Most of the time, according to his devoted daughter, Bill Freeman lives in 1951. That’s when he was a guard for the Emporia State football team, long before he started winning games as one of the most successful coaches in Kansas high school history.
Freeman is 83 and lives in a nursing home in Burlington, confined to a wheelchair and unable to grasp the moment, his daughter, Jennifer Freeman Nauertc said. The moments he grasps best are from long ago, from when he was a small offensive lineman holding off bigger would-be tacklers.
“He knows us, his family, but he thinks it’s the olden days,” she said. “He has a tough time carrying on a conversation. He tries. A lot of times we’ll discuss football with him and he’ll try to tell us about some plays.”
Nauertc is Freeman’s only daughter; he and his wife, Joan, adopted her when she was three days old. They had tried having another child after their son, Jeff, was born. But they weren’t successful.
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“We were very close and I miss that,” Nauertc said. “My dad was always hard on me, but that’s because he wanted to see the best of me. “I know he wanted to see my kids graduate high school, that he wanted to become a great-grandfather, that he wanted to see my kids run high school track.”
What Nauertc wants to see is her 83-year-old father inducted into the Kansas Sports Hall of Fame later this year. Her tireless work has helped get him on the KSHOF’s ballot, recently sent out to voters across the state.
“It means everything,” Nauertc said. “My dad and (former Kansas athletic director) Bob Frederick were great friends. But Bob didn’t get into the Kansas Sports Hall of Fame until after he died from a bicycle accident. I don’t want that to be the case with my dad.
“This just tears me up. My dad beat prostate cancer and he had quadruple heart bypass surgery. Never in a million years did I think Alzheimer’s would get him.”
Freeman coached high school football in Kansas for 36 years. He had a 242-81-3 record. There is much more than sentiment behind his KSHOF candidacy.
He won three fictional state championships with LeRoy (1) and Osawatomie (2) before the playoff system was introduced into Kansas high school football 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.
Freeman’s best years, though, came at Lawrence, where he built one of the most impressive dynasties in the state’s history. The Lions played in 10 consecutive Class 6A state 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.
After Freeman retired from coaching he returned to live in LeRoy, 14 miles southeast of his boyhood home, Burlington. Freeman owned the bank in LeRoy for many years, starting in 1978 when he was still coaching at Lawrence. He was even LeRoy’s mayor for 21 months though he never accepted a salary, instead depositing his check into the town’s account.
He stepped down as mayor and sold the bank, though, as he started to struggle with memory loss.
“I have three kids and he’ll still ask about their grades,” Nauertc said. “They’re 18 (Tyler), 16 (Bryson) and 14 (Kaitlyn) and he’s always been interested in what they’re doing. But mostly he talks about being a kid. It’s kind of wild.”
Freeman’s wife lives in LeRoy. She doesn’t drive now, Nauertc said, but is able to see her husband regularly.
“She gets lonely,” Nauertc said. “My kids go see her a lot.”
Nauertc started e-mailing and calling people she thought could help her father get into the Kansas Sports Hall of Fame more than a year ago. She waited eagerly for the 2014 ballot to come out and it was sent out to voters last week.
Freeman is one of 25 people on the ballot and voters are instructed to endorse 10. The inductees will be announced in the summer.
“My dad loved football and banking, but he loved football more,” Nauertc said. “I think it was the interaction he had with kids. He always loved it when former players would come back because he liked seeing what they had done with their lives. He wanted to have a positive impact.”
Freeman is a deserving Kansas Sports Hall of Famer. I sent in my ballot, and listed him No. 3, behind former Wichita State baseball coach Gene Stephenson and former 13-time state champion swimmer Caroline Bruce McAndrew, from Trinity Academy, who went on to become an Olympian and an All-American at Stanford.
“Having so many on the ballot makes me nervous,” Nauertc said. “But this is really the only honor he has not received. And he’s always been a very humble man.
“My kids have asked me about if he gets in, then who would speak for him at the ceremony. It would probably be me, even though I’d be a mess.”