WESTFIELD, Ind. – There he was, smack dab in the middle of the mass of humanity making up the Indianapolis Colts’ defensive line.
He pointed here, gestured there. He barked instructions, offered advice on how best to use leverage to stay low and burn the edge of the pass protection.
He was Mr. Hands On.
You almost expected Dwight Freeney to pull one of those wicked whirling dervish spin moves out of his back pocket and flatten Jacoby Brissett, Phillip Walker or Chad Kelly.
Then, after addressing the current Colts and imparting a veteran’s wisdom, the former Colt standout met with the media and showed his age. There were speckles of gray in his scruffy chin growth, and they were creeping into his closely-cropped hair.
“I try to keep it low,’’ Freeney said with his patented smile, “and fool people.’’
The no-foolin’ fact: Freeney is 39. He’s in his second year of life-after-the-NFL, and still trying to discover what that truly entails. He’s wearing out golf courses in West Palm Beach, Fla. and elsewhere – “Probably play way too much golf, to be perfectly honest with you,’’ he said – and dabbling in TV with NFL Network, ESPN and Fox.
On this resplendent Saturday, Freeney was the voice of experience sharing so much to a receptive audience that ranged from veteran Justin Houston to rookie Ben Banogu. General manager Chris Ballard and coach Frank Reich are committed to the Colts’ present and future, but they realize that includes not dismissing the franchise’s decorated past.
“We talked about that from the very start, Chris and I,’’ Reich said. “Great tradition here.’’
Freeney, he added, is “an all-time great. Not only an all-time Colt great, but an all-time NFL great.’’
The great @dwightfreeney addressing the team after practice. He credits daily practice vs. another great, @78tglenn, as a major factor in his success. “Going against Tarik day-after-day made games seem easy.” pic.twitter.com/e24sqBFYU6
— Jim Irsay (@JimIrsay) August 10, 2019
After the abbreviated morning practice, the players encircled Freeney. He talked, they listened. After most players left the field, Freeney and the d-line stuck around for additional work.
“One thing that he said that really stood out to me was, ‘Hey, everybody’s doing what’s required of them. You’ve got a schedule. But what are you doing to be great that’s not required of you?’’’ Reich said.
Again, this wasn’t casual lip service from someone who used to wear the uniform.
An all-time NFL great.
Freeney’s resume is deep and impressive.
The 11th overall pick in the 2002 draft, he spent 11 of his 16 NFL seasons in Indy. His 107.5 sacks rank second in team history to Bash Brother Robert Mathis’ 123, and he was instrumental in the Colts reaching the playoffs 10 times, advancing to the Super Bowl twice and winning one world championship. His 125.5 career sacks rank 18th in league history. He was a seven-time Pro Bowl selection, a three-time first-team All-Pro.
On Nov. 10, when the Colts entertain Miami, Freeney’s named will be added to the Ring of Honor at Lucas Oil Stadium.
But of course it will, even though Freeney insisted he was somewhat surprised when Pete Ward, the team’s chief operating officer, interrupted one of his rounds of golf with the news.
“That was amazing,’’ Freeney said. “You talk to people and they say, ‘Of course you’re going to be in the Ring of Honor.’ But you’re not thinking that. You don’t realize it until it happens.
“When I got the call, I was of course on a golf course. Pete called me. I was floored. When it hit me, it was like, ‘Man, I’m blessed.’’’
So many accomplishments, so many memories of spinning past this guy or bull-rushing that guy, and smothering another quarterback.
Like so many Colts before him, Freeney always will be part of the family.
“This is another home for me, you know?’’ he said.
Familiar faces remain. Reich was an offensive assistant during Freeney’s playing days. Many of the equipment personnel still are around.
“I actually see guys I played with,’’ Freeney said. “Obviously Andrew’s here, Castonzo’s still here and Adam never is going to quit.
“It feels good, man, to come back to where it all started.’’
After his 11-year stint with the Colts, Freeney bounced from San Diego to Arizona to Atlanta, where he nearly won another Super Bowl, to Detroit to Seattle. Finally, enough was enough.
“In the end it became me changing teams a lot,’’ he said. “Then it became, ‘Dwight, I want you to come coach this guy.’ I’m like, ‘What a minute. I can still play. I can still do it.’
“Once that started creeping in a little bit – I think I could probably play a couple more years – it was kind of like, ‘Let the young guys have it.’’’
In his second year of retirement, Freeney admits he still misses everything about the NFL.
“Absolutely,’’ he said. “It’s hard. It’s hard. Training camp . . . you guys can have that.’’
The NFL, he added, is a “thing that I’ll always miss. Game days is what I’ll miss and I can’t replicate that. It’s something you’re going to miss forever.’’
That’s why the visit to Grand Park Sports Campus was special. Yes, for a young Colts defense, but also for a not-so-young Dwight Freeney.
He didn’t discount pursuing a post-NFL career in coaching.
“You give them some nuggets and things to think about and stimulate and somehow maybe help their journey, make their journey easy because that’s what happened to me,’’ he said. “It was the veteran guys, the older guys that helped me along the way.
“I guess I’m the old guy now, the retired guy now.’’
Even so, Freeney recognizes what’s going on in Indy. He sees things building toward what the franchise once had. In 2018, the Colts won nine of their last 10 games to earn their first playoff appearance since 2014.
Are they close to recapturing what they once had?
“Close? You know (you’re) close when it’s consistent, when it becomes more consistent,’’ he said. “OK, these guys have a remarkable year last year. Now being in the conversation of being one of the better teams.
“That’s where we like to keep our Colts, right, is in the middle of the conversation of being one of the better teams out there.’’
Throughout his give-and-take with the media, Freeney continued to refer to “we’’ and “us’’ when talking about the team,
“It’s always going to be that way,’’ he said, “and I told those guys that. I said just because I may not be wearing the horseshoe now, those who played still feel connected. ‘When they win, we win. When you guys lose, we lose.’
“I identify with the Colts. That’s where it all started for me. Regardless, I’m a Colt for life.’’
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