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The Loneliness Of The League's Leading Runner
Paul Zimmerman
December 20, 1982
The NFL's top rusher, Freeman McNeil of the New York Jets, draws crowds on the field but eschews them when he's off duty
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December 20, 1982

The Loneliness Of The League's Leading Runner

The NFL's top rusher, Freeman McNeil of the New York Jets, draws crowds on the field but eschews them when he's off duty

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"Who does he remind me of? Well, I've got to think about that," says Jets Coach Walt Michaels. "Don't forget I played on the same team with Jim Brown for five years."

And?

"And nothing," Michaels says. "I'm tempted to say he reminds me of Boozer. Same herky-jerk style, same way of making something out of nothing, but no, I can't say Boozer. Emerson was a bouncer, a whirling dervish. Freeman? Well, he's not a 4.4 sprinter who's going to run away from people, an O.J. Simpson. He's kind of herky-jerk, and then he finds his spot, and just when you think the issue is decided, hey, things start moving. He'll duck his shoulder—he's pretty good size, 215 pounds—and he'll turn a three-yard gain into seven. A Paul Hornung maybe...nope, I can't even compare him to Paul. Different style completely."

"Dick Bass," says Fry, mentioning the back who was the Los Angeles Rams' leading runner throughout the '60s. "Same instincts. Same ability to read on the move and make that quick, decisive cut. Maybe Freeman's a little more powerful than Bass was."

"You can't compare McNeil to anybody; he's unique," says Chris Ferragamo, McNeil's high school coach at Banning in the Los Angeles suburb of Wilmington and the brother of Ram Quarterback Vince Ferragamo.

"He always was unique. I'll never forget the first day he came to us. He had transferred from Centennial High in Compton, and we were holding our summer tryouts at the Broad Avenue Elementary School. Freeman and his brother Russell jumped the fence, with their cleats slung over their shoulders, and they said they wanted to play football. I said, 'What do you play?' and Freeman said, 'He's a linebacker and I'm a guard.'

"He was a little bowlegged guy, about [1/5] pounds. He was awkward. The sole on one of his football shoes was loose and flapping, and when he ran that's all you could hear, flap, flap, flap. But he could pull out, he could run well, as bowlegged as he was, and I said, 'Wait a minute, you ever play halfback?' and he said no. So I lined him up five yards away from another kid and I said, 'We're going to play rabbit. He's just going to try to touch you. I want you to try to avoid him.'

"Well, he put one move on the kid and ran around him, like street football. So I got another kid, and set the two of them 10 yards away from Freeman, and I said, 'Try it again.' He went for the middle, put an outside move on and cut back through both of them, untouched. I said, 'Oh, oh, I think I've got something here.' "

Something indeed. The little bowlegged kid grew into a 5'11", 200-pounder who, in his two years at Banning, would lead the school to records of 11-2 and 12-1, with a Los Angeles city championship in 1976.

"I don't think I missed a game his senior year," says Frank Gansz, then the UCLA assistant coach who recruited McNeil for the Bruins, and now the special-teams coach for the Kansas City Chiefs. "The game they'd play with their big rival, Carson, well that was like the Super Bowl. Talk about guys who played in that game—Wesley Walker of the Jets, Vince Ferragamo, Frank Manumaleuga, who played linebacker for the Chiefs, Stanley Wilson, the Oklahoma fullback. I mean, you were watching the best high school football in the country."

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