Former Ohio State linebacker Marcus Freeman was clinging to his dream of being an NFL player a few years ago, but after being signed and cut twice and then signed again in a whirlwind six-month span, he knew he needed to start making plans for a career beyond football.
He discovered he had a love for what some players loathed — film study, meetings, game-planning — and figured his future might be in coaching.
But when he approached his mentors in the game with that idea, they all urged him to consider another line of work.
“I made a call to (OSU linebackers coach) Luke Fickell and said, ‘What do you think about me being a coach?’ The first thing he said is, ‘Don’t do it. You’re crazy. You don’t want to do this,’ “ Freeman said.
“He tried to change my mind a little bit. Then I talked to coach Jim Heacock, who was my defensive coordinator. And he told me the same thing, ‘Don’t do it. This is not what you want to do. You studied in college to be an athletic director. Go into that aspect of it.’”
Freeman even sought out Jay Minton, his former coach at Wayne High School, and Minton agreed with Fickell and Heacock.
They all just wanted to make sure Freeman knew what he was getting into, how working through the coaching ranks meant long hours, meager pay and years of dedication before reaching any kind of stature. And sacrificing time with family is an issue that never goes away.
But they couldn’t talk him out of it. And when a health condition ended his playing days — a routine physical revealed he had an enlarged heart valve — he decided to make the plunge.
“The passion for it continued to grow and grow, and I said, ‘This is what I love to do,’ “ Freeman said.
The former All-Big Ten player will be on the sidelines as Purdue’s linebacker coach for a game today against fourth-ranked Ohio State in West Lafayette, Ind.
Freeman spent one year as a graduate assistant at OSU and has been on the staff of ex-Buckeye assistant Darrell Hazell since then, toiling for two years at Kent State and then joining Hazell at Purdue in January.
But the former Parade All-American isn’t relishing a chance to coach against his alma mater. He admits to still being a Buckeye at heart, and he’s not sure what the Boilermakers — who are 31-point underdogs — can do to defend the Big Ten’s No. 1 offense.
“It’s really hard to stop. And the more you watch it, the more you get aggravated at it and get frustrated and mad as a coach and say, ‘Why are they allowed to do all this stuff?’ They’ve got some talented football players,” Freeman said.
“It gives you a pretty good headache (scheming against it). If you stop one thing, they have another thing that comes open.”
Hazell, who led Kent State to its first bowl trip in four decades last season, believes his linebackers are in good hands with Freeman.
“He’s going to be a star in this profession,” Hazell said. “He has an amazing ability to connect with players, and he’s smart.”
Freeman played in two national title games in 2006 and ’07 and three BCS bowls, helped the Buckeyes to four Big Ten titles and was part of one of the greatest wins in the Michigan rivalry, the famous No. 1. vs. 2 game in 2006.
But while he had some heady times on the field, those exploits aren’t what he treasures most from his time in Columbus.
“The thing you remember most about Ohio State is the process and the friendships and the times you spent in the locker room with those guys — those long hours and hard practices and the different emotions you have with all those brothers,” he said.
“I remember the big games, but I don’t remember them as vividly as those special moments you have with those teammates.”
The 27-year-old Freeman understands why his former coaches weren’t so eager to see him follow their career path. His duties often take him away from wife Joanna and their four children, ages 7, 6, 20 months and four months.
But despite the tugs on his time, he’s glad he followed his gut and didn’t let his mentors deter him.
“I would do the same thing if some young man came up to me and said he wanted to be a college coach. You want to talk him out of it because it’s such a selfish profession on your family,” he said.
“But it’s almost like I have a passion for coaching more than I did as a player. To work with a kid and see them be successful, it’s more fulfilling than when I was playing.”
Marcus Freeman File
Wayne High School: Four-year starter, two-time first-team All-Ohio linebacker.
Ohio State: Played from 2004-08, sitting out ‘05 season with knee injury. He was named second-team All-Big Ten in 2007 and ‘08 while finishing second on team in tackles both years.
NFL: Drafted in fifth round by Chicago Bears in 2009, released in September ‘09. Played on practice squads for Buffalo Bills and Houston Texans, retired in May ‘10 due to medical condition.
Coaching: Graduate assistant at Ohio State in 2010, linebackers coach at Kent State 2011-12, linebackers coach at Purdue 2013
Ohio State (8-0, 4-0 Big Ten) at Purdue (1-6, 0-3), noon, Big Ten Network, 1410