New Notre Dame coach Marcus Freeman got a start as linebackers coach at Kent State

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·7 min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
New Notre Dame coach Marcus Freeman became the linebackers coach at Kent State in 2011 a year after his NFL playing career was cut short by a heart condition.
New Notre Dame coach Marcus Freeman became the linebackers coach at Kent State in 2011 a year after his NFL playing career was cut short by a heart condition.

Editor's note: This is a reprint of a story from Aug. 28, 2011 on new Notre Dame coach Marcus Freeman from when he joined Darrell Hazell's staff at Kent State as a linebackers coach.

When Marcus Freeman talks about the moment that changed his life, Kent State's new linebackers coach peppers his story with the phrase "all of a sudden."

In February 2010, the three-year starter at Ohio State thought he was minutes away from signing with the Indianapolis Colts, which would have been his fourth NFL team. He merely had to pass his physical.

Then all of a sudden, the Colts said he needed another medical test. Presuming it would last an hour, Freeman said it stretched into five or six.

All of a sudden, the Colts told him he had an enlarged heart valve, a condition they said no team would overlook, a condition that might have proved deadly if it had gone undetected.

All of a sudden, Freeman's football career was over at age 24.

Just 10 days before his wedding.

New leader of Fighting Irish: Notre Dame names Marcus Freeman to replace Brian Kelly as football coach

But the former Parade All-American at Wayne High School in Huber Heights, Ohio, did not panic. His wife, Joanna, still marvels at the way he took the news, even though doctors were unable to determine the cause or when the problem developed.

"Surprisingly, it wasn't as hectic as you might think," Joanna Freeman said by telephone last week. "I was driving in Dublin, and he called me on his way back from Indianapolis. I could tell his tone was a little different and I thought, 'Oh, the knees.'

"He was pretty calm about it. He could have gone into quite a depression. But he took it with such grace. He knew it was a blessing that we found out about this, whether it was a week before our wedding or not. He knew there was a different plan for him and he trusted God."

New Notre Dame coach Marcus Freeman played linebacker at Ohio State before a short NFL career and a stint as linebackers coach at Kent State launched his coaching career.
New Notre Dame coach Marcus Freeman played linebacker at Ohio State before a short NFL career and a stint as linebackers coach at Kent State launched his coaching career.

Freeman's trademark as a linebacker was not just his versatility, but his intelligence, and he wisely had laid a foundation for the future. The previous November, when he was on the Houston Texans' practice squad, Freeman called his OSU position coach, Luke Fickell, and asked about serving as a quality control assistant in 2010.

Freeman had already been cut by the Chicago Bears, who had drafted him in the fifth round, and by the Buffalo Bills. He was questioning whether he was good enough to play in the NFL.

"The first thing [Fickell] said was, 'You don't want to be a coach,' " Freeman recalled after a Kent State practice. "I talked to [co-defensive coordinator Jim] Heacock, and he said, 'This will be the worst decision you ever made. You don't want to do it.'

"Coach [Jim] Tressel said, 'You'll be a great coach.' After you're in it, you realize why they said that. If you don't want this with all your heart, you won't enjoy it."

After the diagnosis, Freeman was approved to join the Buckeyes' staff. When he returned from his honeymoon in Hawaii, he immediately texted Fickell to find out what time he was to report to work the next day.

"He said, '6 a.m. See you there,' " Freeman said. "From there, I've never stopped."

Coaching has left little time for Joanna, a former news reporter at WBNS-Channel 10 in Columbus, and their children, Vinny, 4, and Bria, 5, Joanna's stepdaughter. Another girl is due Jan. 2.

Joanna, 27, a graduate of Massillon Washington High School and Otterbein, relishes the fact she's now 25 minutes away from her family in North Canton. She and Freeman met at a picnic after the 2005 Ohio State spring game.

After Freeman interned with OSU Director of Athletics Gene Smith as a fifth-year senior in 2008 for his degree in sports and leisure studies and an eventual masters, he thought he wanted to follow in Smith's footsteps. Now Freeman believes he's found his true calling.

But he can still hear the words of Fickell, who warned what the hours would mean for a newlywed with kids. Now OSU's coach, Fickell and his wife, Amy, have four children.

"He said, 'Do you know you're going to be gone so many times?' " Freeman said. "I teetered and tottered, then all of a sudden said, 'This is what I want to do.' My passion grew and grew. This what I was born to do, I think.

"Growing up, I always wanted to be a teacher. It's like playing and teaching at the same time."

New Notre Dame coach Marcus Freeman was hired as linebackers coach at Kent State in 2011.
New Notre Dame coach Marcus Freeman was hired as linebackers coach at Kent State in 2011.

Kent State coach Darrell Hazell joked about being threatened by Freeman, whose goal is to be a head coach. But Hazell believes that Freeman has "an unbelievable future."

"The thing that makes him different is he's really smart, understands schemes, and he's got a great connection with the players," Hazell said. "He can explain it in great detail so they understand it in the simplest forms."

Golden Flashes junior linebacker Luke Batton will attest to that.

"He puts a lot of things in a different perspective I wouldn't have thought of," said Batton, a Nordonia High School product. "The alignment on a certain defense, reacting to something the offense will line up in, if you don't understand he'll explain it further."

One of three finalists for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes' Bobby Bowden Award in 2008, Freeman has a warm smile and a magnetic personality that convinces his players he cares about them.

"He almost likes this more than actual playing," Batton said. "I don't think it's that extreme, but he loves it very much."

It didn't take Freeman long to realize he can't be the players' friend.

"I remember when I was playing, I said, 'If I'm ever a coach, I'll be the cool coach. The coach everybody's going to want to talk to and hang out with. I'll never yell and scream,' " he said. "But when you yell and you're energetic and you're passionate, it's because you love it. You want the kids to be the best football players they can be.

"I see myself a lot of times acting like coach Fickell. A lot of days, I would drive home and would call [linebacker James] Laurinaitis and say, 'Man, I really don't like that guy.' But when you leave, you say, 'I respect him. I understand why he did what he did and said what he said.' "

When he headed for Kent State in January with Hazell, Freeman thanked Fickell for all he taught him. Two weeks after Tressel was forced to resign in scandal May 30, Freeman texted him.

"I told him, 'You'll never realize the impact you made on me as a man, as a coach, as a husband, as a child and as a father,' " Freeman said of Tressel. "A lot of people say negative things about him, just seeing him from afar. He was our father away from our father. We know his philosophies and what he believed and the real person he is.

"We're all human. There's only one perfect person and he's God. You have to be careful. You have to make the right decisions. You have to be sure you're doing the right things."

Freeman also credits Tressel for breaking him of his tendency to try to plan his life and think too far ahead.

"He said, 'Be here and now. If you're looking to where you'll be in a month, a day, a year, you're cheating your guys, you're cheating yourself,' " Freeman said.

Tressel's advice probably came after that February day in Indianapolis when Freeman's playing career ended all of a sudden. But somehow Freeman found a way to cope.

Now when Freeman says, "I'm thankful I found a new passion," his voice overflows with excitement and joy, not regret.

This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: Kent State was launching pad for new Notre Dame coach Marcus Freeman