Pete Fredenburg smiled when he saw Jerrell Freeman’s new number: Mike Singletary’s No. 50.
Fredenburg coached both Bears linebackers: Freeman as the head coach at Div. III Mary Hardin-Baylor and The Samurai as an assistant at Baylor.
Comparing Bears linebackers to past greats has, for generations, proven foolish, but the coach sees similarities between the two.
“They have a tremendous work ethic,” he said. “They have a burning desire to be successful, but they both have those intangible qualities. We all try to figure out when we’re recruiting kids how we can find that stuff.”
Freeman signed a three-year, $12 million deal, but isn’t even the most high profile offseason pickup in his own meeting room. Inside linebacker Danny Trevathan got double the money, yet Freeman was the one making the Bears’ defensive calls during OTAs last week.
“Once you get it in your ear, you’ll probably have a little this, a little that, to tell different people,” said Freeman, who called plays for the Colts. “But it’s pretty simple.”
His road to the NFL — from Belton, Texas, by way of Saskatchewan — was not.
“I don’t think anybody’s taken a path that I’ve taken to get here,” Freeman said.
It would have been easy, at one of many dead ends, to quit.
“Once you get to know the inner workings of Jerrell Freeman,” Fredenburg said, “that never crossed his mind.”
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Even now, 4 ½ years after his NFL debut, Freeman is as known for his road to the league than starting 57 games over four years with the Colts.
And he’s proud of it.
“That grind — It’s just the type of player I am,” he said. “You can see it on the field. I play every play like it’s my last one.”
The former women’s college of Baylor University, Div. III Mary Hardin-Baylor didn’t become fully co-ed until 1971 and didn’t add football until 1998.
Freeman arrived on campus a lightly recruited tight end/defensive end from University High School in Waco. Fredenburg marveled at his fluidity and motor and moved him to linebacker as a freshman. His senior year, Freeman was named the 2007 Div. III Defensive Player of the Year. He left school as the Crusaders’ leading tackler.
The Titans signed and kept Freeman throughout the 2008 preseason, but cut him.
Freeman went back to UMHB — he promised his mom he’d continue his education —before signing with the CFL’s Saskatchewan Roughriders the next spring.
Three seasons and two Grey Cup games later, he joined the Colts in 2012.
Now 6 feet, 240 pounds, he long ago shed his tweener label — too small for linebacker, not fast enough to move to safety.
The Bears hope his position group improves from perhaps the league’s worst — Shea McClellin and Christian Jones were opening day starters last year — to its best.
“A year ago, those guys are learning,” inside linebackers coach Glenn Pires said. “These guys have done it.”
Rather than pairing a thumper with a speedster, the Bears have inside linebackers who can do both.
“We can feed off each other,” Trevathan said. “I know he played in Canada for a bit, but I like his attitude and the way he hits the linemen. And, you know, he hits fullbacks. And he’s just aggressive.”
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On the fourth defensive down of his NFL career, Freeman intercepted Jay Cutler’s pass and returned it four yards for a touchdown.
Freeman hasn’t mentioned the 2012 season opener — which the Bears won, 41-21 — to the quarterback yet.
“I might keep that in my back pocket,” he said.
Cutler was the first Bears player to text Freeman when he signed. Freeman joked that it meant he had a short memory, but said the communication “says a lot about him.”
He first noticed Cutler’s leadership last August, when the Bears held joint training camp practice in Indianapolis.
The defense’s goal is to “get the ball back to 6 anytime you can,” he said.
“He has that gunslinger mentality,” he said. “And I’d rather have a gunslinger back there than a guy who holds the ball.”
Freeman suspected his time in Indianapolis — home of oft-sacked star Andrew Luck —would be short. He signed a restricted free agent tender for $2.35 million last year, and said the Colts gave him a take-it-or-leave-it offer three weeks before the start of free agency in March.
When he brought them the Bears’ offer, they told him he should take it.
“I can’t beg to stay,” he said. “They moved on.”
He had hard feelings. In March, former Colts tight end Coby Fleener said some teammates were “just along for the ride” in 2015. Freeman responded, saying Fleener talking about him behind his back was a “bitch move.”
“Those are still my guys,” Freeman said of the Colts, who the Bears play Oct. 9. “With the whole comment, I still take pride because I felt like I was a leader up there.”
It’s part of what Bears coach John Fox admires in Freeman. He supposes his edge comes from the CFL, which Fox likened to “like being in Triple-A.”
“The thing I liked about Jerrell is that he has a little bit of a chip,” Fox said.
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Freeman still looms large back on campus.
In UMHB’s old field house, home of the new Jerrell Freeman Team Meeting Room, hangs a mural of Freeman tackling the Offensive Player of the Year during the 2007 semifinal.
“Everybody that comes here as a football player certainly hopes one day to have a story like Jerrell,” Fredenburg said. “Those are certainly few and far between.”
Freeman knows it.
“I take pride in just being that guy that worked from the ground,” he said, “all the way up.”