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At first glance Wayne senior Imari Freeman appears to be just like any other high school football player.
He’s tall, slender and athletic-looking. He loves to play video games (Call of Duty is his game of choice). He texts his buddies at night until his mother asks for his phone.
The sweat dripping off his forehead confirms that he’s been working his tail off at this abnormally hot October practice. The veins in his arms are raised, as if he’s just finished curling dumbbells, and he’s out of breath as our brief conversation begins.
This is Imari Freeman’s first year playing football – his first year playing any organized sport, he told me – and he revels in his role for the 6-1 Generals, albeit a limited one. You see, Imari Freeman isn’t your typical prep football player.
He struggles to string together sentences that most teenagers take for granted. The simplest of math problems create moments of consternation. Reading – though admittedly his favorite subject in school – sometimes causes frustration.
Freeman is in the functional skills program at Wayne High School, which means that he has special needs. Students in this program don’t work toward a traditional high school diploma, but rather, toward specific skill sets that will help them become independent and functioning members of society.
Those who know and love him most could care less about his limitations. Instead, they focus on his many strengths and superlatives, which don’t take long to notice if you’re paying attention.
When I spent a few minutes with the quiet young man this past Wednesday at practice, I was struck by the warmth of his smile and the honesty in his eyes. Most of my questions elicited one- and two-word answers. When asked if my interviewing him made him uncomfortable, he at first nodded his head in affirmation, then quickly recanted by saying, “Not really.”
Where he’s most comfortable is on the football field – that’s the place where he gets extra attention and instruction from his more seasoned teammates.
“That’s my friend; we play (defensive back) together,” said junior safety Ronald Elliott. “I teach him a lot of stuff. He watches us. Whatever we do, he (will) do. He (does) good in practice. He’s just like one of us.”
It’s that acceptance by his teammates that has made Freeman’s transition to varsity football virtually seamless.
“He just loves the game and I can see that in him,” senior DB Dre Walton said. “When I look at him it makes me want to keep going.”
Freeman’s favorite part about playing football?
“To tackle people,” he said, smiling.
His most challenging part about playing football?
“Catching the ball,” he said.
His favorite teammate?
“Devonair Kelsaw,” he said, without hesitation. “He’s funny.”
Kelsaw is one of the Generals’ most explosive players, making big plays on both sides of the ball over the past two seasons for a resurgent Wayne program. For Kelsaw, the feelings are mutual.
“He’s real cool,” Kelsaw said of Freeman. “I treat him like everybody else on the team. He’s got a lot of courage. He doesn’t miss a day. He’s not late. He works as hard as he can. He may not be able to keep up with everybody else, but he does what he can to stay engaged and stay focused.
“Sometimes we have to help him, but that’s for anybody who’s just learning to play football. Not everybody is allowed to play this game of football. For him to be able to come out here and practice with us, and be on the team with us, I know it makes him real happy. I know he wishes he could be like us … but the best thing is, he doesn’t complain about nothing. He’s just a team player.”
Freeman has actually played in a couple games this season – a 31-6 win at North Side in Week 4, and a 35-8 victory at South Side a week later. In the game against the Archers, South Side scored on a Hail Mary pass as time expired, with Freeman right there in the middle of the action.
“That last play where they threw the ball (deep), for sure I thought he was going to get himself a little pick,” Walton said. “Matter of fact, take it to the crib too. I thought he was gonna get his little shine but, hey, it happens. It’s going to come around again, though.”
Said Elliott: “I was excited for him (to play some varsity minutes). I think he was ready. He kept telling me (that) he wanted to go in, and I was like, ‘I’m gonna tell coach to put you in.’ We all treat him like a brother. To us, he’s the same. To us, he ain’t got no disability. To us, he’s just normal. He works just like us, he bleeds just like us. He’s just normal to us.”
Freeman is content with his role on this Generals’ team, and he’s hoping he and his buddies have a long tournament run in them.
When asked what it will take, he didn’t mince words: “Beat Dwenger,” Freeman said.
The keys for victory should that rematch materialize? “Catching balls when they throw it,” he said, “(and) run the ball more often.
Well said, Imari. Well said.