Dwight Freeney’s Path From Bloomfield Through 16 NFL Seasons Left Its Mark

It may seem unfathomable today, but Dwight Freeney once played nearly every sport but football.

"He was a hell of a baseball player, basketball player and soccer player," Jack Cochran, then the football coach at Bloomfield High, said. "I was able to convince him to come out and try for football and he did it and it was a great, great success story. You just saw a lot of drive and passion, and you pair that with great athletic ability. You put those two together and you knew he was going to be great. He was able to convince his mom and dad to let him try it, and I just thank God they let him give it a shot."


His brother, Hugh, had played quarterback at Bloomfield and his parents had concerns about safety. But once Dwight Freeney lined up at defensive end and got down in a three-point stance, he showed a quickness and a fire rarely matched, at Bloomfield High, at Syracuse and, finally, in the NFL. He announced his retirement on Thursday, ending a 16-year career that is likely to earn him a bust in the Hall of Fame in Canton.

Freeney, 38, will sign a one-day contract with the Colts and retire as a member of their organization in a press conference on Monday.


"To me, a Hall of Famer has got to be a guy that kind of transcends the position," said Dan Orlovsky, from Shelton and UConn, who played 12 NFL seasons at quarterback, including 2011 with Freeney and the Colts. "They've got to be great, have great stats, but Dwight changed the game before the ball was snapped. Not a lot of players come through the NFL like that."

As a quarterback, he made you play uncomfortably fast. It was the shadow he created, essentially. You knew he was coming.

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Freeney, 6 feet 1 and 270 pounds, who played for Bloomfield from 1995-98, was shorter and lighter than the typical NFL defensive linemen, but he had an exceptionally quick first step, and could burst through a 10-yard sprint faster than anybody when he finished at Syracuse, where he played for Paul Pasqualoni and set a school record with 17½ sacks as a senior.

"Dwight came in as a very mature guy," said Pasqualoni, who later coached UConn and is now the Detroit Lions' defensive coordinator. "We did not in those years play many true freshmen. We nearly redshirted everyone, and that includes guys like Marvin Harrison, Donovan McNabb, on and on and on. But we played Dwight as a freshman. We played him because he was emotionally so mature, so responsible, so accountable and so dependable every day. And I'm saying this as a freshman in college at Syracuse, the academic side of things, as well as the football side of things, to the point where he played as a true freshman and graduated in three and a half years."

The Colts took him with the 11th pick in the 2002 draft, as coach Tony Dungy saw him as the perfect fit for the type of defense he wanted to implement in Indianapolis.

As a rookie, Freeney forced nine fumbles. He led the NFL in sacks with 16 in his third season, and he went on to be named to the Pro Bowl seven times. Culminating the 2006 season, Freeney helped the Colts beat the Bears in Super Bowl XLI.

"He was a very exciting player to watch," Pasqualoni said. "He had a unique ability to get off the ball. He was even to this day, with all the guys I've been around, there's no question he's one of the most explosive. One of the most violent guys that came off the ball in the pass rush that I've ever been around. Explosive. When that ball was snapped he was gone. And he had a great feel and great vision for the first thing that moved."

After leaving the Colts in 2013, Freeney continued to play, moving to teams with a chance to win a title. He played for the Falcons in the Super Bowl in 2017, and played with the Lions last season.

"One of my goals coming in was, hey, get 10 years in and you'll retire and you'll be done and be happy," he told reporters in Houston prior to that Super Bowl with the Falcons. "But it never happens the way you think it will. As you play, after my 10th year, I said, 'Okay, this is probably it,' but I keep coming back, I keep coming back for whatever reason. I never envisioned any of this, I just wanted to go out and play the best that I could, help the team the best that I could. If that's getting sacks, it's getting sacks. If it's getting someone else in position where they can get sacks, that's what it is. I just wanted to be an impact player."

Freeney eventually developed a spin move that became his signature, and he finished his career with 125½ sacks, 17th in NFL history. Orlovsky said he often found himself staring at him from across the line of scrimmage.

Dwight Freeney, left, was a terrific athlete in every sport but football, it seemed. Then high school football coach Jack Cochran got him to play for Bloomfield.
Dwight Freeney, left, was a terrific athlete in every sport but football, it seemed. Then high school football coach Jack Cochran got him to play for Bloomfield. (Stephen Dunn / The Hartford Courant)

"As a quarterback, he made you play uncomfortably fast," he said. "I remember playing against him and I'd watch film and say, 'Why am I moving like that, so fast? I don't need to.' It was the shadow he created in your mind, essentially. You knew he was coming.

"He was one of those guys that we would have to talk about consistently going in to play against him: How we were going to play him? He changed everything we did, game plan-wise. We took plays out of our playbook because of him. When we started the game, we'd ask, 'Do we want to drop back five times in our first 10 plays? Because the last thing we want is Freeney to get going.' He truly affected the game before it even started, he was that impactful a player."

Cochran went to watch him play in Indianapolis early in his career, and when he walked into the RCA Dome and saw an enormous mural of Freeney, it hit home what had happened.


"It put a tear to my eye," he said. "So many kids before him that had that ability that couldn't put the three things together — strength, speed, academics — it was a very proud moment, what he made of himself and doing it the right way.

"You think back on it, in Bloomfield and Hartford and the city schools, Dwight paved the way for all the athletes after him. He showed you could come out of Bloomfield, a small town, and make it to Syracuse, All-American, All-Pro, and he's going to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. He showed everyone it can be done."

Orlovsky, as he was entering Shelton High, took inspiration from what Freeney, a few years ahead, was doing. In the NFL, too, Freeney cleared the way for small defensive ends to get opportunities.

"Would we have a Von Miller if not for Dwight Freeney?" Orlovsky asked. "An Elvis Dumervil? Guys who fall into that mold, pass-rushers extraordinaire who are a little undersized that change the position a little bit, made it okay to play that position with a different stature."

As his teammate, Orlovsky remembers being impressed with Freeney's professionalism and attention to detail, especially his focus on nutrition before it became more commonplace in the league and probably a reason he lasted so long in a young man's game. And good will helped, too.

"Very few people play 16 years in the NFL and you never hear a bad thing about him," Cochran said. "You never heard a bad thing about Dwight Freeney, nothing negative. He's a role model. He's ready for the next chapter in his life, and whatever he chooses to do I know he will be successful."

Atlanta Falcons defensive end Dwight Freeney talks about the list of big names he's joining as a Gold Key winner Sunday at the Connecticut Sports Writers' Alliance 76th Gold Key dinner.