Freeman, 83, lives quietly now, mostly in a wheelchair and not always aware of the moment. But leave it to those who know him, and played for him during a football dynasty at Lawrence High, to talk about those moments.
“Oh, wow,” said former Lawrence quarterback and receiver Mike Hughes, who played at Lawrence from 1987-89 and helped win three Class 6A championships. “I coach a lot of sports now with my daughter at a competitive level in soccer and softball. And every decision I made, I wonder if Coach Freeman would have made the same decision. I do the same professionally.”
Freeman’s low-key style belied the emotional, rough-and-tumble game he was coaching. But it worked. He treated his players with respect and good luck finding a former Lion who doesn’t speak effusively about his impact on their life.
“As a coach, Coach Freeman was a demanding guy, but at the same time he was always a fair guy,” Kansas interim coach Clint Bowen said Friday. “The way he made us feel as football players, like we were unbeatable, was special. And he had the whole father-figure thing, too. He was just awesome.
“I probably would not be in coaching without his influence. What we did at Lawrence, it was just everything. The pride we felt as Lawrence High football players was incredible. Playing for Coach Freeman made football the No. 1 thing in my life.”
Freeman won three fictional state championships – two at Osawatomie and one at LeRoy – before the Kansas State High School Activities Association devised a playoff system in 1969. At Osawatomie, he coached future NFL players Derrick Jensen and Lynn Dickey, a standout quarterback who is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
But it was at Lawrence that Freeman had his defining years. The Lions played in 10 consecutive 6A championship games from 1986-95; the first four of those came with Freeman at the helm. His Lawrence teams won championships in 1979, 1984, 1986, 1987 and 1989.
“With Coach Freeman, you never questioned whether he was proud of you or not,” Hughes said. “And I think the thing he was probably most proud of with his players was the men they became, the fathers they became.”
Freeman grew up in Burlington and he returned close to there, to LeRoy, after he retired from coaching. He owned the small bank in LeRoy and became the town’s mayor for 21 months, though he never accepted a salary, instead depositing his check into the town’s account.
He’s in a care facility in Burlington now. His daughter, Jennifer Freeman Nauertc, said his memory loss becomes more pronounced every week.
But while Freeman might not remember all of the details of his 36 years in coaching, which resulted in a 241-81-3 record, others do.
“He was such a good coach,” Hughes said. “But once he retired, I didn’t see him as much. Jennifer had a party for him on his 78th birthday a few years back and a lot of ex-players came back for that. One of the things that is unfortunate about high school athletics is that you kind of lose touch with the people who have had the most influence on you.”