The four boys were slumped in the backseat of Ron Freeman's car as it bounced along the road near Kansas City, Mo. • Freeman, an All-American at Pittsburg State University in Kansas who later played in the USFL, had just finished his first practice as a youth league football coach. As he glanced in his rearview mirror at the grass-stained players, their young faces streaked with sweat, he thought to himself that he might have gotten carried away by conducting a 2½-hour workout in full pads for 9-year-olds. • "On the way home, I've got four kids in the car," Freeman said. "Three of them are dead-dog tired and ready to just go home. But I look at my son, Josh, and he is beaming with this big smile, as if to say, 'Let's do this again right now.' • "He's always loved the game." • Perhaps that's why Josh Freeman took only a few days off after the end of his rookie year with the Bucs last season before throwing anchor in the team's training facility.
Even after navigating some of the roughest waters as Tampa Bay's franchise quarterback, Freeman couldn't wait to do it again.
He sent text messages to teammates, ordering them to get their hindquarters to One Buc Place to throw with him. He painstakingly watched every play from his first NFL season, in which he went 3-6 as a starter and threw 18 interceptions and only 10 touchdowns.
"It's a challenge we've given him to be the face of the franchise," offensive coordinator Greg Olson said. "It's one thing to say it, and it's another thing to have your actions show it. So he's taken ownership of this thing and has tried to do everything he can to develop himself as a leader."
The Bucs believe Freeman will blossom as a star. At 6 feet 6 and 248 pounds, his size and arm strength provide him with a bigger toolbox than most quarterbacks entering the league.
But he's a bit of a contradiction. His demeanor outside the huddle is California cool, dude. You'd swear he was raised in Malibu instead of Missouri. So the directive by coaches to Freeman was to become more assertive inside and outside the huddle.
Of course, this is an NFL team, not a Twitter account, so you have to produce on the field to gain followers.
"It's all about winning football games," Freeman said. "My job as a leader is not to say, 'Hey, look at me. I'm a leader.' It's to lead. I mean, I've got to go out and find ways to win these games. There's a lot of different ways you can lead."
The best way, Freeman believed, was to increase his knowledge of the offense and the ability to operate it better.
A year ago, he could spit out the plays and knew his job. But he wasn't real sure about what everybody else was supposed to be doing. In fact, last season, without the benefit of many reps in the preseason and not starting until the eighth game, Freeman used center Jeff Faine to make all the protection calls.
But after marathon film sessions with Olson and quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt in the offseason, Freeman has thrown away the crutches and is doing "95 percent" of it by himself, Faine said.
"He's taken it, and he's embraced it," Faine said. "He likes having the control out there and likes running the show."
Faine, 29, is entering his eighth pro season and has seen a lot of young, talented quarterbacks who couldn't lead ants to a picnic.
But there was a day during the offseason when Faine became convinced that the Bucs were in good hands with Freeman.
"It was one of these games that coach Olson had thrown a lot of stuff at him. They were blitzing us from all over the place. And he just started spouting off calls and doing all these things and launching balls 60 yards down the field on the spot. And I turned to Olson and said, 'All right, we're going to be okay.' It might not be like this every day like it is right now, but eventually we're going to be in good shape and in good hands with this guy.
"You always wonder when rookies come in. How is this guy going to react? How is this guy going to respond when things aren't as pretty or as easy as they thought it was going to be? How are they going to respond when it really hits the fan?"
Make no mistake, what was fanned at Freeman and the Bucs last season wasn't air freshener: three quarterbacks, two offensive coordinators and a defense that ranked last in the NFL until coach Raheem Morris took over the play-calling the final six games.
"The plus side of last year, getting sat down for seven games, it cultivates a hunger," Ron Freeman said. "Not just to get out there, but you get to see the game, the speed of the game. For Josh, it was, 'Wow, it's a whole different environment, a whole different dose of reality.' He wanted to get out there and see what he could do. After nine games, you see what you're up against.
"But football is easy for Josh because he loves working at it."
In addition to work ethic, the other thing Freeman has done to improve his leadership abilities is hang out with "his guys," most notably, the offensive linemen.
"Really, this year, I've been trying to get to know the team, to get to know the guys on a more personal level," Freeman said. "They're the guys I play with, the guys I work with. I think it starts with that as far as the leadership aspect. Obviously, we'll have a lot more opportunities once we get into playing games."
As Faine has gotten to know Freeman, he believes that laid-back attitude will help the team during crunch time.
"I think the attitude he has away from the field is good," Faine said. "It actually reminds me a lot of Drew Brees. When we're having an offensive line dinner in New Orleans, he's just like one of the guys. He's laid back and it's not just ball all the time and real serious. I think Josh has definitely embraced the leadership role. I think part of it is he has to at quarterback. But I think he is that type of player anyway.
"I don't think we've been in a hot enough situation where I can say I've experienced it and can vouch for it, but he's that guy who is cool under fire. And he might be able to crack a joke when we're in the huddle and keep everybody else loose. I think that's where a little bit of that attitude comes off the field. I'd almost be worried if he were serious all the time. It would be cause for me to be concerned."
The Bucs have high expectations for Freeman, although it's not as if they've surrounded him with everything he needs. The Bucs drafted two receivers — Mike Williams, a fourth-round pick from Syracuse, and Arrelious Benn, a second-rounder from Illinois. Williams will start, and the "veteran" wideout in the lineup is Sammie Stroughter, a second-year pro with 31 career catches.
But Freeman, at 22, appears oblivious to the pressure he's under to resurrect a franchise that has lost 17 of its past 20 games. He has his share of doubters around the league, but nobody has more confidence in Freeman than Freeman.
Like that little 9-year-old kid in Ron Freeman's car, he's going to keep his eyes wide open and try to enjoy the ride.
"Other than my family and God, nothing makes me happier than to perform well on the football field, spending time with my guys and having a good time," Freeman said. "After a great game or a great practice, man, I feel on top of the world."