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  1. Bucs

Ex-Buc Josh Freeman tries to restart career in fledgling league

NEW YORK — On a rainy and windy night in Coney Island, Josh Freeman continued his quest to return to the NFL, where he played five years, earned millions of dollars and was once considered among its top young quarterbacks. He made his debut Friday with the Brooklyn Bolts of the Fall Experimental Football League, a fledgling three-team circuit in New York.

At a nearly empty MCU Park, Freeman didn't face much competition against the Florida Blacktips, who have no set roster and play no home games. They had only two players with regular-season NFL experience.

Yet Freeman, a first-round pick of the Bucs in 2009 out of Kansas State, couldn't solve their defensive schemes or handle the weather. He completed 9 of 16 for 32 yards, threw a touchdown and an interception, and fumbled five times in the Bolts' 29-6 loss.

Afterward, Freeman refused to speak with reporters. But Bolts coach Terry Shea said Freeman had played well in practice and was not injured.

"I've got to think that this was maybe just one of those nights where a perfect storm came together for him," Shea said. "It really controlled him."

Freeman's performance brought back memories of his last NFL regular-season game in October 2013. He was 20-of-53 for the Vikings in a loss to the previously winless Giants and did not play for them again.

The Giants came calling in April 2014, but they released Freeman after six weeks, and he sat out that season.

This year, he began training with Shea, a former college and NFL coach who lives near Freeman in Kansas City, Mo., and with whom he had worked for six weeks before the 2009 draft. The Dolphins signed Freeman in April, but he struggled in limited preseason action and was released.

When no other NFL team showed interest in Freeman, his father called Shea to inquire about the Bolts.

"I just wanted to keep playing football in any capacity and continue to stay sharp," Freeman said Thursday in a telephone interview. "Stepping in the huddle and calling plays and that whole procedure and process, maintaining my routine that comes along with being in season, I think it gives me a better shot to perform at my highest level if a team does call me up."

Freeman, 27, is still a long way from the NFL. Since the experimental league was founded in May 2014, it has faced operational and economic challenges like those of the failed United Football League (2009-12), XFL (2001) and United States Football League (1983-85).

The league, which pays players a maximum of $1,000 per game, lost money in its first season, said Brian Woods, the founder and commissioner. It also had to cancel the season's final game because of financial problems.

This year, only six games were scheduled: three at MCU Park and three at Dutchess Stadium in Wappingers Falls, N.Y. Two franchises, the Bolts and the Hudson Valley Fort, are partnerships with minor-league baseball organizations, which operate and market the teams and host games. The only other team, the Blacktips, is operated by the league.

Last Monday, the league folded the Mahoning Valley Brawlers, a franchise in Ohio. HWS Group, a sports management company, signed an agreement in May to operate the Brawlers and spent months promoting the team, selling tickets and sponsorships and preparing to host their first game Saturday. Last week, Woods called Michael Savit, the HWS Group founder and managing partner, to say the league planned to shut down the franchise.

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"At the last minute, it was like, 'If you don't bail us out and take care of all these expenses, we're not going to give you a team,' " Savit said. "We said: 'Are you kidding me? No way would we do that.' I've been in this business for 18 years, and I've been in sports marketing for 30-something years. Never have I seen something like this. It's totally bogus, totally unprofessional."

Woods said the costs of paying players and coaches and traveling to Ohio were too high.

"It was unfortunate that we were not able to stay in the Ohio market for this year," Woods said. "But ultimately it was the best decision to make to ensure the league survived for a second season and we could live to move to a third season."

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For now, the league plans to remain in New York and give players such as Freeman an opportunity to play. Reuniting with Shea was another reason Freeman came east.

"I felt like he was going to become a franchise quarterback for some team at that point," Shea said of his working with Freeman in 2009.

Tampa Bay made Freeman the 17th pick in the draft that year, and he showed early promise. In 2010, Freeman started every game, completed 61.4 percent of his passes, threw 25 touchdowns with six interceptions and led Tampa Bay to a 10-6 record. He was never as consistent again.

When the Bucs began 0-3 in 2013, coach Greg Schiano benched Freeman, who had thrown for more than 4,000 yards the previous season. Tampa Bay then tried to trade Freeman before releasing him. He has since appeared in only one NFL game.

Freeman said he was not sure why he had struggled so much in recent years, but he sounded determined to return to the NFL.

"Being on the free agent wheel and playing for different teams, I've definitely learned a lot," he said. "Professionally, it's been less than what I would have hoped for, but all in all, I'm happy where I am. I'm hoping to continue to get better and get another opportunity."