Former Central Star Finds New Love After Career-Ending Injury
SAN ANGELO, TX-- When a football player’s career ends, it’s tough to grapple with the conclusion of a part of your life that you gave so much to.
When a player’s career ends due to an injury, it’s easy for those same feelings to be amplified tenfold.
Former Central Bobcat and University of Houston Cougar center Colton Freeman falls into the latter category. Yet his injury drove him to a bigger purpose: coaching.
During his prep days at San Angelo Central High School, Freeman had some pretty big shoes to fill as his brother, Chas, was a standout running back and linebacker for the Bobcats from 2005 to 2007 before continuing his career at Angelo State.
The now 6-foot-4, 290-pounder filled those shoes well and then some during his time in Orange and Blue, but it took a little time. After going from the Central Freshman Campus to the Senior High School, Freeman played on JV his sophomore year before starting on varsity in his final two years under Head Coach Brent Davis. In those two years, Freeman broke onto the scene and was a staple on the Bobcat’s offensive front as Central went 16-7 over that span.
Following his senior season, Freeman was tabbed to the Texas Associated Press Editor’s 5A All-State second team
But the recruiting was relatively slow going for Colton.
“I had a few schools looking at me, but not many,” Freeman said. “It’s hard to get recruited out here in west Texas. I had a coach in high school, Coach Harris. He helped me send out film to the coaches he knew. Then my offensive line coach, coach [Ron] Rogers sent out emails as well as my film. The first hit I got was in my junior year with Abilene Christian University. Next was [University of Texas-San Antonio] and Texas State. Then [the University of Houston] came in. I took an official visit there and loved it, it just kind of felt like home.”
Going from the Concho Valley to the sprawling metropolis of Houston, Freeman admits to a bit of culture shock when he first arrived in the Bayou City.
“When I went on my official visit, that was my first time ever seeing skyscrapers,” Freeman said with a chuckle. “Going in the middle of downtown Houston I was looking straight up at the buildings going ‘this is weird’. The biggest building here [in San Angelo] is the one that’s abandoned downtown. There was definitely some culture shock. But it was fun being there with all my teammates helping me out around the Houston area because they’re mostly from Houston and big cities. There’s a lot of stuff to do there that you can’t do here.”
After his visit, on Feb. 5, 2014, Freeman signed his National Letter of Intent to play for the Cougars and then-Head Coach Tony Levine, who was in his third year as the Head Coach.
In June of the same year, Colton went down to San Antonio to play in the Texas High School Coaches Association All Star game, the same game his brother took part in seven years prior.
Freeman would redshirt in his true freshman season in 2014, giving him a chance to hone his craft and learn the system at Houston.
“My work ethic was put in to me by my parents and my brother. They drove me since I was in high school,” Freeman noted. “After learning from them and taking it to Houston, it was already driven in to me. They kind of boosted me by telling me what I could do and be in the future at the University of Houston.”
Following the 2014 regular season, Levine was let go by the University of Houston, making way for current University of Texas Head Coach Tom Herman to take the reins in the Third Ward.
“I didn’t see the big move until Herman got [to Houston],” Freeman said. “Herman kind of kicked it off. It was more physical. It was more like workout, workout, workout and ground and pound. He showed us if you work the way you’re supposed to work, you’re going to win championships. And we did that. But he changed my mentality of the game. He flipped a switch in me. Coach [Derek] Warehime, my offensive line coach, flipped a switch in me…They had me working day and night, overtime, overtime, overtime both mentally and physically. But that’s something I was used to because of my parents and my brother.”
Heading in to 2015, Freeman was slated to start at center for the Cougars as a redshirt freshman.
“[Coach Warehime] pulled me aside and told me that I can’t play like a freshman in the [American Athletic Conference],” Freeman recalled. “He said I had to play like a junior or a senior.”
Freeman didn’t play like a freshman. In fact, Freeman stepped up to become a leader on an offense that would win the American Athletic Conference and beat no. 9 Florida State in the Peach Bowl.
Freeman’s play in 2015 caught the eye of many, including his head coach.
“The thing that really set Colton apart was his love of football and the passion he brought to the daily grind of preparation,” Tom Herman told San Angelo LIVE!. “He had great energy and enthusiasm, was an attention to detail guy and a tremendous leader that you could always rely on.”
However, as is the case for most guys playing in the trenches, that hard work and high level of play is bound to come with a few knocks.
Freeman noted getting a stinger, a burning or stinging sensation caused by an injury to the neck or shoulder, down his right arm in the Cougars’ October game against the University of Central Florida in 2015. That stinger set Freeman on a path toward the end of his playing days and a new purpose.
“After that game, in practice, I got another stinger. Only this time it went down my left arm and my back,” Freeman stated. “After that I thought ‘oh I need to get that looked at’. I played the next few games. Then I went to the doctor and got an X-ray and an MRI.”
The X-ray and MRI, which came three weeks before the end of the 2015 season, revealed that Freeman had spinal stenosis. Spinal stenosis is the narrowing of the spaces within spinal column and it can create added pressure on the spine. The doctors told Freeman that he wouldn’t be able to play if the stingers kept happening because that would make the stenosis worse.
“I was like ‘ok I’ll rest it for two weeks’,” Freeman said, adding that he thought that would help his shoulder get better. “Then the Navy game came around, I played in it. I had my cowboy collar on and everything. It happened once that game. It didn’t bother me that bad, it wasn’t bad. It went down my left arm. It happened in the [Conference Championship] against Temple twice. Then we had a month break from the Conference Championship to the Peach Bowl. So it kind of rested and it didn’t happen till the last play of the Florida State game. I kind of went to the doctor and shook it off. Then I rested it until spring ball. First practice in full pads I hit it. Coach told me I had to stop playing if it was going to keep doing that. During practices it started getting worse, almost continuous hit after hit after hit.”
Freeman would go to talk to the doctors after that. They told Freeman if he kept playing he could end up with nerve damage or even worse, paralysis.
Colton then had to make the tough choice of hanging up his shoulder pads and cleats. The news was somber for the Freemans.
“I think my family took it worse than I did,” Freeman said. “They wanted the best for me. Of course, I cried about it for nights. I asked God why and this, that and the other. But, honestly, I just took it as a sign from God that he doesn’t want me to continue playing football.”
But Freeman never left the field where he had poured out his heart and soul.
“[God] showed me later on and I found a love in coaching,” Freeman recanted. “I feel like God opens doors and closes doors for a reason and I took that to heart.”
“In the spring when it happened, [Coach Warehime] told me he didn’t want me to just go home and be on my own,” Freeman said. “He told me he wanted me to take some time away from football, but he wanted me back to help in the fall. So I helped watching film and other stuff upstairs, things like that. He kind of led me in to it. And Tom Herman wanted me to help out. Then I just felt the love for it.”
Much like his playing days, Freeman's talent as a coach didn't go unnoticed by the big boss.
“Colton was a natural as a coach because the game is so important to him and he has a great football IQ,” Tom Herman said of Freeman’s coaching. “He picked up on coaching very quickly and provided a great resource to our staff in that role.”
Freeman would assist Coach Warehime with the offensive line in the 2016 season and the Cougars would tally another winning record at 9-4 with an appearance in the Las Vegas Bowl.
But 2016 saw the departure of Herman for the University of Texas. Warehime would follow Herman to Austin while Freeman stayed in Houston to finish his degree.
Major Applewhite, the offensive coordinator for Houston under Herman, was promoted to the role of Head Coach ahead of the 2017 season. While the first year of the Applewhite era wasn’t quite what the Cougars wanted, it provided new experiences for Freeman and the season ended with the Cougars traveling to Hawaii for the Hawaii bowl.
Freeman just graduated this past December with a Bachelor’s Degree of Science in Kinesiology and Sports Management. Now, the San Angelo native and Houston grad is looking for a graduate assistant coaching spot.