SAN DIEGO — Allow me to introduce you to a man who has seen it all. The big guy over there, with the sunglasses and the brown hair and the tree-trunk arms. His name is Mike Freeman. Go ahead. Test him.
“Professional football player?” you begin.
Ha. Too easy. He is the starting center for the Super Bowl’s Denver Broncos.
“Free agent football player?”
Good guess. He made the Broncos as a free agent.
“Cut football player?”
Yes, the Broncos also cut him.
“Strike-replacement football player?”
How do you think he got back?
Beautiful, no? In the course of a single season, a man has a job, loses the job, gets it back during a strike, keeps it after an injury knocks out the guy in front of him, and now sees it take him to the mountaintop of professional football, a Super Bowl starter, popping the snaps to John Elway.
Ladies and gentlemen, here is Mr. NFL 1987, the patchwork player for the patchwork year. Talk about perfect fits. Mike Freeman is the Everyman. Was there ever a stranger season than this? Was there ever a Super Bowl more loaded with crisscrossed paths to glory? BENCH WARMER TO GLORY Look around at these players. (Well. Wait. You can’t look around at these players. You’re back home. I’ll look around at them.) Here is the Washington quarterback Doug Williams, who escaped a dying USFL like Superman escaping the planet Krypton. He was trade bait midseason. Now he’ll start Sunday.
And here are Kelvin Bryant and Gary Clark, more former USFL men, present and ready to play in the NFL’s biggie. Meanwhile, a guy like Joe Dudek — who never played in the USFL but has the most yards of any Broncos running back in a single game this season — is doing construction work in New England.
A scab, banished to oblivion.
There are players here thousands poorer because of the NFL strike, and players not here who will receive thousands in their mailboxes, the replacement teams’ cut of the playoff money. There are rejects and pickups and
guys whose last thought in September was being in the Super Bowl.
And then there’s Freeman. This guy takes the cake. A determined but smallish lineman, he came out of high school in California with virtually no major colleges interested, yet someone canceled on a scholarship to Arizona, and, at the last moment, he slid in. When he finished at Arizona, nobody drafted him. So he tried out as a free agent with Denver and made the team.
Then, in the three years that followed, he never started a single game.
The Broncos cut him five months ago.
But then — this never ends, does it? — came the strike. Freeman came back. And when Billy Bryan, the Broncos’ real starting center, was injured in a replacement game (and what was Bryan doing in a replacement game, anyhow?), Freeman moved over from guard — and here he is.
“Would you be here if not for the strike?”
“I’d have to say no,” he answers.
“Would you be here if not for Bryan’s injury?”
“I’d have to say no.”
“Yet you’re here, a Super Bowl starter.”
Whatever this guy eats, I want some. NOT IN WILDEST DREAMS “Before this year,” Freeman admits, “I didn’t have much in my career. My personal highlight film was two plays against Chicago. I was on special teams. Once I carried the ball 10 yards. Squibbed kick.
“I think it’s great that the replacement players will get a cut of this
(playoff money). Those guys won two games for us, conference games. They counted. I still talk to some of them. One guy called me to congratulate me last week, as a matter of fact.”
On Sunday, Freeman will have the unenviable task of trying to stop Washington’s defensive linemen. His protection of Elway will be crucial. His good snaps — especially on the shotgun, which the Broncos plan to use often
— could mean the difference in turnover or no turnover.
In other words, Mike Freeman, who five months ago turned in his playbook and waddled away, has become a major factor in the outcome of Super Bowl XXII.
“I never dreamed I would be here. Not for a moment,” he says, gazing around at the mob of reporters.
“Is there anything you haven’t seen in this game by now?” someone asks.
“I can’t think of anything.”
“I just hope to have a good Super Bowl, and then be around a long time with the Broncos.”
A nice thought.
They’ll probably cut him next summer.