFL playing field.
The Waco, Texas native grew up in a state that is a hotbed for high school football. The institutions in Texas that field college teams are famous, but the one Freeman attended is not – Mary Hardin-Baylor.
For the kid from Waco, there were not many playing options after attending University High School.
"(Laughs) I wound up going there…I played defensive end, a little inside," said Freeman of Mary Hardin-Baylor. "I played tight end, everything. I was about 5-10, 185, so I really don't blame any of those college coaches for not picking me up. I was a late bloomer, I guess. I went there and things started flying around."
Freeman had more than 300 tackles in college, setting the school record. He had 112 stops and six sacks among his senior exploits, and he was named D3football.com Defensive Player-of-the-Year. Freeman was off the beaten path so much that a Combine invitation did not materialize.
"I went to Mary-Hardin Baylor, which is like the sister school of Baylor," said Freeman. "They had just got their football program. It used to be an all-girls school actually, back in the day. They let me go to Baylor's pro day. I went there and showed my skills."
The big dreamer had a free agent tryout with Tennessee in 2008, but was cut before the season. He took his talents farther north to the Canadian League, and it was a match for Freeman. He played three seasons with Saskatchewan (2009-11), totaling 144 tackles, 13 sacks, three interceptions and four fumble recoveries, being named a league all-star in his final season. Additionally, Freeman played in two Grey Cup games with the Roughriders.
The Colts signed Freeman, 6-0, 234, to a futures contract on January 19 of this year, one of the early additions by new General Manager Ryan Grigson, a personnel specialist who seeks talent from every outpost.
Freeman brought his dreams and work ethic to Anderson University in late July. Two weeks into camp came his latest opportunity arrived when Pat Angerer broke his foot on the opening play of the first preseason game against St. Louis.
Freeman was inserted at the "will" position in Angerer's absence and started the next three games. He finished preseason tied for fourth on the club with 15 stops, eight solo, acquitting himself well in the spot occupied by the club's leading tackler from a year ago.
"I think it went pretty good. The team is in a pretty good place," said Freeman of the preseason. "As far as personally, I want to be perfect. That can never happen, so I'm never satisfied. There are always things I can work on. There are a lot of things I can build on. I did some of that in preseason, but (this) week is live bullets."
Angerer made an impact in his first season with the Colts. He has been impressed with Freeman's ability and production.
"He's been making plays since he got here. He's a very player, very athletic," said Angerer. "He's a strong and fast guy. I'd better get healthy soon. Watching him play, he does a great job. It's fun watching him. (I can help him) by seeing little things. He knows (what to do). He's been around. He made a ton of tackles in Canada. He's a great player. It might be his first year in the league, but he's a veteran. He knows what to do."
Freeman is not a rookie by any means, though the NFL is a different league than the CFL. Freeman does detect differences.
"It's more structured here. It's a lot more understanding gaps and movements here, but it's American football. I've been doing it all my life, except for the three years I was in Canada," said Freeman. "It's a little different, a lot more run fits, being more disciplined. You just run. It's still sideline-to-sideline like it's always been. I guess it's a little shorter sideline-to-sideline now, but (you) still run to the ball, still have a little motor. (You) try and go out there and go get it."
Head Coach Chuck Pagano is installing a hybrid 3-4 defense that is new to Colts, old and new alike. He has noticed Freeman's ability.
"I think he's done well," said Pagano. "He's filled in nicely, not only in first- and second-down stuff, but in our sub-packages in third down. He's done a nice job."
As far as trying to achieve perfection, Freeman knows the work is non-stop.
"I can work on everything – learning the reads, drops, being patient, footwork," said Freeman. "There are so many things to being a linebacker. You always have to keep working in this league. It's everything for me. I need to be mentally prepared. I need to get in the weight room and do what I have to do. I need to be in condition. I need to understand all my responsibilities. You can never stop learning, and you can't stop working. You never can exhale. If you do, you're out of here."
One of the Colts who recently departed the squad was long-snapper Justin Snow. Snow played for 12 years with Indianapolis after being discovered on Baylor's Pro Day. It turned into a noteworthy career for Snow. Now, Freeman has extended that lineage, even if it is from a "sister" school of Baylor.
He also is representing the hopes of a small Texas institution that takes pride in its products.
That storyline out of Texas is familiar with another former Colt as well – running Dominique Rhodes, who joined Indianapolis as a free agent in 2001 out of Midwestern State University. Rhodes, too, had a solid career in Indianapolis. Both Snow and Rhodes earned Super Bowl rings with the Colts.
Freeman knows he is representing his school's dreams.
"I know I represent a lot more people than just me," he said of being the first player from his school to reach the NFL. "I'm doing this for a lot of people. It's me first, but I know I'm representing a lot more than just me."