HOUSTON — Even an old pass rusher like Dwight Freeney must stay fresh and nimble during Super Bowl week. You never know when the next trick play is coming from the media mob.
"First word that comes to your mind," a television reporter shouted at Freeney.
Gisele Bundchen. "Next," Freeney said. Beyonce. "Jay Z." Lady Gaga. "Unique." Kaepernick. "Unique." Tom Brady. "Legend." Kanye. "Unique."
Snap. Spin. Break free. Sack. When it comes to those kinds of word associations, Freeney remains as agile and lively as the day he graduated from Bloomfield High in 1998 and headed to Syracuse. If the reporter knew who Jack Cochran and Paul Pasqualoni were, Freeney would have given her one-word responses about his former coaches, too.
Yet if you want to turn Freeney, who'll turn 37 on Feb. 19, pensive, throw this one word at him: Retirement.
That will get him ruminating. That will have him turning one word into 200. There is no easy answer for one of the great sack masters in NFL history. His appearance for the Falcons in the Super Bowl against the Patriots on Sunday? Maybe it's the last game of a career that should land him in the Hall of Fame. Or maybe it's not his last game.
"I don't know man, I always say after the year's done, you've got to give it a couple of months to let things die down, let the emotion of whatever happens die down a little so you make the best decision for you and your family," Freeney said. "Sometimes guys make the decision right away when they lose. Obviously they're upset. Sometimes they rush decisions when they win. I try to take all that emotion out of it."
Freeney, who'll be going against Brady, Bill Belichick and the Patriots for the 14th time in his career, began asking himself questions.
"Most importantly, physically am I capable of doing it?' Freeney said. "Can I move? Can I run as fast, maybe not as fast, but do those things? Can I still spin? Whatever those things you normally do, you have to evaluate yourself. Then you have to ask, am I still having fun playing this game? Am I still enjoying this? Is this too much of a job? Do I love to show up? Those are things I think about when the year is done."
When the Indianapolis Colts drafted Freeney 11th in 2002, he said he had one goal in mind.
"Get 10 years in and retire after Year 10 and you'll be done and you'll be happy," Freeney said. "I think that never happens the way that players think that's going to happen. After my 10th year, every year I said, 'OK, this is probably it for me.' I keep coming back for whatever reason. I keep coming back, keep coming back. But I never envisioned all of this."
He's completing his 15th season with 122.5 sacks. In pass-rushing years, he's Methuselah. Yeah, the kid from Bloomfield is 969 years old. This is his third Super Bowl. He won one with the Colts over the Bears after they beat the Patriots in the 2006 AFC title game. He lost a Super Bowl with the Colts against the Saints, too. Although his role has been reduced to a situational pass-rusher, Freeney says in many ways this is his sweetest Super Bowl.
Told he would not be signed by the Colts in February 2013, Freeney agreed to a two-year deal with the Chargers. Although he returned from an injury-ruined 2013 season, he was a man without a job in the fall of 2015, a man staring at retirement.
"Last year was real close," Freeney said. "Last year, I was training until Week Five or Six of the season. I was done. I was like, 'I'm tired of training. I'm tired of being ready. No one is calling.' All these coaches said, 'Just stay ready.' I'm like, 'Forget that. I'm done.' I was thinking about doing media.
In Week 16, Freeney reached back to his glory days with three sacks, a forced fumble and was named NFC defensive player of the week. He got to the NFC title game but the Cardinals fell to the Panthers. He was ready to sign another one-year deal with the Falcons.
"What attracted me was the connection I had with [coach] Dan Quinn. He was a defensive line coach for his whole career and then he went to D-coordinator. We had that energy.
"Atlanta wasn't even on my radar. I didn't know anything about the NFC South. I was an AFC guy for the most part. It's funny, my mother told me to go with my heart. That's what she told me."
So he did. He went with his heart. Born in Jamaica, Joy Freeney worked at The Hartford for 30 years. She once told me the greatest thrill of her life was seeing Dwight graduate on the dean's list from Syracuse. She said the greatest Mother's Day gift ever was when her two boys were young they baked her cookies. Joy always made sure Dwight's heart was in the right place. This football season it meant Atlanta.
He has a modest total of three sacks and 10 tackles for the Falcons. He's also said he has never enjoyed a season more. The Falcons are young, especially on defense, starting four rookies. Paul Worrilow, Deion Jones, Tyson Jackson, the Falcons defenders line up to say how much they've learned from Freeney and how much they want to win a Super Bowl for him. He does little motivational things like not showing those young guys his Super Bowl ring. He wants them to earn their own and savor it. He has taken outside linebacker Vic Beasley under his wing, seeing a young version of himself.
Freeney also knows this moment may well never come again. He watched as his old Colts quarterback Peyton Manning won the Super Bowl in Denver and walked away. It is all running through his mind now. So while some guys work themselves into a public froth before the Super Bowl or they reduce themselves to a pathetic heap of careful clichés, Freeney is just loving it all.
"I think the moments like this I just take a second to really appreciate it," Freeney said. "Take a deep breath. Don't just be in the moment and not realize what moment you're in."
So he reminisced how Jim Caldwell, who coached him in Indianapolis, once sat on his couch in Bloomfield when he was in high school and tried to recruit him to Wake Forest. He said Caldwell promised him he could play both offense and defense. Freeney loves Caldwell, who got the Lions in the playoffs this season. He said he used to tease him, 'I'm still waiting to play both ways.' He smiles and says Quinn has made no such promises.
"I don't want to do it anymore either," Freeney said.
"You try to hate a guy because you play against him," Freeney said last week. "You're playing the Patriots and, of course, you want to hate him. But when you meet him you're like, 'Hey, this guy's a great guy.' He's a cool dude, man."
On Monday night, he repeatedly called Brady a legend.
"You think you're going to go to the Super Bowl all the time once you go the first time," Freeney said. "In 2006, I was like, 'Finally. To beat the Patriots, we're going to make it every single year.' It never happened. So now, I guess my elder years are more mature years. I try to take everything in."
Dwight Freeney looked around at the crowd Monday night at Minute Maid Park and smiled. He knew it could be the last time.