off season football

robert freeman 58I haven’t exactly been an avid watcher of Super Bowls. But I did make it through some of this year’s, and thought I saw clearly one phase of football giving way to another. Maybe Denver just had a bad game, but those two teams play five times, I don’t like Denver’s chances in any of the five. Peyton Manning, in the right landscape, was a great quarterback. He hasn’t changed, but the landscape has: some new element has come into the game. The athleticism — the pace and nature of the game — have jumped to a higher level, college and pro. Football evolves like everything else. When everybody gets used to doing something one way, the advantage belongs to whoever can get outside it — like the genius who first decided to throw that fat rugby ball over the cloud of dust a hundred years ago. After this latest no-contest mercifully ended, I found myself thinking about Bobby Freeman.

In the eighties I ran a small printing shop in Auburn. I had been away for some years, and come back. I breathed and dreamed that business for five years, living in various places in and around town where I did little more than sleep. Among other spots I spent some time in an old house in Notasulga, then for a while rented a little house across from the War Eagle Supper Club. The neighbors were rowdy and my landlord was Bobby Freeman.

I had heard of him but didn’t really know much about him. But during that period I came to know him, and used to enjoy going by his real estate office, where kicked back behind his desk he would give you the impression he had all day to talk to you. He had been in school in Auburn in the early fifties, and I always like talking to people who were in my place before me. It’s like a taste of nirvana to hear about your formative landscape minus you — all the stress and toil, you yourself cool as a cucumber in your nonexistence not quite the same, but kin, to imagining your absence from the place after you leave. Mr. Freeman still displaced a good bit of the atmosphere, and it was easy to sense the athlete, even the badass, he had been. But he was in his fifties at that point and all that had fallen away, dissolved by time. He considered his own past self with amused detachment, and his thoughts were clearly tending to the non-material. He didn’t talk about his football career unless you asked him.

One of the reasons I went into the printing business was to start a magazine. However one does that — I still don’t have a clue. But of course I immediately found myself maxed out by the relentless demands of a small business, and it took me probably two years even to make a first attempt. I managed three or four amateurish little eight-pagers. I wrote some short pieces for them, then wrote some other pieces that are still waiting, forlornly — conceived but undelivered. Among the latter was an interview with Bobby Freeman — which my post-Super Bowl train of thought led me to go dig up.

A great Yeats line (among many) I can’t seem to forget is, “Who could have foretold that the heart grows old?” Getting up in years, I’m learning, is disconcerting in ways you could never have understood or predicted when young. The same holds true for the consolations. Seeing the transience of everything from a higher vantage point turns out to be strangely restful, though the price is an acceptance of one’s own transience and the vanity of all things. After a few decades have come and gone, you’ve seen so many arcs in your life, you see the arc of everything. Whatever you see, you don’t see just as it “is,” but also as it must have been and will likely become. Experience in life changes points to line segments. The mental photography becomes time-lapse, and the present tense turns just like muscle to fat. The center cannot hold.

Mr. Freeman died in 2003, another gulf of time after that interview in the eighties, a gulf of time itself beyond his playing days some twenty-five years before that.

They called him the “Goose” — for his brash and reckless approach to the game, and you could still see it in his eyes. He played at Auburn from 1951 to 1954, and went on to a professional career that lasted until 1962. A photographic collage from the 1954 Gator Bowl victory over Baylor, a few other plaques and pictures, dotted the walls of his office, and he laughed as I told him I wanted to hear about his past. “Yes, I’m a relic of a bygone era,” he said, “like the old neighborhood grocery store and candy-striped barber poles.”

He was born in Birmingham in 1932, and his father moved his family to Decatur in 1938. He grew up there, but spent most of his youth on his grandparents’ farm in Walker County. “We didn’t know the word ‘Depression’ then. We never went without anything, and if we were poor we didn’t know it.” He loved listening to the radio (The Shadow, The Green Hornet, The Lone Ranger), followed Alabama football and the exploits of Harry Gilmer, and the Brooklyn Dodgers. His earliest ambition was to play professional baseball. He remembered the attack on Pearl Harbor when he was nine, and his family following the reports of Walter Winchell and Gabriel Heatter throughout the war.

Not surprisingly, he was athletically precocious and played everything in high school. He was quick to tell you that one of the most important influences in his life was his high school football coach, the legendary H. L. “Shorty” Ogle, now in the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame. Ogle was the first of many legendary coaches Freeman played for, who invented and patented a one-piece elastic corset-pad (“bloomer pads”), integrated the now-common check-off system into signal-calling, and was the first coach in Alabama to use the T-formation. He was also a strict disciplinarian. “Like all young people I was strong-willed and thought I knew everything. I needed his authority.”

A quarterback and defensive back, Freeman was the best athlete in his town, a local celebrity, the subject of many articles, and the recipient of many unofficial bonuses such as a milk shake from a particular druggist for each touchdown he scored, usually four or five a week. As he neared graduation, Ogle took his aside and told him he had a chance to play college ball and get an education. Oddly enough, those two ideas used to go together. In the East-West All-Star baseball game that year, 1949, in Birmingham, Freeman was voted Most Valuable Player, and remembered vividly the two solid hits he got that night. The St. Louis Cardinals offered him a baseball contract, but he had been visiting the campuses of Georgia Tech, Mississippi State, Alabama, and Auburn, and mainly because he had been impressed with the people, he had already accepted a football scholarship to Auburn.

“When I was young,” he remembered, “I was not a respecter of others. I saw the world through the first-person singular. I thought I knew a lot more than I did. Playing football at Auburn was an enlightening experience for me. I was used to being the King Bee, and all of a sudden I had to prove myself all over again.”

The spring of 1951 happened to be the freshman spring of another of the instrumental figures in Freeman’s life, Coach Ralph “Shug” Jordan. On the surface it may have seemed an inauspicious time to begin a football career at Auburn. The Tigers had hardly been a powerhouse the past few years under Coach Earl Brown: five straight losing seasons, the last, 1950, still the worst year in Auburn football history, an 0-10 campaign with seven shutouts. Frustration reigned; morale sank to the basement. Coach Jordan had played at Auburn himself from 1928-1932, and had sixteen years of SEC coaching experience when he signed a five-year contract with Auburn in February of 1951. He had spent his last five years under Wally Butts at Georgia. “Coach Jordan was a product of the Wally Butts school — hard-nosed, tough, physical football with no shortcuts. His philosophy was ‘if you whip the guy in front of you, not too much bad can happen,’ and I guess that’s still pretty much true today. He worked us so hard I thought sometimes I was going to die. We would practice till dark, and there were some nights I was so tired I would forgo supper. And I’ve got to be tired to forgo supper.”

End of one era, beginning of another.

“Coach Jordan was an Irish Catholic from Selma who had tremendous qualities of leadership. Psychologically, he could put you where he wanted you. He believed in hard work — he always said there’s more character in a bead of sweat than anything else — but he knew when to let up, when to call the team together for a talk. He ruled out of both respect and fear. But his real strength was his mental control of his team. He was a psychological master.”

Freeman admitted he was “rambunctious and wild,” but Shug recognized his ability early and gave him an opportunity to develop it. Freshmen were eligible to play in the early fifties, and Freeman averaged thirty-eight minutes a game his first year, playing both offensive and defensive halfback. The first time he got the ball, in a game against Wofford College at Cramton Bowl in Montgomery, he ran a 79-yard touchdown. “That told me I could do it.”

In the Georgia game that year, in six-degree weather at Columbus, Freeman got a lick he still vividly remembered. A forearm to the jaw from Marion Campbell, which knocked out his two front teeth. “It neutralized me,” he laughed. Dazed, he looked around on the ground for his teeth, thinking maybe he’d put them back in. He shook it off, played the rest of the game, and a dentist later pulled out the stubs. A few years down the road, when they were both playing professionally, Freeman confronted Campbell. “I told him, ‘you don’t remember this, but you knocked my two front teeth out.’ He said it looked like I had survived it, so I must be a good man.”

Auburn went 5-5. Then came Freeman’s sophomore year, his personal low point, and a disappointing year for the team. Playing quarterback, Freeman broke his wrist early in the fall and sat out the rest of the year. The team went 2-8. Watching helplessly from the sidelines, Freeman felt like a misfit with his injury. I asked him if he ever thought of, you know . . . “Leaving? Shoot, there were times when I had my bags packed.” (Like Bo, getting on that bus back to Bessemer and his mama his freshman year.) Freeman’s high school sweetheart, who became his wife and business partner, Rita, was at Florence State Teacher’s College. Being away from her, and from his family, was killing him. He used to hitchhike home to see them. Also, he had a brother playing at Navy, and during this year gave serious thought to transferring there. But he survived the gloom and frustration and remained at Auburn — fortunately, since his last two years were outstanding.

1953 — Freeman’s junior year — Coach Jordan installed the famous X and Y team system, alternating Vince Dooley (X) and Freeman (Y) at quarterback. Dooley ran the more conventional offense, and the “Goose” directed a more wideopen approach. “You’ve got the goal line down there a certain distance away, and your job is to get there, however you can do it. You can go a few yards at a time, or you can go in a hurry. Either way. I liked to run the ball, or maybe throw it down there to Jim Pyburn, whatever it took.” In the Georgia game, which Auburn won for the first time since 1942, Freeman had a 95-yard punt return for a touchdown, still an Auburn record, “mainly because nobody is dumb enough to catch a punt on the five-yard line.” Down the Georgia sideline he streaked, Wally Butts cursing him angrily all the way. Auburn finished the season with its best record since 1935, 7-2-1. The team set fourteen new team and individual records, and Jordan was named SEC Coach of the Year. The Tigers went to the Gator Bowl, January 1, 1954, but lost to Texas Tech in what proved to be the breakthrough game in Red Raider football history (the victory over Baylor commemorated on Freeman’s office plaque was also played in 1954, on December 31, but following the next season.)

Aerial view of the Gator Bowl Stadium during show at the 1954
game between Auburn University and Baylor courtesy of
the State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.

Freeman led the SEC in total offense his senior year. Dooley had graduated, and the X and Y system slowly petered out during the season. Auburn won eight and lost three that year, beating Alabama for the first time since 1949. That game, a 28-0 shutout, was one of Freeman’s best games at Auburn. He led Auburn to their first touchdown, scored the second on a 41-yard option run, led them on their third drive, and scored the last touchdown on a quarterback sneak, which had been set up by two long passes. The 33-13 victory over Baylor in the Gator Bowl featured the “run of the year,” a forty-three yard scamper by future governor Fob James. When Freeman graduated, he left a program he had helped get back on its feet. The remainder of the fifties and the early sixties would be one of the greatest eras at Auburn. (Followed by one of the worst — as Bear Bryant and Alabama took the game out of the fifties to a level of athleticism and strategy that dominated Auburn — and most everybody else — until Pat Sullivan arrived in 1969, then dominated them for another decade after he left. And I don’t recall anyone attempting to change the rules to prevent it.)

“Some of the greatest moments in football are not reflected on the scoreboard. You make a lot of friends, and you learn the joy of playing together as a team. You learn the importance of execution, the mental aspects of the game. Whenever you learn something, you learn it as a team; everybody has a part in it. I never read the papers much. It doesn’t matter what anybody thinks but your teammates. You can’t fool them. If you aren’t pulling your weight, they know it. The main thing is, we had fun playing college ball. Coach Jordan wanted you to have fun. Football without fun is just monotonous. Coach Jordan’s philosophy was ‘you can’t succeed at anything without enthusiasm.’ It catches and works its way down through everybody involved. I like to think the kids today have as much fun, but college football today is big business; it’s paying big bills. There’s a lot more stress involved. The kids today are bigger and stronger and more specialized. But I was never one for weights. My roommate in college used to lift weights, and I’d come in at night and trip over them and get mad at him. Good athletes will fool you. Strength manifests itself in a lot of different ways. It’s not necessarily muscle and bulk. Some of the best athletes I ever knew were the kind of guys you could be in a room with and never know they were athletes. If they were in a Charles Atlas ad, they’d be the ‘before.’ A good athlete must have coordination and rhythm and what we used to call ‘country tough.’ And at a certain point, instinct takes over. I think some guys build themselves up more for the mirror than anything else. That’s not it at all.”

In January of 1955, Bobby Freeman, guard George Atkins, and Jack Locklear (center, linebacker whom Freeman considered the best all-around athlete ever to play at Auburn) went to Mobile for the Senior Bowl. Freeman was named Most Valuable Player in the game, and won a Rolex watch. After the game, Coach Al Sherman signed him to a no-cut contract with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers of the Canadian Football League. Shortly after that, however, he was drafted in the third round of the NFL draft by the Cleveland Browns. Paul Brown, owner and head coach of the team, called him and explained that he needed him in Cleveland. Freeman told him about the contract he had already signed, but Brown dismissed that, insisting that these kinds of contracts were broken all the time. So Bob and Rita (who had gotten married after his junior year) went to Cleveland. They hadn’t been there long, however, when Al Sherman appeared and had Freeman subpoenaed into court where the judge ruled he couldn’t play ball professionally in the United States for two years. Rather than tie up his career in Canada, Freeman decided to join the Army, where he played service ball for two seasons with the 101st Airborne, stationed in Fort Jackson, SC. When he had served his time, he took his family back to Cleveland to begin his professional career in the 1957 season.

The Browns were a power at that time. They won their division almost every year. Otto Graham had recently retired, and George Ratterman was the quarterback. Jim Brown was a rookie. (“He was a fine, fine athlete — about 6’3”, 220, and he could run like a deer. He had the great ability of never letting you get a clear shot at him.”) Freeman came on as a defensive back, and would face such receivers as Harlon Hill, Dave Middleton, Red Phillips, Lenny Moore, Raymond Berry, and Bobby Mitchell. He also held for placekicker Lou Groza. After his first couple of years, Jim Brown got his salary up around $25,000, making him and Paul Hornung the highest paid players in the league, but salaries in the $8000-$10,000 range were the rule. There were plenty of All-Pro linemen earning $9500. Freeman started out at $14,000 — “and that was a lot of money then.” The Freemans, with three children, would live in Cleveland for six months, then bring a nice sum home to Alabama in the off-season. Those were the days when many players thought of pro football as a way of making a little money for a few years before finding a job. Freeman was making good money, but the adjustment he had had to make to the higher level of talent around him in college hardly compared to the adjustment he now had to make. “Everybody up there is good — it’s just a question of how good. The competition is unbelievable, and it’s a different kind of competition than college and high school — you’re competing for your livelihood. You’ve got to believe in yourself, because there’s always going to be somebody telling you you aren’t good enough — probably the guy who wants your job. In the pros you’ve got to develop finesse — develop your skills to a very high degree to have a chance. And you’ve got to play hurt, because everybody is hurt. You play with injuries you wouldn’t think about playing with in college.”

The Browns were a highly sophisticated organization. “Paul Brown was a genius. He was a great believer in the mental aspects of the game. The first thing he did in camp was give you an IQ test. He made you write down what every player did on every play, and you left camp with a notebook full. All his assistant coaches were intellectual kind of people. Paul (most coaches in the NFL wanted their players to call them by their first names) owned the ball club and was the head coach, and called all the plays.” The Browns lost the championship game to Detroit in 1957, and in 1958 were beaten out by the Giants in six inches of snow, in the last game of the regular season, on a 49-yard Pat Summerall field goal.

After two seasons, Freeman went over to Green Bay in a trade that included Willie Davis, Henry Jordan, and Lou Carpenter. That was Vince Lombardi’s first year with the Packers, and he faced a task similar to the one that had faced Shug Jordan at Auburn in 1951, and he went about it in a similar way. “Coach Lombardi (no ‘Vinny’ here) was a very stern disciplinarian who was great to his players as long as they did what they were supposed to. They respected him because he knew the game and he was a great teacher. He ruled by the fine. He felt that the most effective way to get results with professional people was through their pocketbooks. He’d fine you for being late to a meeting, and being late meant not being there five minutes early.” What were the reasons for his success? “His intensity, his desire for everyone around him to excel. He surrounded himself with good people, like Phil Bengston the defensive coach, and he had the philosophy that if you were in better physical condition than the other guy, when it got right down to it, you’d win out.”

Bobby Freeman
Dante Lavelli with Bob Freeman (by Dennis Kelley/

Freeman spent one year with the Packers, a team which with a strong defense built around Ray Nitschke, the great offensive line of Jim Ringo, Fuzzy Thurston, Jerry Kramer, and Forrest Gregg, receivers Max McGee and Boyd Dowler, runners Paul Hornung and Jim Taylor, and, not least, quarterback Bart Starr, was on the threshold of becoming one of the great dynasties in the history of the league. Starr, with the help of a great teacher who nurtured his confidence, and his own strong personal discipline, “made himself into a great football player.”

“Some athletes,” he told me, “have only average ability and have to work a lot harder and have a lot more determination and tenacity. The best athletes are generally lazy. They rely on their ability and do just what they have to do. It comes easy for them. I’ll tell you one thing — you may not win a Kentucky Derby with plugs, but the guy with average ability and a lot of heart — it’s not always true — but he’s the guy you can usually count on, you know what I mean?” Green Bay finished in third place that year, remarkable for a perennial cellar-dweller.

In 1960, Freeman was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles, who beat the Packers for the league championship that year. Norm van Brocklin was the quarterback, and Sonny Jurgensen was the backup. Van Brocklin Freeman remembered for his “mental tenacity” as well as his great ability. Jurgensen, who would later go to the Redskins and a brilliant career, was “possibly the greatest of them all.” In his second year at Philadelphia, the Eagles lost the title game to the Giants. That was the year Frank Gifford received the vicious hit from Chuck Bednarik that would knock him unconscious for two days, and keep him out of football for a year and a half, and after which he would never be the same. Freeman, pursuing a few yards away on that play, never forgot it.

Freeman played his last year in the NFL in 1962 with the Redskins. They finished in third place. At the end of the season, he asked Coach McPeak for a raise, but was told there would be no raises that year. He made the decision to retire. “I was not hurt, and the gray matter hadn’t trickled out of my ears yet. I was about thirty-one years old, and I could have played a few more years, but I had kids I had to pull out of school every six months, and I had drug Rita all over the United States. We decided to come back home.”

A memorable career. What did he gain from it? “I guess the main thing is humility. Everybody in the NFL is equal, and you’re just a speck in the sand. It made me realize that this country is a melting pot — you play with people of all backgrounds and nationalities. You learn that they bleed red just like you. You drop some of your small southern town feelings, because you can’t help but respect great athletic talent wherever you see it. And perseverance. You get knocked down in the trenches and you get back up, your eyes black and your lips bloody, and you try again. You can’t ever give up. You know what they say: ‘the big coon walks right before dawn’.”

The Freemans came home to Decatur, and Bob worked for a couple of years with a construction firm there before returning to football as an assistant coach at Auburn under Coach Jordan. He came the year after Jimmy Sidle and Tucker Frederickson graduated, 1964, and coached through the sixties, and the Sullivan-Beasley era, until 1973, the year after the Cinderella team. Then, with the help of Jack Shannon, he got involved in real estate, and he and Rita became prominent realtors in Auburn.

“Rita’s my guiding light. We have been blessed in a lot of ways. If we ever needed money, it seems like it just came. But I don’t think about material things as much as I used to. As you grow older, I think it’s a natural progression, you think more of the spiritual. I think you need strong convictions in your life. Serve the Lord the best you can, fire both barrels, and leave the world a better place. That’s my crackerbarrel philosophy. Athletics have been good to me. I had my day in the sun, and I wouldn’t trade my experience for anything. But if you dwell on the past, you are the past.”

I sold Village Printers in 1986 — it became Tiger Prints, Ink, and, I think, has since changed hands a few times. It’s still there — on College Street.

But a lot else is not.

As a kid delivering papers in the early sixties, I used to ride up to town on my bike on S. Gay Street, at that time a graceful, oak-shaded street lined with beautiful old houses. Graceful and beautiful have become tacky and ugly, and whoever let the Snopeses rape that street, and a great deal else of Auburn, should be, but of course aren’t, serving prison time. Too much past has been traded for too little present. I haven’t lived in Auburn for twenty-five years. My parents are both gone — it’s not my town anymore, though I still know a lot of people and have many good friends there. Still, I can’t bring myself even to drive down Brookside Drive where I grew up. Strangers living in our house? All I can do with that is try not to think about it. The building that housed my print shop, on Bragg Avenue, has been remodeled (beautifully) into a residence, but the magazine dreams, along with most others, are long extinct. The house in Notasulga burned down years ago — haven’t been able to drive by there either. Doc Markle’s estate out Highway 29 where I spent several good years in a little cabin, is long since sold, parceled up, and barely recognizable, a little house I lived in on Dean Road, and the house across from the War Eagle Supper Club (where my dog Georgia once inexplicably squatted over the feet of visiting landlady Rita Freeman, and peed on her stylish shoes. It was — awkward), are both long gone — I mean physically gone — and the worst of it is, there is still, in 2014, nothing there. Only vacant derelict lots. Whatever Auburn is now, and the good heart of it does remain, despite my laments, no longer belongs to me, and has made very clear it has no further need of me, as time, in its patient but inexorable way, systematically erases my traces.

It’s all very poetic.

Faulkner said, “It is my ambition to be, as a private individual, abolished and voided from history.”

I know what he meant.

Images: Robert Freeman #18 and Dante Lavelli, Bob Freeman - both images from (public domain/expired copyright); Aerial view of the Gator Bowl Stadium during show at the 1954 game between Auburn University and Baylor courtesy of the State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.
John M. Williams

John M. Williams

I teach at LaGrange College–a small, pleasant island in the ocean, Academia.  My colleagues are my friends; we are collegial.  I deal with creatures of inexhaustible charm, a foot on either side of that just beginning to widen crack which will force them shortly to leap one way, or fall the other.  They have vastly more promise than ignorance, but are rich in both.

I’ve been here so long I’m beginning to suspect some sorceress is playing a joke.  How did I get here?  Circuitously.

I was riding a stick horse in the pecan tree filled yard of a flat-roofed house in Auburn, Alabama–that much is vivid.  Then, it all begins to blur.  All my grammar school teachers were old (perfectly lovely) women; my children’s grammar school teachers were all hot babes.  Why is that?  The main thing I remember about high school is Mr. Goff.  Him, and a handful of friends (you know who you are).  I think everything I learned in high school could have been easily condensed into one strenuous afternoon.  Then college, where I was rejected by calculus and attracted to letters, my favorites being M and G.  The eras of my life have all been covered, one way or another, in my scribblings.  My childhood is encoded most accurately and completely in my story “In the Beginning Was Kitto.”  That gripping tale is not included here because it’s in a collection called Snake Dreams that I’m trying to sell!

After college, travel–then grad school, then travel, then five years in the printing business, then aimlessness, then LaGrange, grad school again, marriage, children, and a series of red felt-tipped pens.  Here, the birthdays have become like cards being fanned in a deck.  Like I said, a blur.  Blur blur blur.  You have to fight the blur!  Speak truth to blur!  You have to nail little exertions of precision to the shadowy walls of life’s dubious corridor.

To those of you in other trenches who hear this faint tapping–tap back!