I admit it. I’m not your typical sports journalist.
Maybe it’s the girl in me or maybe even the former social worker, but in the middle of the X’s and O’s chatter, I can’t help but be drawn to the more human side of football. While the huddle of reporters blurt out questions about depth charts, upcoming match-ups and the progress of the special teams, I often find my eyes wandering toward the players walking to the locker room. I find myself studying their interactions with each other and with fans. And while others are analyzing the outcome of a game, I’m the one watching how the players carry themselves after a victory, or perhaps more importantly, after the occasional loss. Sure, the competition and nuances of the game are exciting, but to me, each helmet represents a person with a unique personality and a story to tell. Enter Oregon running back, Royce Freeman.
Last season, a young, highly recruited Freeman stepped onto the field and did exactly what he was expected to do. He dominated. Though a buzz surrounded Freeman during he 2014 Fall Camp, he was not allowed, per policy, to talk to the media until he played his first game. When he was finally able to face the cameras, I sat in the room and began studying.
Though Freeman was just out of high school and had just played on one of the biggest stages in college football, he sat poised, calm, cool and focused. If Mariota was calm, Freeman was comatose. He was respectful but used as few words as possible as he answered questions directly, with very little expression. Some may have considered him “vanilla” or “boring”. What I saw was a kid with beast-like talent (much like a young LeGarrette Blount) with incredible maturity and nerves of steel.
I kept studying.
Throughout the 2014 season, Freeman quietly racked up yards and accolades. Though he had become a well- respected feature back, much of his potential stardom was stifled by the inevitable Marcus Mariota Mania. By the end of the season however, Freeman managed to quietly earn the award for the Pac 12 Conference Freshman Offensive Player of the Year along with several other top awards. Week after week, he’d go to work and quietly enter the post-game press room. There, he would say a few words and quietly slip out. He was, in a sense, in a spotlight but not the spotlight. That would soon change.
By the Spring of this year, Marcus Mariota had been drafted by the Tennessee Titans and Freeman had become the new face of the Oregon Football Program. So much so that he now graced that coveted ESPN College Football Edition Cover and was now firmly in the spotlight- a familiar place.
With freakish athleticism and a good head on his shoulders, a young Freeman was a high school football star in his home town of Imperial, California, just a little over a year before. In a state full of talent, Freeman stood out and eventually fielded scholarship offers from numerous top colleges including USC, Texas, Alabama and Florida State. Fortunately for Ducks fans, Oregon recruiters worked their magic.
Now in his second year as a Duck, Freeman finds himself not only in the spotlight, but also in a new leadership role. Sure, Oregon’s newest quarterback, Vernon Adams, is the talk of the town but with the recent news that fellow running back, Thomas Tyner, will be out for the season, all eyes are on Freeman to lead the running back corps and help ease Adams into that infamous up tempo Oregon spread attack. Of course there are plenty of X’s and O’s to analyze as we look ahead to Freeman’s statistics in Saturday’s season opener and beyond. Many have already gone there and I will get there at a later date but for now, what strikes me most is how Freeman, a relatively young man in a bright spotlight manages to stays calm and humble under pressure. To find out, I went to the source.
“I just take a step back and I take a deep breath. I’m a strong believer and I rely on my faith,” Freeman said. “My parents did a great job of helping me hone in and just embrace the moment. A lot of guys would be begging to have this problem.”
In that brief interchange, I was intrigued. Could this big, mysterious guy with a tough exterior actually have a bit of a soft side? The answer is a firm yes and it turns out, Rollin’ Royce Freeman has a sense of humor too. A quiet, dry sense of humor, but it’s there. I promise.
This week, I caught up with Freeman with one mission: To learn more about Royce Freeman, the person.
From faith to career goals, Freeman opened up in his own way- speaking softly yet respectfully and making his point with as few words as possible. It turns out though, he chooses words that speak volumes.
It would be impossible to talk about Freeman without mentioning his strong faith. There is very little written about Freeman’s personal life, but what is talked about is his strong Christian faith.
“As a football player and being in the spotlight and the microscope that you are, there’s somebody I need to rely on with more power than me,” Freeman said.
Freeman went on to explain that his faith has played a big role in keeping him humble and he gave credit to Christian coaches helping keep him on the right path, something that can be tough in the college environment.
Surely, staying on the right path has helped keep Freeman focused and ready to take on his new leadership role. Though he has a similar demeanor to a young Marcus Mariota, often leading by example, it turns out Freeman might just have a natural-born mentor in him. As a current Psychology major, Freeman hopes to one day become a counselor, likely specializing in marriage and relationships.
“I’ve always wanted to help people with their problems in life or with their spouse or mate or other relationships,” Freeman said. “I enjoy learning about it.”
Though he may not realize it, that passion to help others is translating on the field. After being encouraged by Oregon coaches to be more vocal as a leader (sound familiar?), Freeman has started pulling guys aside and offering advice.
“I help them with tricks and stuff, making sure I’m more vocal,” Freeman said. “But I let them know first off, I’m appreciative of everything they are doing because it’s a team effort.”
As Freeman and the Ducks look ahead to that team effort on Saturday, chances are it will be Freeman who carries a big part of the rushing load. Chances are he will put on a solid show and then quietly exit stage right (or left, depending on your viewpoint). He will enter the press room and answer questions in the softest of voices, with limited expression, before politely exiting. If you didn’t know better, you’d think he was just a critical and incredibly athletic piece to the Oregon Football puzzle. If you ask Freeman however, he’d smile and jokingly tell you those close to him would describe him as “The greatest guy they ever met with a cool vibe, straight out So Cal.”
Say what? I guess I better keep studying, there just might be some more jokes in there.