TAMPA — One of the hardest days was Feb. 6, when two of his teammates and thousands of athletes around the country signed their letters of intent to accept college athletic scholarships.
Christian Freeman still went to Tampa Catholic’s signing day ceremony that afternoon, stifling his disappointment long enough to support fellow Crusaders Zach Benjamin (USF) and Dominic Bourne (Elon).
“That was one of the most frustrating days,” he said. “Even though I didn’t sign, I didn’t want to let my teammates down.”
Wednesday, it was finally Freeman’s turn to experience a signing day for himself.
Freeman signed with Southeastern University in Lakeland, joining softball players Cassie Pesce (Spring Hill College in Mobile, Ala.) and Erin Reynolds (U.S. Coast Guard Academy) at the school’s spring ceremony for college-bound athletes.
Freeman, Pesce and Reynolds signed their letters of intent before about 75 classmates, parents and school officials in Crusader Hall, punctuating an intimate and spirited event meant to celebrate the successful conclusion of their high school athletic careers.
For Freeman, it was a particularly poignant moment given that he started his career without any experience in organized football and nearly ended it before accepting the offer from Southeastern University.
He came to Tampa Catholic as a 6-foot, 285-pound freshman who had never played a down of football.
Freeman said Crusaders assistant David Lewis took an early interest in his development.
“He told me, ‘Freeman, I’m going to make you a star,’ ” he said.
That meant long hours in the weight room and working on technique. By the end of his freshman year, Freeman had been elevated to varsity and charged with tangling with then-senior star Chaz Green in practice.
“I got smacked around,” Freeman admitted. “I was terrible.”
Soon, he was the one doing the smacking: Freeman became a varsity starter as a sophomore and only got bigger, stronger and better from there.
By the end of his high school career, Freeman was 6-3, 315 pounds and one of the area’s best linemen. Over those four years, he went from bench-pressing 225 pounds to 430 and squatting 250 pounds to 495.
“During our preseason game (against Boca Ciega), I realized that I could do some damage,” he said.
But that wasn’t enough to draw serious interest from some of the bigger colleges despite playing on a team with top junior recruits like offensive tackle Corey Martinez and linebacker T.J. Harrell.
Freeman’s parents, Michael and Rebecca A., think their son was overlooked because he didn’t participate in the spring and summer recruiting circuit where many players earn the attention of colleges.
Instead, they said, he spent much of his free time at his father’s church, Upon This Rock Church in Tampa.
“He’s a big part of our church so he wasn’t able to go to some of those camps,” his mother Rebecca A. Freeman said. “But like I told him, ‘The first shall be the last, and the last shall be the first.’ ”
After signing day in February, Freeman said he briefly considered moving on without football. He credits new Crusaders coach Mike Gregory with motivating him to keep pursuing a college opportunity.
Gregory said Freeman drummed up some interest from a number of schools following a recruiting fair in Jefferson in February.
Freeman eventually settled on Southeastern, which will launch its football program in the fall 2014 as a NAIA Division-I school. Both Freeman and his parents were sold on the school because of its Christian foundation, opportunity to compete right away and location — only about an hour east along Interstate 4.
“I think it’s the right place for me,” he said. “I really think this was the way it was supposed to happen all along.”
Joel Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @jdhometeam.