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"In his senior year Freeman caught passes, he ran inside and out, he gained 1,343 yards, averaged 8.1 per carry and scored 27 touchdowns," Chris Ferragamo says. "They named him L.A. City Player of the Year. As far as I was concerned he was the best high school player in the country. The guy who got all the publicity was Alexander the Great, back in West Virginia—Robert Alexander, with the Rams now. But I always felt Freeman was the better player."
McNeil's mother, Mrs. Gladys Milligan, says, "There were so many recruiters calling we could hardly use the phone. Freeman finally chose UCLA because of Frank Gansz. He'd been close to us the whole time. He made Freeman keep his grades up, always kept checking in with us. He'd talk to you without sugarcoating it."
Gansz had found the key. McNeil says he never did like the "hi-hello" types, the phonies, the heavy talkers. "I couldn't stand them in those days, and I can't now," he says. "People have called me easygoing, and I guess I am, but I am also very aware of how people come on. What's always burned me up is when someone who hardly knows you comes on like he's your big buddy: 'Hi guy, how ya doin'?' that kind of thing. Or when they start calling you a nickname only your friends use, like Freemac or Freebie. 'What's happenin', Free?' 'What's goin' on, Freebie baby?' A total turn-off. I play along with it, but inside I'm burning."
It's hard to picture. McNeil has a face that seems built for laughter: twinkling eyes, cheeks a little on the chubby side, a face that creates a roly-poly impression even now when he has trimmed down to 212 pounds, 15 below his 1981 playing weight and the lightest he's been since his junior year at UCLA.
McNeil carries little of the superstar aura. In the locker room he's a ghost. Now you see him, now you don't. Sometimes he drives writers crazy. "Who're you waiting for? Oh, Freeman? Yeah, I think he's still here. No, wait a minute, his clothes are gone. That's funny, never saw him leave."
McNeil calls himself a loner. Last year he bought a five-bedroom house in Dix Hills on Long Island, 30 minutes due east of the Jets' Hempstead training complex, out there in Suffolk County with the potato farmers. It's his refuge, his escape. No roommates, no live-in girl friend, none of those candid, at-home shots for the Sunday supplement: "Freeman McNeil and a, ahem, companion enjoy a quiet evening at home." Just McNeil and his three dogs, two German shepherds and a Basenji.
"My permanent home is Long Island now," he says. "When I was in California for a trip in the off-season, I couldn't stay any longer than five days. I couldn't wait to get back to Long Island. I missed my dogs, can you believe it? I missed the quiet, the peace, coming home after practice, settling down on my water bed and turning on the stereo and just lying there in the darkness, thinking my own thoughts."
McNeil says he started being a loner when he was seven, when his father died. "He was very close to all his kids," Freeman says. "There were four of us then, five now. He'd never take one of us anywhere without taking the others. He was built very much like me, 5'10" or so and about 200 pounds; he'd been a halfback, up to junior college level. When he died, things changed for me. I'd always been kind of a street kid, not in a bad way, not in any kind of trouble way. I was into sports, basketball, bike racing, that kind of thing, but after my father died there would come times when I felt I just had to get away by myself. I'd take my bike and go off somewhere, places I hadn't been before. I always watched the signs so I knew how to get back."
He lived in Compton then. His mother worked in a clothing factory. When he was in the 10th grade he went out for football at Centennial High and didn't last long.
"I was an AYO," he says. "All You Others. You know, the coach says, 'I want my first and second string down here, and All You Others stand over there and watch.' "