No one was surprised Tuesday afternoon when news came out that the Bears had released linebacker Jerrell Freeman. The former Bears and Colts linebacker had missed 19 games in two years with Chicago. Four due to a PED suspension and then 15 due to a torn pectoral muscle suffered on the opening drive of the 2017 season. While recovering from his torn pectoral muscle, Freeman got handed another PED suspension, this time for 10 games.
When on the field, Freeman was an integral part of the Bears defense. Recording 110 tackles in only 12 games in 2016, Freeman was the Bears leaders in tackles. The time had clearly come to move on from the once proud Bears captain, but that doesn’t make his story any less sad.
Freeman was an undrafted free agent signing by the Titans in 2008. He was not able to stick in the league and found himself in Canada as a member of the Saskatchewan Rough Riders from 2009 to 2011. Freeman returned to the United States and made a name for himself as a member of the Indianapolis Colts. Eventually, he would leave Indy after the 2015 season and sign a three year, $12 million dollar contract and become part of Ryan Pace’s second free agent class.
Freeman immediately showed his value to the Bears and was considered by many the key part of the Bears rebuilding defense. The four-game suspension was more of a side note than anything else in an otherwise outstanding first year on the Bears.
The trouble for Freeman began in 2017, when he tore his pectoral muscle on the first drive of the season, yet finished the game leading the team with 10 tackles. After the contest it was announced he would miss the remainder of the season, but his status on the team was not yet in jeopardy. On October 30th, 2017 he received his second PED suspension, this time for 10 games. Freeman attributed this suspension to taking pills to help cope with a head injury. Freeman tweeted out:
“I had been lying to friends, family and loved ones when it came to the question ‘are you ok?’ Knowing my career may be over due to the head injury ( That’s been purposely downplayed by me), memory loss and all, has actually been a bit of a struggle.
Bears fans had not been aware that Freeman was dealing with the side effects of a catastrophic head injury, but his heartfelt Twitter post revealed otherwise.
The Bears made the right decision by releasing Freeman and saving $3.5 million dollars, there is no question. His signing, fairly or not, will go down as a miss by Ryan Pace, but that is not the whole story. Chicago will be able to fill the hole left by Freeman in the defense with young promising linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski, or through the draft, but that is not the concern today.
Instead, the concern today is for Freeman as a human being. Freeman is clearly struggling to recover from the rigors of pro football. He is a man that fought for everything he had in the league in a career that culminated with the $12 million dollar contract he received from the Bears. Freeman’s career is a far too common tail in the NFL: a player being forced out of the league not on his own terms. However, Freeman’s tail is a particularly tragic one.
Freeman appeared to be an ascending player on an ascending defense. His PED use may be viewed as reckless, selfish and irresponsible. All of which is fair to say, but it is also symptomatic of a bigger problem. A problem with a league where players are forced to push their bodies to the absolute max in a manner bodies were never meant to function. Freeman said himself he attempted to downplay the effects of his head injury, in part due to the unspoken rule in the NFL that you play until your body won’t let you anymore. His body was telling him he couldn’t anymore, but more importantly, his head was as well.
Jerrell Freeman’s career is likely over, his time with the Bears summed up in one word, bust. Bust does not tell the full story for Freeman, the triumph of making a name for himself in the NFL after being undrafted. The brief time he spent as the leader of a defense for the NFL’s charter franchise. The personal heartbreak of coming to terms with a career cut short due to injury and the potentially lifelong effects of those injuries.
The Bears and the NFL will move on from Freeman, while he is trapped in the reality that his life will never be the same after football. Every time he forgets something, suffers dizziness or a headache it will be a harsh reminder to Jerrell that as hard as he might try, he will never truly be able to move on from his time in the league. That is the real story today, not the hole he leaves on the Bears defense.
So while pundits and and analysts will praise the Bears for pushing past their mistake, and bash Ryan Pace for another free agency miss, let’s hope there is someone taking care of Jerrell Freeman, and that someday he will be able to move on from the league. Although if his Twitter post and actions are any indication, that will be easier said than done.