Of all the first-year players making it onto the Indianapolis Colts roster this season, Jerrell Freeman’s first impression took the least amount of time to make.
About the time people were flipping through game programs on Sept. 9 to see who the white-jerseyed No. 50 was, the linebacker with the Canadian Football League résumé was returning a Jay Cutler pass 4 yards for a touchdown.
Even in a 41-21 season-opening loss to Chicago, Freeman had become a story. The CFL player who came south of the border more than held his own at the highest level.
It’s at this point the 26-year-old out of the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor, a Division-III football power based in Belton, Texas, could have rested comfortably on his newfound laurels. Sort of a, “Look, I made the show, so now it’s cruise control” kind of mentality.
To Freeman’s credit, the few seconds of limelight only made him hungrier.
The following week the 6-foot, 234-pound newcomer recorded 13 tackles in Indy’s home-opener, a 23-20 victory against Minnesota. Later in the season came a pair of 14-tackle performances with a high-water mark of 16 tackles in the Colts’ 20-13 defeat of Buffalo in Week 12.
Hard to believe it’s the same Jerrell Freeman who in 2008 couldn’t get promoted beyond the Tennessee Titans’ practice squad. Or the one who had to star for the CFL’s Saskatchewan Roughriders for three seasons before finally landing a full-time NFL roster spot.
“It’s been a journey. It’s just about growing and trying to get better every week,” said Freeman, who finished the regular season with 145 tackles, by far the team’s highest total, with safety Antoine Bethea a distant second at 100. “As the season went on we just built that bond.”
Freeman, who also had two quarterback sacks and an interception, helped solidify a linebacking unit that lost Pat Angerer before the start of the season to injury. From there it was a matter of meshing with fellow inside linebacker Kavell Conner and outside backers Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis in first-year coach Chuck Pagano’s new 3-4 defense.
Even after Angerer returned for Game 6 against Cleveland, Freeman had become a force. He started all 16 regular-season contests as well as the loss to Baltimore.
“We definitely put together a pretty good foundation. Like I said, as a man, I want to be perfect out there and do whatever I want to do,” Freeman said. “It’s never going to happen, but I’m just trying to work to be the best that I can be.
“Yeah, we’ve accomplished a lot, and nobody thought we were going to do anything. As a competitor, you always want more, so it’s back to work.”
If that means additional sprint work beneath a blistering Texas sun, the Waco native will do it. If it’s agility work or sweating out so many weight-room workouts that he loses track, he’s totally on board.
“My mindset is doing whatever I have to do to get better. I’m trying to get away from just being a story and just being a football player,” Freeman said, alluding to his CFL roots. “I just want to get better at every phase of being a linebacker.”