CLEMSON When Brad Scott sat down with the Freeman family of Pelion on a recruiting visit in 2007, he was the offensive line coach at Clemson. Scott and Ben Freeman, the Pelion High School football coach, had developed a close friendship that began when Scott was South Carolinas head coach a decade earlier.
This particular meeting was not arranged to talk about old times and renew acquaintances. The subject of conversation was Freemans son, Dalton, a Pelion High senior and coveted recruit by Clemson.
At one point during the meeting at Hansens Triple Play Café in Pelion, Scott pulled out a paper napkin and pen. He then mapped out Freemans football career at Clemson, year by year.
• First season, redshirt
• Honorable mention all-ACC as a sophomore
• All-ACC as a junior
• Name on national award lists as a senior
Scott and the Freemans only wish they had saved the napkin. Over the past five years, Dalton Freeman has checked off every item on that list, and added a few more. He will be an academic all-ACC selection for the third consecutive year. He owns the Clemson record for most snaps played in a career. He will leave Clemson as one of the most decorated linemen in program history.
We thought we had us a winner when we signed him, says Scott, now an administrative assistant at Clemson, and certainly things have turned out that way.
It is why Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney gushes over Freeman.
Hes like a 10th coach on my staff. Hes just off the charts, Swinney says. Great player, oh my gosh, what a great player. His intangibles, his will to win, his character, the integrity, the leadership, toughness, his football IQ, all those things, its hard to replace a guy like that. . . . Hes just been a rock for us.
Clemsons rock over the past four seasons will start his 48th consecutive game one shy of former teammate Landon Walkers program record on Saturday when Clemson closes the regular season against South Carolina. The game will be a culmination of a love affair between Freeman and Clemson.
The roots to his infatuation with the school were planted when Freeman was a fifth-grader and tagged along on a recruiting trip to Clemson with his father and Pelion High standouts at the time, twins Josh and Justin Stepp.
Even at that age, Freeman had an inkling he was destined to play football. His grandfather, Ted Freeman, played at Appalachian State and his father played at Wake Forest. But it was a little early to begin imaging Freeman as a college player on two counts: First, Dalton was two years from a major growth spurt (six inches between the seventh and eighth grade); and, second, Dad did not allow Dalton to play football until the seventh grade.
Freeman was a huge baby at birth nine pounds, 12 ounces. He also was likely to inherit the thick torso of his father, who at 6-foot-5 and 245 pounds is the same size today that he was as a senior in college. By the eighth grade, Dalton was a solid 62 and 210 pounds.
Hey, now, youre going to be back looking at my boy, Scott recalls Ben Freeman telling him. Hes a big ole boy over here in middle school.
It is not as if Ben Freeman was opposed to Little League football, he just believed his son was better off waiting to play the game once he had grown into his body. By the ninth grade, Dalton was big and strong enough to start at Pelion High, and remained a starter for four years.
A typical day for father and son at Pelion High was for the two to eat breakfast together at home, ride together to school in Dads Chevrolet pickup truck, share lunch while watching videotape of football games in Dads office, practice, then return home to a dinner conversation about football most of the time.
Alright you two, lets talk about something else for awhile, Dalton recalls his mother saying. Gwen Freeman is a retired teacher who Dalton says was in charge of his academic progress throughout school.
When it came time to consider colleges, Freeman was most interested in Clemson, and also considered offers from USC and Florida State. He gave an early gift to Scott by announcing his intention on Christmas Eve to attend Clemson.
Freeman waited to make his decision once Tommy Bowden had been awarded a seven-year contract extension. Six months later, Bowden was gone and replaced by Swinney.
He was one of those guys, when I got this job, (he was) a redshirt freshman sitting there going, Whoa, what have I gotten myself into, and what is this thing going to look like? Swinney says.
What it has looked like for Freeman is quite spectacular. He earned freshman All-American honors after being the first freshman center to start over the course of a season for Clemson since 1943. As a sophomore, he was second on the offensive line in knockdown blocks. He was first-team all-ACC as a junior, and is expected to be the same again this season.
It is not just his blocking skills that have enamored Freeman to his coaches and to Clemson fans. He graduated a year ago with a degree in communications and took courses this semester toward a second degree. He also developed extraordinary leadership skills over his career and is certain to be named a permanent team captain at seasons end.
This past offseason, knowing he possessed the bulk of Clemsons returning experience on the offensive line, Freeman organized chalk talks with his younger teammates. The classes began in January and took place almost daily before the team lifted weights.
He would try to explain the whole play to them, not just their assignment, but the whole play once they carried out their assignment, Ben Freeman says. The young guys looked up to him and bought into it.
The offensive line, considered a weakness entering the season, has developed into a team strength. Freeman is the unquestioned leader of the unit, calling out blocking assignments at the line of scrimmage and pointing out defensive alignments before he snaps the ball.
Nearly every week this season, Freeman has received among the highest grades from the coaching staff for fulfilling his blocking assignments. He is recognized by opposing coaches as one of the ACCs top offensive linemen. But none of those accolades matters to Freeman until he hears the ultimate critique from his father.
It is a post-game tradition that Freemans grandfather started in analyzing his sons games, and now Ben Freeman does it with his son. When Dalton was a senior at Pelion High, he remembers heading to class on a Monday following what he believed was an outstanding performance the previous Friday.
The worst word I ever heard in high school average, Dalton says. Ill never forget it. I thought I had played a really good game and I went to talk to him and he said, Well, I thought you played average.
The a word has been motivation for Freeman ever since. He continues to hear from his father after every game. Rest assured, the word average has never been part of the evaluation. Instead, Ben Freeman, the Clemson coaching staff and Tigers fans have come to describe Dalton Freeman in different terms. He now is considered Clemsons rock.