From the Colts to the Bears, Jerrell Freeman carries a “rookie free agent” mentality

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Bears linebacker Jerrell Freeman takes part in a drill during Bears’ OTA practice at Halas Hall on June 1st.

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LAKE FOREST - In the months leading up to the campaign, it seemed that Lovie Smith would have a good shot to take his second team to a Super Bowl in the Windy City.

The 2012 campaign featured a number of veteran players like Brandon Marshall, Brian Urlacher, Charles Tillman and Lance Briggs.

Jay Cutler was back after missing the last half of the 2011 season with an injury and the NFC Central was possibly open for the taking. Maybe even the conference too.

At least the opening game figured to be a success

Coming off a two-win season with a new head coach and a rookie quarterback, the Colts came to Soldier Field for the season opener in what seemed to be a perfect opportunity for a win.

But it didn't look like that from the start. On the Bears' second series Jay Cutler stepped back and looked to his right for a quick out pass to Matt Forte. It went out of his hands and was caught within two seconds.

Problem was that someone in a white jersey made the catch. It was a player fans on both sides needed to glance at the roster just to make sure of who it was.

In his first NFL  game, Jerrell Freeman stepped in front of the errant Cutler pass and ran it the six feet to paydirt for the first score of the season. Few heard of the linebacker from Division III Mary Hardin Baylor who spent the previous three seasons in the Canadian Football League.

To be honest, Freeman's score was not enough. The Bears won the battle easily that day 41-20 but in many ways the Colts won the war. Thanks in part to the surprise play of Freeman, but mostly to the heroics of quarterback Andrew Luck, the Colts stunned the league with an 11-5 record and a Wild Card playoff berth.

Meanwhile the Bears missed the playoffs, Smith was fired a season's end, and the team still hasn't made the postseason since 2010.

So it's funny that when Freeman signed with the Bears after four successful years in Indianapolis, his first call came from the guy who helped  jump-start his career.

"He was one of the first guys to text me when I signed," said Freeman of Cutler. "Just to help me, know where to live. He said don't live downtown. That trek up here is a little difficult. I think it's a whole big family, everybody understands that."

Now that group gets to learn the mentality of their newest member. Even after four seasons in the NFL, they might be surprised to learn that it's not much different from the guy they saw four years ago on a sunny September afternoon at Soldier Field.

"I'm a rookie free agent. I stand here right now as a rookie free agent. I still have to prove myself," said Freeman of his attitude.

A look at Freeman's path to the NFL could explain his rationale. He played for Division-III Mary Hardin Baylor and then went undrafted after his final season at the school in 2008. He was signed by the Titans as an undrafted free agent but was cut before the season started.

Then Freeman went to the Saskatchewan Roughriders of the CFL in 2009 where he started as a special teams player. By his third season he rose up to the starting linebacker spot and led the CFL in tackles with 105 in 2011.

When Ryan Grigson took over in Indianapolis as general manager Freeman was one of his early finds for his first team. After an injury to starting middle linebacker Pat Angerer in the preseason, he was elevated to a starter and wouldn't lose that position for the next four seasons.

Freeman racked up 297 tackles from 2012-2015 with 12 sacks and four interceptions. Oddly enough his second and final touchdown came in his last game with the Colts against the Titans last January. After negotiating with both the Colts and the Bears, Freeman decided on a three-year deal in Chicago.

Not that a new contract justifies a different attitude for the linebacker.

"That chip never leaves your shoulder, especially for a free agent like I am," said Freeman. "It's always going to stay on you and that's just what we play like, we do. Just running around, aggressive. Just flying around because I have that free agent mentality, you know, I just always feel like I'll be a rookie free agent in everybody's eyes."

"I don't think anyone in the NFL has taken my path. D-III, NFL, CFL. I've been cut. I just have the mentality that I don't want to go home. I'm out to prove myself not just week-to-week. It's everyday. In the weight room, training, on the field. My journey has shaped me in who I am."

Who would he like to mold himself into in the second chapter of his career? The Texas native has a former Bears linebacker and another guy with a chip on his shoulder in mind.

"Chicago is always known for their linebackers, right? So then I'm from Waco so, of course, (Hall of Fame linebacker Mike) Singletary there at Baylor. That's all you heard is stories and then my coach at Mary Hardin Baylor at the D-III college that I was at, that's all he talked about was Singletary.

"He was like 'Look, he was doing  it like this and like that.' He was showing me different things. When you hear about Singletary coming all the way up-and he look like he played with a chip on his shoulder. It's just the type of guys that we are."

If he has it his way, that's the way it will continue to be starting with the opener against the Texans on September 11th. Expect it to be a little higher when he plays the Colts for the first time in his career in Indianapolis on November 9th.

Though he might not give Cutler a history lesson on the last time he faced that team.

"I don't plan on bringing it up," said Freeman of his interception return in 2012, when his need to prove himself was just as big as it was now.


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