DEER LODGE — Corey Freeman remembers his ankle snapping like it was yesterday.
The recently tabbed Deer Lodge head football coach was 17 and playing baseball for the Wranglers over the summer. The fastest guy in town, he was attempting to steal second base against Butte.
As he slid, the ankle broke as his foot hit the bag.
The rest of his season? Gone. The scholarship offers he recalls pouring into his mailbox? Gone. His senior football season? In grave jeopardy.
But if there’s one thing to know about the man who will soon be rebuilding the Wardens’ program, it’s that Freeman, 45, doesn’t stay down for long.
“That's what made me thrive and become the person I am today,” he said. “I had to work hard for everything I got and I'm not going to sugarcoat anything.
“It's been a hard road ever since.”
Freeman is Deer Lodge’s first alum to coach the team in at least 45 years. He admits the job has always been on his radar.
For Freeman, though, it is more than just a job. He feels a deep debt to the town and all the support it’s given him.
He felt it as he recovered from the injury enough to earn a spot on Montana’s football team. He felt it when he worked as a fisherman in Alaska and at the sawmill in Deer Lodge. And he feels it again now that he’s headed back to the football field for the Wardens.
“I want to be a difference maker, I want to make this town proud again,” he said. “I want to make this town proud of their kids, proud of their sports programs. I want them to enjoy what they're doing.
“I want them to be proud of who they are and what they represent.”
Despite playing on basically one leg — and only on defense — Freeman still was all-conference his senior year as a defensive end. Some teams still showed interest and he nearly went to Montana Western.
The Bulldogs offered him a scholarship, but his dream was always to play NCAA Division I football, so he decided to walk-on at Montana in 1990. Freeman had a surgery before his freshman year and spent nearly as much time on the training table as he did the field.
And the field, as it turns out, was a pretty difficult place to access.
Being a walk-on meant paying his own way and getting in the weight room to train. Slowly, he got stronger, but still spent a lot of time with another Deer Lodge native, J.C. Welda, now the head trainer for the Griz.
“He got me ready,” Freeman said. “He spent time with me and he knew the capability, so he wanted me to get prepared and ready for what I wanted to set out to do. I think him doing that was another push going forward.”
By 1992, Freeman had started to make a name for himself — literally. A standout on the practice squad (or meat squad, as he calls it) he eventually got the nickname ‘Zonk’ after the Hall of Fame NFL fullback Larry Csonka.
A strong spring of bowling over the first-stringers led to a memorable moment in the Griz locker room that fall.
Walking in one day, he was terrified he’d see a pink slip on his locker, meaning he’d been cut.
He closed his eyes and sat in front of his locker. Suddenly, he heard a voice.
It belonged to Dave Dickenson.
The standout Montana quarterback and current CFL coach told Freeman to open his eyes. He did and there was indeed a pink slip on his locker.
Crestfallen, he started to move before Dickenson grinned and removed a slip he’d placed there in fun.
Freeman had made the team. A No. 25 jersey hung in his locker, a number he eventually tattooed on his arm.
“My mom was mad, she did not like that at all,” Freeman said of the tattoo. “She's like, 'what is that?' and then asked me why I didn’t ask her. I said that I was 21 and didn’t know I had to ask her. She goes, ‘oh yeah, never mind, but I don't like it.’ Then she looks at it again and says 'that's kinda neat' and then said she still didn’t like it.
“That's just my mom.”
Freeman’s time with the Griz didn’t last long.
Another set of injuries — a separated shoulder, dislocated knee and another broken ankle — all happened on the same play.
Freeman tried to return, but halfway through the season it just became too much. It was a disappointing end to his career, made even more so when he was told it would take him more time to graduate.
Freeman had taken the minimum of 12 credit hours each semester during his playing career.
“I'm a bullheaded, stubborn individual and they wanted me to go one more year,” he said. “I just couldn't do it.”
So, he went to Alaska.
Working for Seattle-based Signature Seafoods, he was hired on a salmon fishing boat. As Freeman describes it, it was much like the TV show Deadliest Catch and he loved every second. For a year the storms, the Northern Lights and occasional 24-hour daylight were his life.
He might just have stayed forever had he not returned home during the holidays in 1996.
After coming back from a hunting trip, he received a phone call from Powell County High School. The Wardens had an open position teaching a weightlifting program as well as a physical education course.
At first, he declined. He was prepared to go spend another year in Alaska crab fishing, but his father strongly persuaded him to take the job.
“I say, ‘no thanks’,” Freeman said. “But my dad says, 'You're taking it' and I took it.”
Freeman also started coaching with the junior varsity before becoming a high school assistant in 2008. In 2006, he began coaching track, helping with the javelin, long jump and triple jump.
Soon, however, it was obvious that a job teaching just wasn’t enough financially. His three boys — Chance, Brody and Landon — were growing.
So he took a job at a sawmill, which paid more. The school let him stay on as an assistant, for which he is grateful.
It was difficult to stop teaching, but he had to do it for his kids.
“They're my heartbeat, I do the things I do for my boys,” Freeman said. “It's boys, jobs, family, in that order. I've always put my boys first. I don't like to rank them that way, but that's the way the chips fall.”
Walking onto the Deer Lodge football field, a deep peace seems to descend over Freeman.
The grass is a little long and the mosquitoes are biting, but he doesn’t mind. This is hallowed ground. Perhaps it’s the ghosts of games past, or the reality is finally setting in that the field and team are his now.
It’s a deep responsibility. In a slowly shrinking town of a little over 2,900, football means the world.
He can still recall fishing with legendary coach Steve Okoniewski and recalls being a 7-year-old ball boy, watching practices lit up by car lights that went until 10 p.m.
In college, when he’d return home he’d immediately go to the field and sit at the 50-yard line. It was so calming it became a tradition.
Freeman laments the sports programs in Deer Lodge drooping a bit. They’re certainly not dead — both the track program and basketball teams had plenty of success this past year — but a downswing has been evident.
The football program went 0-8 last year after a 5-4 campaign the previous season. Changes are coming, as Freeman is bringing in many new assistant coaches and revamping the offensive playbook.
He’s hoping to get 30 kids out and speaks to how he wants this team to be a family.
It’s a feeling he had when playing for the Griz but hasn’t noticed lately at Deer Lodge.
Community, too, is critical to him. More than the wins or loses, Freeman said, Deer Lodge needs something to galvanize it. In his eyes, football is the vehicle.
It won’t be simple, but the best things in life rarely are. Freeman certainly knows this firsthand.
And, at the end of the day, he didn’t take the job for his personal benefit. It goes far deeper.
“It's not for me, it's for us. Whether that means my kids, my family, or this community,” he said. “That's why I'm head coaching. That’s why I applied. This is for us. Nothing else.
“This is for Deer Lodge.”