By Chris Emma–
LAKE FOREST, Ill. (CBS) — When Jerrell Freeman returns to Lucas Oil Stadium on Sunday as the beating heart of the Bears’ defense, he won’t play any differently against the team that slighted him.
Freeman and the Colts differed in negotiations this past offseason after he spent his first four NFL seasons in Indianapolis. Freeman even hired super-agent Drew Rosenhaus but still couldn’t reach an agreement with general manager Ryan Grigson. So he shipped north on I-65 and arrived in Chicago.
But when Freeman lines up across from the Colts this Sunday, he maintains that he won’t play with an extra edge.
“I’ll go with the same tenacity and fierceness that I do every game,” Freeman said.
Freeman’s level of play is always high. There are few who play the game quite like he does, and none with the path he’s taken. Freeman is a 30-year-old linebacker who made his way from Mary Hardin-Baylor to the Canadian Football League to the Colts, playing with an intense demeanor at each level.
Snce arriving in Chicago, Freeman has shined with the Bears defense. His 41 tackles are good for third in the NFL after four games. He’s posted 519 tackles in 61 career games — an average of 8.5 tackles per game — and made a Colts record 145 tackles in his rookie season of 2012.
“He’s one of the better linebackers in the NFL,” Colts quarterback Andrew Luck said.
Colts coach Chuck Pagano attributed Freeman’s departure to “roster mechanics” but added: “I’ve got the utmost respect for as a ball player and more importantly as a man for how he plays this game. He plays it the way it’s supposed to be played.”
Naturally, it begs the question — how did the Colts let Freeman leave?
Freeman signed a three-year deal with the Bears worth $12 million, $6 million in guarantees. Grigson prioritized the Colts’ other linebackers and later awarded Luck with the largest contract in NFL history. Freeman’s differences with the Colts wouldn’t permit a better deal. Grigson let a name from their record books depart.
“They’ve watched me for four years,” Freeman said. “They know who I am, what I am, what type of player I am. It’s not like I have to show them anything. They understand. I’m just going out there and playing.”
The story of Freeman is certainly unique. He’s the only Mary Hardin-Baylor product to ever play in the NFL and is one of so few CFL alums to thrive in the NFL.
All it takes to understand Freeman’s success is the eye test. Just watch how he plays the game. He has a tremendous knack to read a play and find a clear path to the point of attack. A player doesn’t post tackle numbers like his by some fluke. Freeman is intense with his studies, which allows him to recognize the function of his defense, where the point of attack will be and how line stunts will allow him to reach the ball-carrier.
Indianapolis molded Freeman into this kind of player. He came from the CFL and joined a defense that included Antoine Bethea, Robert Mathis and later D’Qwell Jackson, each of whom were instrumental in his growth.
Freeman is grateful for his time with the Colts, a team that offered him that shot at the NFL, but he’s moved on from that chapter and is embracing his new opportunity with the Bears. Playing linebacker in Chicago means a great deal to Freeman.
“I’m not really representing myself,” Freeman said. “I’m trying to represent everybody that’s played the position here, because I know the pride and passion that they played with. I want to play with the same thing.”
Shortly after Freeman signed with the Bears, he received a notable mention in his Twitter inbox. It was legendary Chicago linebacker Mike Singletary, another native of Waco, Texas, who had offered Freeman his blessing to don the No. 50.
“Wear 50 with pride,” Singletary tweeted to Freeman. “I’m more concerned with the character of a man and not a number, and know you’ll wear it well.”
Freeman then spoke with Singletary over the phone. Naturally, Singletary did most of the talking.
“I’m in awe just talking to him on the phone, because he’s Mike Singletary,” Freeman said. “So I’m just smiling like, ‘Man, this is Mike Singletary talking to me right now.’ I’m just trying to absorb, be a sponge with everything he’s saying.”
From there, Freeman understood the class he had joined. Names like Singletary, Dick Butkus, Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs and many more have made the Bears organization synonymous with great linebacker play. He hopes to carry on that legacy.
Freeman has all the motivation he needs. His story began at Mary Hardin-Baylor, went north to Canada and saw success in Indianapolis.
A new chapter has come with great expectations, but it won’t change how Freeman plays the game.
There’s no changing that.