Leon FreemanNov. 24, 2008
Leon Freeman grew up always planning on playing college football, but poor grades and the events of September 11, 2001, ended up creating quite a detour between his home in Vero Beach, Fla., and his arrival at Baylor.
Though at age 26 he's got nearly two years on his next Baylor teammate and a full eight years on the Bears' starting quarterback, Freeman says he doesn't really feel the difference.
"I still joke around. I think a lot of people are shocked when they find out how old I really am, because I don't look it," he says.
Academic troubles kept Freeman academically ineligible for much of high school and prevented him from qualifying for NCAA play after graduation. With his options reduced to either staying home and working or entering the military, he decided to enlist in the United States Army in late August 2001. Two weeks later, two planes hit the World Trade Center.
Looking back, had he known what was coming, his choice might have been different.
"I was in basic training when it happened. It was a feeling like, 'Wow, we're going to war,'" he says now. "I knew it, but it seemed like a movie, except that we were actually in it."
Over the next year, Freeman spent time training in Georgia, Kansas and California and had a six-month stint in Kuwait. As the United States ramped up its war on terrorism in March 2003, Freeman's unit was sent back to Kuwait to prepare for the invasion of Iraq. Freeman struggles for words to describe the six months he spent in Iraq as a 240 Bravo machine gunner.
"Seeing the kids and people struggle over there, it's like 'wow.' Being over there, nobody wants to be there, but at the same time, I knew these people deserved a chance, too. In a way, you felt good when you could see the kids, and they were all happy once we came through the neighborhoods. We barely had water, but some of us would give them our water and stuff like that. It was a good thing to see smiles on some of their faces."
Freeman was honorably discharged as a Private First Class in September 2004, but still had the dream of playing college football. A friend suggested he check out a particular junior college that was looking for student-athletes, so Freeman went for a visit that December. He enrolled at the school, Mesa [Ariz.] Community College, a month later.
After two seasons playing inside linebacker for the Thunderbirds, where he was recognized among Rivals.com's Junior College Top 100 players, Freeman chose Baylor over schools like Cal, Iowa State, Kansas State and Washington State.
"I could have gone basically anywhere. I had the grades, and I think that was the biggest thing. The athletic ability, that comes second, because you have to be a good student," he says. "I visited Baylor, and it just felt like home to me. The people were very welcoming, and the guys [on the team] were very welcoming.
"When I first got here, it was like a culture shock; I just wasn't used to people being that friendly. I could be walking to class and speak to someone walking down the sidewalk, and they'd want to start up a whole conversation," he laughs.
The 6-2, 235-pound Freeman was moved to defensive end at Baylor and played in every game as a junior in 2007, leading the team with 9.5 tackles for loss. This season, he started nine of the Bears' first 10 games and, with two games to go, again led the team in tackles for loss.
After learning his lesson in high school, Freeman now takes great pride in his grades, earning a spot on the Big 12 Commissioner's Honor Roll last spring.
"I know hard work pays off, and I don't mind working hard," he says. "My past has a lot to do with my mindset when it comes to certain things, like knowing my priorities."
Learning those lessons has Freeman near the end of the detour that took him from Florida to Texas via Iraq. He is on track to graduate from Baylor next May, and his efforts have set him up with a chance at playing professional football, or perhaps a career as a personal trainer. Either way, it's clear that the things he's learned--during his military service and his time at Baylor--will aid him on whatever path life next leads him down.