Whoa, Canada? Josh Freeman tries to resurrect once-promising career with the CFL’s Alouettes

Former Tampa Bay Buccaneer Josh Freeman is trying to resurrect his football career with the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League. (Courtesy of the Alouettes)
Former Tampa Bay Buccaneer Josh Freeman is trying to resurrect his football career with the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League. (Courtesy of the Alouettes)
Published May 5 2018

VERO BEACH — The white van came to a stop in front of Field No. 2 on Don Drysdale Drive.

Six quarterbacks hoping to earn a job with the Montreal Alouettes emptied the vehicle, changed into their cleats in the metal bleachers, and walked onto the outfield of this makeshift football practice field for a passing camp at Dodgertown.

This is where the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers warmed up their arms for spring training for 60 years until leaving for Arizona in 2008. The Alouettes have come here for the rebirth of their season.

For Josh Freeman, it's likely the final chance to resuscitate his once-promising career.

"Someone asked me the other day, 'Dude, are you out of money? Why are you playing in the CFL?' " Freeman said. "I said, 'Because I like playing football.' "

Almost directly across the state, 145 miles away in Tampa, Jameis Winston, the Bucs' latest franchise quarterback, is loosening his arm on one of the three manicured practice fields in the shadow of a $40 million indoor practice facility.

In a parallel universe, Freeman would be in the prime of his NFL career with the Bucs. He would be earning at least the $21 million the Bucs plan to pay Winston if he plays in 2019 under the fifth-year option.

But now 30, Freeman breeds snakes back at his home in Kansas City. He plays basketball and volleyball to stay in shape, isn't married, has no children and misses the competition that pro football provides.

"I mean, you can go to the gym and, like, play basketball as hard as you can," Freeman said. "But you can't really compete. You don't sit and prepare all week to go kick some kid's (butt) in basketball. What kind of loser is that?"

For three days last month, Freeman's home was the Vero Beach Inn and Suites on State Road 60, a 3-star hotel with 116 rooms, restaurant and no room service. It's across from the IHOP and next to a 7-Eleven.

It has been nearly three years since the last pass Freeman threw in an NFL game. It came in Week 17 of the 2015 season with the Indianapolis Colts.

Leading Tennessee 27-24 with 2:34 remaining in the game, Freeman faced third and 10 at the Tennessee 17-yard line. He dropped back and threw a fade route in the corner of the end zone that sailed over the head of receiver Andre Johnson.

Adam Vinatieri came on to kick a 35-yard field goal with 2:25 remaining. The Colts won 30-24. Freeman went home to Kansas City. Apparently, every team in the NFL deleted his phone number.

Why?

Well, it's as complicated as Freeman.

• • •

Josh Freeman, the Bucs’ first-round pick in the 2009 NFL draft, was one of seven quarterbacks in the Alouettes’ camp last month in Vero Beach. (Courtesy of the Alouettes)

Freeman still looks the part. During warmups at Dodgertown, with streets lined with baseball-shaped lamp posts and streets named after Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella, he easily flicked slant routes to his CFL teammates. No other quarterback on the Alouettes roster can match his resume. They come from small schools like Missouri State, Tiffin and Butler.

Freeman is the only one who has played in the NFL. "I'm just a humble guy," Freeman said. "I don't think it's that sort of thing. I think it's just working because I'm kind of in no man's land in the CFL. I haven't accomplished anything. I'm a rookie again … there's that mutual respect. Other than that, guys probably don't know me from Adam."

But not that long ago, Freeman was supposed to be the face of the Bucs franchise.

Raheem Morris was the defensive coordinator at Kansas State when Freeman played as a true freshman. The Bucs drafted him in the first round.

Freeman sat the bench the first seven games of his NFL rookie season. But 2010 was a magical year. The Bucs went 10-6, narrowly missed the playoffs, and Freeman passed for 3,451 yards with 25 touchdowns and only six interceptions.

After a 4-2 start in 2011, the Bucs lost 10 straight games and Morris was fired. Freeman's TD to INT ratio fell to 16/22.

Greg Schiano was hired to change the daycare culture in the locker room. At first, Freeman thrived with the change. He got red-hot during a five-game stretch with 13 TDs and three INTs.

That was the highlight. Freeman's performance plummeted, there were stories about his poor work habits. Tuesdays are the players' day off but quarterbacks come to work to get the new game plan.

In December of 2012, Freeman spent a Tuesday posing for duplicates of Michael Jackson's Thriller and Off the Wall album covers for ESPN the Magazine. This put Schiano over the edge. Freeman was a ringer for the King of Pop, but he no longer resembled the transcendent quarterback the Bucs needed.

"Yeah, it wasn't habits," Freeman said, staring down at the outfield grass. "I'd say it's just being more emotionally consistent. There's ups and downs. There's ways you can handle it and react to things and it is better if you sway toward logic instead of emotion."

By the start of 2013, Schiano learned Freeman was in the league's substance abuse program. He observed the frequent drug tests.

The NFL's drug program is hands off for NFL teams. It's handled at the league level. Schiano wanted to help Freeman. The mere thought of his quarterback with a substance-abuse issue drove him crazy.

When Freeman wasn't voted a captain in 2013, there were accusations that Schiano rigged the player vote, a charge he denied. Freeman eventually admitted he had a prescription for Adderall to treat ADHD. However, he said in 2012, he accidentally took Ritalin, which triggered a positive test.

When the Bucs opened against the Jets in New York, Freeman didn't check in at breakfast as required, nearly missed the last team bus and was fined. After an 0-3 start, he was made inactive. Then he arranged an interview with ESPN, asking for his release.

"That's, I mean you look at it, I mean, he's the head coach and your job is to win football games, as a coach, as a player," Freeman said. "I think it just became too much drama and too much distraction for everybody. I can't say if I was in the same position, I wouldn't have made the same choice. In all honestly, I was 25 and probably could have done better."

• • •

Former Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman warms up in the outfield at Dodgertown during a passing camp for the Montreal Alouettes (RICK STROUD, Times)

The CFL offers a lot of adjustments. The field of play is 110 by 65 yards, rather than the NFL's 100 by 53 1/3 yards. There are 12 players on the field for each team instead of 11. A team has three downs to advance the football 10 yards, not four. All players in the backfield besides the quarterback may go in motion.

Last year, one week before the start of the regular season, the Alouettes called Freeman's agent wanting a look at another quarterback. Freeman said the timing was bad.

"As he was getting more and more interest in the CFL I told him, you're young," Freeman's agent, Larikus Scott, told the Montreal Gazette. "You can go to Canada and play. You can stay there forever or you can play for two years. If some NFL team calls, you're 31 at the end of it. For quarterbacks, that's the prime."

Former Packers coach Mike Sherman, who was hired to coach the Alouettes, says nothing is promised to Freeman.

"There is no leading candidate in my mind," Sherman said. "I want to see them all throw and I want to see them all lead. In the CFL, on all the really good teams they have good leaders, not just good quarterbacks. So it's going to be a wide open camp."

When the passing camp began, Freeman stood behind center, placed his hands out to receive the shotgun snap, but looked confused when he surveyed the field. He threw a ball to his running back in the left flat that was nearly intercepted.

"Black, black, black!" Freeman yelled, barking out the signals. "Blue 80! Blue 80, set hut!" This time, he rifles a deep out that is on target, showing off a strong arm.

After the 30-minute workout, Freeman waves the waiting van away and decides to get a ride back to the hotel from a reporter.

Why, after two years, did he decide to give football another shot?

"Oh, 100 percent. It's like a fun league," Freeman said. "I'm excited. It's a new challenge. In all honesty, I thought about going back to school. Last year. No. Shoot, when was it? Last year? No, after the Colts year, I was kind of like, 'Oh, shoot, man.' I kind of got tired of the roller coaster. … I got tired of not having consistency."

Freeman types the address to his hotel into his phone and gives directions. He says he's involved in his investments. He made more than $36 million in his career. He doesn't need to work.

"I'm still breeding snakes," Freeman said. "I've actually out-sourced that because I'm heading up to Canada. I got a buddy who lives up north a little ways and he owns a pet store and breeds snakes himself and has a rat breeding facility and stuff. He's got all my snakes right now."

Freeman asks about his former Bucs teammates. Gerald McCoy, Demar Dotson and Lavonte David are the only players he knows left on the team. Doug Martin signed with the Raiders.

"Remember when he went off that one game?" said Freeman, referring to the Martin's 251-yard rushing performance against the Raiders in 2012.

"That was unreal," Freeman said. "We'd just hand off. It was four touchdowns."

As the ride to the hotel nears the end, Freeman is asked what advice he would give his 21-year-old self?

"Just live more in the moment, take a little more time with the little things and enjoy the ride because it does go really fast," he said. "There's a couple interceptions and overthrows I would take back. 'Watch out for that play!' Mainly, enjoy it.

"Shoot, man, it's not an easy game. There's pressure from the fans. There's internal pressure. There's so much going on. Yeah, man, I definitely miss those guys. It's kind of like, the NFL, it's fleeting."

Freeman glances up at the hotel off the busy highway. "It might look kind cool from the outside, but it's not much on the inside," Freeman said.\

Freeman gets out and leans back into the window.

"When you get back to town, tell 'em what's up?"

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