Prep Football: Friday Night Legend Mike Freeman
Life has a sense of humor, and that explains why Mike Freeman, 62, now owns an insurance agency in China Grove.
When Freeman was playing fullback for A.L. Brown in 1966 and 1967, defensive players in the South Piedmont Conference were in dire need of solid insurance policies because Freeman, who had forearms the Incredible Hulk would've envied, left permanent marks on linebackers.
A mule provided transportation for Freeman's grandfather to make his way from Cooleemee to Kannapolis. The Freemans had always farmed, growing their own food, making their own clothes, rarely having money. Cannon Mills in Kannapolis promised to be a relative paradise.
"Steady wages in the mill at 50 cents a day, and you got paid every Friday," Mike said.
Freeman's father grew up hard and tough, dropped out of school in eighth grade and did some boxing.
When Mike was in junior high, the class bully offered insults. Freemans didn't back down. Mike, who weighed 135 pounds then, put up his fists.
"We would've duked it out," Freeman said. "But Dan Hamrick came up and grabbed him and lifted that guy two feet off the ground, just like you'd see in a cartoon, and Mule Faggart grabbed me by the collar."
Just three years later, Faggart would present Freeman with the prestigious "Lug" Leazer Award that still goes annually to the Wonder who provides the finest example of leadership and sportsmanship.
"That award is voted by teammates," Freeman said. "It meant the world to me."
Freeman's trip from little guy to the Leazer Award would require assistance from coaches Bob Mauldin, Roy Boyles and Bill Watts, but much of his success was self-made.
When Freeman was in sixth grade, his father told him to hit the floor and give him some pushups. He managed three. By the end of seventh grade, though, he was doing 100 a night. Next came a starter set of "Joe Weider" barbells.
"I never saw a weight bench until college," Freeman said. "I just did military presses with those barbells, and that's an ungodly exercise."
Freeman was on the eighth-grade football team but didn't make the travel squad. They still called him "Little Meatball."
In ninth-grade, he was still just 5-foot-9, but all those military presses and all those pushups were kicking in, and he began experiencing his first athletic success as a wrestler. He would eventually win the WNCHSAA mat title at 183 pounds.
The match that lit Freeman's desire to run the football was watching bullish Larry Csonka run the ball on TV.
"I saw the quarterback ask him if he had one more carry in him, and he always did," Freeman said. "That gave me chills."
Freeman became the Wonders' fullback as a junior in 1966, joining a backfield of 6-3, 210-pound blocking back Ken Little, quarterback Dayvault and halfback David Oliver. He was proud to run behind stalwarts such as Mike Morton and Joe Abernathy.
In 1967, integration gave the Wonders one of their greatest players ever - Haskel Stanback.
"Haskel brought a different dimension of speed," Freeman said. "I could run with him 10 or 15 yards, but after that, his strides were just too long and smooth."
There was nothing long and smooth about Freeman.
"The fun of running didn't start for me until after first contact," Freeman said. "I only ran up the gut or off tackle, and it was toe-to-toe there, and it just came down to which man could keep his feet moving longest. That's where those military presses served me well."
Brown was good both of Freeman's seasons on varsity - 7-3 and 8-2. But they were in the incredibly difficult SPC.
"Never made the playoffs," Freeman said. "Can you imagine 8-2 now and not making the playoffs? But a lot has changed."
Freeman cites Brown's close losses to Concord in 1966 and 1967 as the biggest disappointments of his life. Concord owned Brown in the 1960s, and Freeman's two losses were part of a 10-game Concord winning streak. Freeman played defensive tackle and defensive end as well as fullback, and one play still haunts him.
"We were always bang it-bang it-bang it, so Concord knew exactly what was coming, but Concord would use trick plays," Freeman said. "They pulled a tackle to block me and I could only get an arm on the quarterback (Andy Smith) as he went in for a touchdown. I'd love to have that play back and meet him in the hole. I still think about it often."
Freeman was a recruiting target. Purdue came down to recruit James Teal, Salisbury Boyden's great linebacker, and Teal recommended Freeman to the Boilermakers.
"The Saturday after I played against Teal was the one time I couldn't get out of bed in high school," Freeman said. "It was like that a few times in college."
Freeman didn't go to Purdue. His father's eyes only lit up when the military schools came around, so he ended up going to The Citadel.
From there, he transferred to Western Carolina. He scored his share of touchdowns and he suffered multiple concussions. His headlong running style never wavered.
For years, he lost track of his ex-teammates. Mostly he sold cars in Charlotte.
It was a wrestling reunion that allowed him to reconnect with his roots, and now he's a member of the A.L. Brown Booster Club.
"If you ever played football for A.L. Brown, you're a Wonder for life," he said. "I've come full circle."
Freeman is excited that two athletic grandsons, Kameron Sherrill, a sophomore at A.L. Brown, and Kenneth Freeman, who is at Erwin Middle, inherited his tenacity. Freeman plans to take Kenneth to his first "Bell Game" in Concord tonight."The game meant everything when I played in it," Freeman said. "It's still a big deal, and I can't wait to see Kenny's reaction."