MINNEAPOLIS — The new guy sitting alone in the bookstore caused some double takes. A few people approached to say hello and welcome him to town.
It’s not often that a starting NFL quarterback takes his playbook to Barnes & Noble for a late-night cram session, but then Josh Freeman’s path to Minnesota has been anything but textbook.
“They realized I was working, so it was cool,” Freeman said. “Everybody was extremely friendly. They were like, ‘We’ll let you get back to studying.’”
Minnesota Nice understands the ramifications of the Vikings’ latest quarterback Hail Mary.
In search of a career rebirth at age 25, Freeman has spent nearly every waking hour consuming the Vikings offense since his arrival two weeks ago. At Winter Park; at home; even, in his words, “posted up at Barnes & Noble” until 10 p.m. on the day that he officially became starting quarterback of an organization starved for a long-term solution at that bedrock position.
Freeman begins the next chapter in his career Monday night against the Giants in what amounts to an 11-game audition to determine whether he will remain in Minnesota beyond this season or continue his career elsewhere. His football résumé at all levels, including at Kansas State, is chock-full of late-game comebacks, and he’s hoping to orchestrate his best comeback yet.
“When times are good,” Freeman said, “you’ve got to really embrace the moment and enjoy it.”
Freeman knows too well what it’s like on the other side. His public divorce from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers played out like a soap opera fraught with contentious subplots and a conclusion that seemed inevitable.
He went from team captain and face of the franchise to an outsider the organization no longer wanted. Freeman described his messy exit as a “humbling” experience, but he purposely refrained from slinging mud on his way out of town.
“I try to live, feel, exist in the now,” he said. “All this stuff is going on, and I feel like I’ve got a great sense and perception of what reality is. My reality. Not everybody is going to have the same reality or how they perceive things. I know what the truth is.”
As with most fractured relationships, identifying the truth and assigning blame is complicated. Ultimately, Freeman’s relationship with taskmaster coach Greg Schiano and the Bucs organization disintegrated beyond repair.
Their collision course came into view as unflattering headlines emerged almost on a daily basis. Reports were that Freeman overslept and missed the team photo; that players privately believed Schiano rigged voting for team captains to ensure Freeman wasn’t chosen; that the organization fined Freeman more than $30,000 this season for various rules violations, including him agreeing to an unauthorized media interview; that a high degree of mistrust developed between the locker room and coach.
The breaking point came when someone leaked to the media that Freeman is in the league’s substance-abuse program. Freeman responded forcefully by releasing a statement acknowledging that he became a stage one participant after he accidentally took Ritalin and not his NFL-approved prescription for Adderall to treat ADHD, which triggered a positive test. Freeman noted that he voluntarily agreed to drug testing and that he’d passed 46 drug tests.
The NFL and players union plan to investigate the Bucs, hoping to determine who leaked the confidential information. Asked this week about that breach of confidentiality, Freeman’s father, Ron, said, “I don’t want to go there.”
Ron, a former USFL linebacker who also assists with his son’s representation, applauds the way Josh handled his benching and the nastiness of his final days in Tampa.
“Josh stays focused,” he said. “He didn’t become some irate, combative disruption. He simply did what he was told and when the opportunity presented itself to move on, he didn’t have any baggage to pick up and take with him.”
Freeman said he’s “at peace” with everything now and that he still maintains close ties with Bucs players and team employees — cooks, equipment managers, support staff included — whom he calls “my people. Those are my family.”
Asked if he’s concerned outsiders have the wrong impression of him, Freeman shook his head.
“It’s not my job to try and sway votes on whether people like me or not,” he said. “My job is right here. It’s in this locker room. It’s proving day in and day out to my teammates that I’m giving everything that I’ve got. I’m worried about people that I deal with.”
As a high school sophomore in Kansas City, Mo., Freeman threw a last-second touchdown pass to complete a comeback against his team’s biggest rival.
In his first career start at Kansas State as a freshman, he led two touchdown drives in the fourth quarter against Oklahoma State to turn a 10-point deficit into a 31-27 victory.
In his first NFL start, the Bucs trailed Green Bay by 11 points in the fourth quarter. Freeman threw two touchdown passes in the quarter as the Bucs won 38-28.
Freeman has engineered 10 comeback victories in the fourth quarter or overtime in 59 NFL starts, including one against the Vikings in 2011.
Freeman noted that he prefers his team not put itself in those situations, but he doesn’t panic if it happens.
“I’m not scared to lose a game,” he said. “A lot of guys, they get in the fourth quarter crunchtime situation and they’re worried about making a mistake. I’m not scared to cut it loose because I know how much I love winning. You’re not going to just throw the ball up for grabs, but I’m not scared to take those chances where you’ve got to put the ball downfield.”
Vikings quarterbacks coach Craig Johnson interviewed Freeman before the 2009 draft, and the thing that struck him — besides Freeman’s cannon right arm — was his “moxie.”
“He has that self-confidence you like to see in a quarterback,” Johnson said.
Freeman has thrown 80 touchdown passes and 66 interceptions in four-plus seasons, which underscores both his talent and his inconsistency. Rough stretches, he said, don’t shake his confidence.
“It’s not, ‘Oh, if I mess up I might get booed or a bad article on me in the paper,’” he said. “I’m not worried about that.”
Freeman borrowed an acronym from a friend in the military to use as a motivational device that guides him. They came up with PACE — preparation, attitude, concentration and execution. Freeman believes the first and last letters are the most important.
“A guy can go out and practice and complete 100 percent of his passes,” he said. “But if he gets cold feet and goes out in the game can’t hit the broad side of a barn, it’s all for naught.”
Freeman looked remarkably comfortable last week for a guy who’s still learning names and faces. In one conversation after practice, he discussed his love of reading and outlined the four pillars of Buddhism to emphasize a particular point.
“I can get into some deep philosophy stuff,” he said.
Freeman repeatedly has mentioned the warm reception he got and the family atmosphere he has felt inside Vikings headquarters, perhaps a subtle jab at his former coach.
His first meeting with Vikings coach Leslie Frazier actually came in 1993, when Freeman was 5. Ron Freeman served as urban ministry director in Kansas City at the time and conducted FCA camps across the country, including one at Trinity College when Frazier was coach at that school.
“Coach Frazier came out one day, and I introduced Josh to him,” Ron said.
The two met again two weeks ago. Frazier offered a clean slate and an opportunity to get a promising career back on the right path. Freeman, in turn, brought intrigue and some hope in a seemingly lost season.
Frazier cautioned anyone who views Freeman as a savior, though.
“I don’t know if one guy can save your season,” he said.
Freeman doesn’t look at his situation that way, either. He said he’s too busy getting acclimated to his new environment to worry about anything but the present.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” he said. “But the way these guys have welcomed me into their locker room and welcomed me to their family, I’m really grateful for that.”