There was a knock on the door the other day at Dwight Freeney’s midtown hotel, his temporary home during this Falcons’ season. It was his neighbor, another famous sports figure living in the same hotel.
Charles Barkley had to offer congratulations. He was so excited, Freeney said, “You would’ve thought he was going to the Super Bowl himself.”
Wrong sport, wrong time period. But the two have been friends for several years and Barkley has a special appreciation for Freeney making it back to the Super Bowl at the age of 36.
“I know what this season means to him because obviously you know the end is near,” Barkley said. “Can you imagine? Winning the Super Bowl and then walking off? That would be the ultimate going away present. John Elway did it. Jerome Bettis did it. Everybody wants to win the Super Bowl and walk off into the sunset.”
The NFL and the Falcons each have one game left. Rarely do those two things intersect.
This also could be the final game in Freeney’s career. The future Hall of Famer signed a one-year contract with the Falcons to have one more chance to win a second ring, having won a title 10 years ago with Indianapolis. Freeney hasn’t made a decision on retirement yet and he says he likely won’t for “a couple of months.”
“For the last two years, I’ve been taking it all in,” he said. “I’m taking in moments like the national anthem, seeing the crowd, seeing how they react to it. Because when it’s over, it’s over and I want to have that mental imprint forever.”
Is it fair to say making it back to the Super Bowl will be a factor in the decision?
“You could say it’s a part of it, but I don’t think it’s the ultimate factor,” he said. “If I’m still having fun playing the game, the question is: Am I taking something away that I’m still in love with? All I know is, I take this moment for what it is and it’s another moment I’ve been blessed to be a part of.”
He will turn 37 two weeks after the game. Barkley is familiar with the timeline. He was 37 when he played his final NBA season with Houston in 2000. He and Freeney have been friends for several years, dating back to a Michael Jordan celebrity golf tournament.
“It’s amazing how well he takes care of his body and I was hoping to use his knowledge to get myself in better shape, to be honest with you,” Barkley said. “I just want to be walk-around skinny.”
Freeney, who according to Barkley has a “really convoluted, amazing, time-consuming (workout) regimen,” had only three sacks this regular season. But he is occupying blockers and affecting games and has been a valuable tutor for all of the Falcons’ defenders, particularly edge rusher Vic Beasley, who led the NFL with 15.5 sacks.
Defensive line coach Bryan Cox said, “I don’t give a damn about his numbers. His presence is being felt. I don’t know how much money he’s making but it’s not nearly enough.”
A Super Bowl win would be the perfect bow on Freeney’s career, particularly with the game coming against New England. This will be his 15th game against the Patriots and Tom Brady. He might’ve made it to more than two title games with the Colts if they didn’t have to run into the Patriots three times in the postseason.
New England won two of those meetings, winning the Super Bowl in both seasons (2003, 2004). Indianapolis beat the Patriots in 2006 for the AFC title, then won the Super Bowl over Chicago. So, yeah, Dwight Freeney vs. Tom Brady has some significance in football history.
“Me and Tom’s deal goes back to college when he was at Michigan and I was at Syracuse. I’ve been chasing Tom for a long time,” Freeney said.
Motivation is never a problem in championships. But Freeney’s motivation this game has many levels.
There’s the light at the end of his career tunnel. There’s the competitive hate of the Patriots. There’s a sense of vindication after Arizona balked at re-signing him after last season (and while the Falcons ascended, the Cardinals fell from 13-3 and an NFC finalist to 7-8-1 and missed the playoffs). That hesitation opened the door to the Falcons recruiting Freeney in the spring and signing him in the summer.
The Cardinals acquired a young edge rusher, Chandler Jones, from New England and wanted to give some young defenders a chance to develop, making Freeney expendable. Freeney understood the business side, even if he didn’t like the way it all was handled.
“They never told me no, but they never told me yes,” he said. “They were just, ‘Well, Dwight, let’s see what happens with Chandler. Maybe we can bring you back but we don’t know yet.’ I didn’t want to go through another situation like last year where I’m sitting around in Week 2 or 3, waiting for teams. You have to keep in shape and stand by the phone. That’s hard work – hard work. When you’re 23, that’s OK. But when you’re 35, 36, my old body doesn’t want to do that.”
And how strange is this: Despite signing with the Falcons, Freeney still received text messages from Arizona’s Markus Golden during the season: “He texts me and shows me plays and says, ‘Am I doing this right?’ So I’m coaching him up while I’m on the Falcons. But it is what it is. I moved on.”
To Atlanta. Things have worked out nicely.
“To be a part of this moment again is very rewarding, very fulfilling,” he said. “It’s why I came back. You can’t replicate these moments. So I’m going to take it all in and hopefully we win and I can take in even more.”