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Dwight Freeney: 'I know I changed the game'

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- When Dwight Freeney came into the NFL as the No. 11 overall pick in the 2002 draft, the focus was on his speed. A 4.48-second 40-yard dash time made him a highly sought-after player, even if he was undersized by typical standards of a defensive lineman at 6-foot-1, 270 pounds.

But his has been a league-changing career: A centerpiece of the Indianapolis Colts' defense, a three-time first-team All-Pro, seven-time Pro Bowler and member of the NFL's All-2000s team.

Now 37 years old, he isn't sure what the future will bring. That means Sunday, when the Detroit Lions play the Green Bay Packers, might be the last game for Freeney, a career spanning over 5,200 defensive snaps, 341 tackles, 125.5 sacks and 47 forced fumbles.

Freeney sat down with ESPN recently to discuss his career, his legacy, his trademark spin move and what might be next. (Editor's note: This Q&A was edited for content and clarity)

What did you think when you first came into the league? That was a talented defense at Syracuse and then you come to Indianapolis, did you imagine this type of career?

Freeney: "I had aspirations to have this type of career. Obviously you never know what to expect, but I never let doubt enter my mind about what I wanted to be. Throughout those tough days when you didn't want to wake up that early or you didn't want to get rehab or you didn't want to lift or you didn't want to stretch, to me, it was inside motivation, knowing where I wanted to be in the end of this thing, why I continued to do those little things throughout the way."

Where was it you wanted to be at the end of this thing?

Freeney: "My football idol was Lawrence Taylor, so I wanted to emulate him, wanted to be great like him. So for me, it was kind of like, holding myself to a higher standard. I don't know as far as teams and all that stuff. Honestly, I thought I was going to retire with the same team you started with. I don't think any guy in the league thinks otherwise. I don't think anybody comes into the league thinking, I'm going to go to four, five, six different teams. No one has that envisioned in their head. Life kind of throws you curveballs once in a while. So, you know, toward the end of this thing here, I got a great 11 years in Indianapolis and, you know, in 2013 I had to go somewhere else, but I still loved the game. The end chapter was just for the love, man, just because I still love playing."

Was there a point this offseason after the Super Bowl and five, six weeks into the regular season (still unsigned), when you thought it was over?

Freeney: "Yeah, yeah, it's one of those feelings where the longer that you are unsigned, that feeling comes. It comes, like, well I've been training since June and it's now the middle of August or mid-September, all right, I'm getting tired of going into those same gyms, seeing those same people. No offense, but I don't want to be spotting Grandma on flys or doing whatever. I just, I want to be on a team and I wanted things to be set and going where I need to go. I like the structure of it and that's why I'm playing. I think the longer that I sat around and waited to get signed, it was kind of like, 'I don't know what's going to happen this year.' Now, this year was a lot different than other years because this year I was honestly in constant communication with Jim [Caldwell], with Atlanta. There were other teams I was speaking to consistently, saying, 'Hey, Dwight, we want to bring you in. Don't worry. Stay ready. Stay ready.' So they always dangled the carrot in front of me and I'm like, 'OK, OK, I will.' And I'm glad I did because I have an opportunity here to end things out, if this is my last year, to end things where I started in a sense where kind of started with Jim as far as my experience with the pros and also he was the first guy that I remember coming to my high school, coming to my house in Bloomfield. Even [Al] Golden, the tight end coach, was a recruiter for Boston College and he came and brought me to Boston College to recruit me to Boston College. So we have two guys on this staff that knows me from high school and then Teryl Austin, who knows me from college, so it's all kind of come full circle here as far as my career."

You opened the door. Is this it?

Freeney: "I don't know. I mean, the thing is I always said at the end of the year I'm always going to evaluate it. Every year, at the end, I evaluate. Do you still want to play? Do you still love it? How's your body feeling? And that's kind of what I go from. So we'll see. It's easy to say now or what have you, maybe, but I try not to let things seep in there during the year. I have other things to focus on."

When do you make that decision?

Freeney: "Usually at the end of the season, a month, two months, when it's over, you know, it's kind of like, it's February now. It's March. These guys, especially free agency starts to open up, teams got to figure out what they're doing. That's kind of when those thoughts come."

THE HALL OF FAME

Do you think you're a Hall of Famer?

Freeney: "I think that I have statistics to suggest that. I do think that I've done a great job in my career. People mention it all the time, that you're a shoo-in and all of that. I honestly don't, there's guys that have better numbers than me that haven't gone yet, that aren't in yet or around my numbers that haven't gone yet. So if it was strictly numbers, guys like Simeon Rice, guys like that, you know what I'm saying. John Abraham I think has more sacks than me and stuff like that. They are still not in. Will they be in? I believe that they will be in at some point, just don't know when. I think my career was a lot different. I think people who study the game understand that numbers don't tell the tale all the time. I always said I had a real rough road to 100. When I say that is that after my first year, I saw, not double teams, but consistent double teams for my entire 10, whatever-my-career in Indianapolis. So for me to get to that 100 number, it wasn't like I was getting singled and just had to beat one guy. It was a lot of times trying to figure out how to beat two to get this 10 number every year. But, you know, unless you study the game, then you'll know. So like I said, most people don't, so they may not know those things and the people who make those decisions to go to the Hall of Fame are the people who make those decisions to go to the Hall of Fame. I've done everything I can to do what I needed to do to perform the best way that I can for my teammates and my family and just for myself and pride and all that stuff. The rest is up to whoever decides."

Do you think first ballot is a possibility?

Freeney: "I think anything is a possibility. I think, put it this way, if I wasn't first ballot I wouldn't be in the corner crying in tears saying, 'Oh my gosh, I wasn't first ballot.' There's nothing, I can't control it. I just know that I left my mark on the game. Whenever you see somebody do a spin move, I know where it came from. I know where those guys got it from because no one was really doing it at the level or as constant and consistent as I was. I know that. I know that I left my mark on the league as far as undersized quote-unquote defensive ends. There was no one my size being drafted at my position. Now you see a whole slew of guys doing that so I know I paved the way for a lot of guys there. So I know I left my mark on the game. Now, first ballot, second ballot, third ballot, not going, hey, man, it's up to whoever to decide those things."

FREENEY'S SPIN MOVE AND LEGACY

You mention leaving your mark. What do you think your legacy on this game is?

Freeney: "I think it could be a combination of things, but I think that's more or less questions you'd have to ask other guys. I know what I put out there every day and put everything into the game. I was a hustle player, used to play every down. Now, when I got older, it became, oh, we only want you situational, which screwed me, but hey, it is what it is."

That has been the last two, three years?

Freeney: "At least that. Four years. So it's kind of like you're not going to have the numbers that you want and you have to put that aside, you know, and just be more of a mentor even more. You have to figure out a way. So I feel like my legacy, it's just who is going out and just trying to be a total vet, you know what I'm saying to you, just help out the young guys in his older years, trying to teach. Kind of give them knowledge and spread knowledge to the younger generation so they can bless their families or whatever they are trying to do to make money for them and for them to be successful, to make their path a lot easier. As far as the spin move, it's associated to me but just a guy that's undersized and everyone told me I couldn't do it and I went out and did it."

Who do you think has the best spin move?

Freeney: "Right now in the game? As far as second-generation guys? What do you mean? Excluding me, is that what you're saying. Excluding [Robert] Mathis, because Mathis is not here. I would say Everson Griffen. He does it well. Watching him, he kind of modeled his game after me, you know. I see a lot of similarities in what we do. Actually met him for the first time when Detroit played the Vikings here. Right when I got here. He was excited to see me and I was excited to say what's up to him because I love what he did, how he rushes the quarterback. I would probably give it to him because I've been watching him for a while and seen it develop over the years and he's gotten better and getting better."

Let's broaden it. Who has the best spin move ever?

Freeney: "Me."

Hey, sometimes the original can get improved on.

Freeney: "That's the thing, I don't know, the original, I don't know the original because I didn't get it from anyone else. So for me, it was just naturally what I've done. It's funny. My evolution for it was, I think it started in basketball. I was a power forward back in the day. I used to get the ball in the block and I used to spin at Bloomfield and I would get called for traveling every dang time I drop-stepped. So I think, it probably started there. And then obviously you don't travel in football so coach is like, 'Hey, get to.' He never really said what I had to do. He gave me freedom to do what I wanted to do. I just said, 'You know what, I'm going to start spinning.' He allowed me to spin and I made the plays doing it and ever since then, I've always been doing it."

When was it refined to where it became yours, that it was going to be associated with you?

Freeney: "No one else was doing it and it's not an easy move to do and most coaches don't coach you to do it so it was kind of like, once I got in Indianapolis and I had a great coach, John Teerlinck, he allowed me to do it. He pushed me to do it, which was great, man. I didn't have to worry about, 'Oh gosh, if I don't make the play when I spin, then the coach, he's going to bench me.' It wasn't one of those things for me."

Did that give you a level of comfort to go for it and experiment?

Freeney: "I think he gave me the freedom because you get the freedom from the coach, it allows you to get better and become more natural, instinctive with the move. The more you can do something, the better you're going to get at it. So because of that, because of how I'm built, body-wise, it was an easier move for me to do and execute. But obviously him letting me just go out and do it when I need to do it, in practice, whenever, it just re-emphasized it's OK to do it."

THE BEST PASS-RUSHER EVER AND HIS TOUGHEST MATCHUP

Who do you think is the best pass-rusher ever?

Freeney: "That's a tough one. I don't know if there's a best. I know Bruce [Smith] has the numbers. Bruce has the numbers. He has 200 sacks. You would have to give it to Bruce from the standpoint of he has the most sacks. That being said, there's so many factors into getting sacks. Getting numbers doesn't tell the whole story. You could have had great coverage, had coverage sacks. Could have been running, chasing the quarterback out of bounds and been the closest guy. You could have gotten pummeled by the offensive guard or tackle and you get up and the quarterback trips over your body. Sack. There's so many ways to get it based on your scheme. I was a big Lawrence Taylor fan. Derrick Thomas was a beast. Reggie White, a monster, he had 190-something sacks. Who's better, him or Bruce? Who cares? They are both amazing, you know what I'm saying. So everybody has a different style. It's like watching an old Kung-Fu film. Tiger style and someone else has a crane style, somebody is different. Everybody has a different style. Jason Taylor has a stab move. I'm a spin guy. Reggie White is a hump guy. I don't even know what Bruce is, Bruce can probably do them all. You know what I'm saying to you. That's just the evolution of the game."

Where do you think you fit into all that?

Freeney: "I don't know where I fit on that from the standpoint of, if you're strictly going off numbers, it's a different conversation, you know. It's 15th or 16th. No one was blocking defensive ends like how they've been blocking me since I got in the league. Where the tight end off the ball came in the league was because of me and [Robert] Mathis, that tight end that just sits out there in space and chips you, that was never part of any blocking scheme. I challenge anybody to find one time before I got in the league to where they put the tight end outside the ball, outside the tackle and he tries to impede your progress on your way to the quarterback. They did it on run plays, but nobody ever did it on pass plays. I want you to find one time where the receiver comes in motion and starts to chip you. All that stuff happened because of me and Mathis and maybe how fast we get off the ball. And it never occurred until us. So it's kind of like, if you factor that in, factor in that you got so many damn double teams you only saw three one-on-ones per game, you know, for six, seven, eight years. You see three or four or five, maybe five, one-on-one blocks, opportunities for you to get a sack. You can make hay out of five opportunities, that's a big thing. But you'll never see that, you'll never understand that unless you actually study how it works. So that leaves me, where do I stand? I don't know. It just depends on what. I don't know what everybody else went through. I know what I went through and it was tough. Now if you give me a one-on-one block, me and this guy in my heyday, I put my money on myself pretty good versus most guys in my hey."

First then, do you think a combination of you and Mathis changed the game?

Freeney: "I definitely, without a question in my mind, know I changed the game. Without a question. Like I said, before me, before Mathis, there was nobody like me. So when I got to the league and I was this 6-1, 268, 265 pounds, he was this undersized guy. He's only a situation guy. Once I proved to them that hey, it's actually possible. I'm not playing basketball here where I need to post or box a guy out and grab a rebound. I don't need to be 6-5 to do so. Once I started doing that and playing well, then it was OK to draft Mathis and do the same thing. Once I started having more success and Mathis, then it became, you know what, look at those guys in Indianapolis, those guys can play. It's not about what size you are. Those guys are quote-unquote undersized and are making all kinds of plays left and right. Now, all of a sudden you see guys drafted that way, the Von Millers and those guys get drafted more frequently because we paved the way. So from that standpoint, yeah. And as I told you earlier, the spin move, I already know. I see that, I laugh at it every time I see it. I already know I changed the game from that perspective. I changed the game on the blocking scheme."

Who is the best offensive lineman you faced?

Freeney: "Jonathan Ogden. He's a giant. He was 6-9, reportedly 340, which was a lie. He was more like 385, 400, but what it was is, I kind of called him, he was like a cheat code. Genetically he was cheating. So big, so fast, so strong. You can't be all three. You know what I'm saying. He was a guy that could move, dancing bear, he could move fast, you know. It took everything I had to beat that guy."

Do you remember the first time you beat him?

Freeney: "I remember the first time I went against him and I came up with a bull rush. I said, 'I don't know what I'm going to do, but I'm just going to bull him.' I'm like at his kneecaps. I'm running and I bull him and I get him really good and he just gets stunned and picks me up and throws me across the formation. That was the very first time I went against him. Don't know if it was my rookie year, second or third year, something like that. Then after that I had some good games against him. The great thing about it was I knew facing him, they were going to give me the one-on-ones. I was going to be able to get me versus him. Other games, I'm not going to see that."

How many guys did you feel you had true one-on-ones against?

Freeney: "Walter Jones. Orlando Pace. Those are the guys that I would say for the most part said, 'Me versus you.' Didn't try to help. It was really mano-a-mano and that's what I loved."

So those weeks?

Freeney: "I would be revved up. I would know now that I'm finally going to get those opportunities. You don't understand how frustrating it was when I'd come into a game and whatever I watched on film, on how that guy blocked this guy, I wouldn't see any of that. For one, no one was built like I was built. No one was doing the moves I was doing. And the protection, they weren't doing the same protections. When they played us, it was seven-man protections, chipping on the outside, backs chipping all the time, guard pushing from the inside. It was a completely different game when they played us."

THE END AND THE FUTURE

If this is it, and I don't know if you did this at the Super Bowl last year with the Falcons, but do you go into that looking around more? Sit there and take more in?

Freeney: "I've been doing a lot more of that of late. Last two to three years. In the last two, three years, it's been the same thing, telling myself this might be it, really don't know. Once you get 35, get up there, you're like, 'This might be it.' You don't know what's going to happen next year. Last year, I think if we would have won the Super Bowl, I was done. Would have been a great way to end. Very rarely as a football player are you able to be happy at the end of a year. Everybody's pissed off but one team. There's 32 teams. Thirty-one teams, 53 guys or whatever on each roster are absolutely pissed off at the end of the year, all right. To have a good feeling at the end, it's priceless."

Did you know that going into the Super Bowl that you'd do that?

Freeney: "I was battling it internally. I was like, 'Man, this could be it. We win this. But man, do you really want to call it quits now? You're still playing good, you know.' It was like the little devil on the right, angel on the left, that's what was going on. But I'm still here."

When you lose the way you lost, did that push you to come back this year?

Freeney: "Yeah, yeah. It pushed me back. Like I told you before, things don't, I don't let the things that happen in my life kind of dictate how I want to end it. I end it the way I want to end it. [In] 2013, I tore my quad tendon in my knee. Had major knee surgery at age 33, 34, that's career-ending. I'm like I'm not ending my career right now with my knee being basically carted off the field. I'm not doing that. I'm coming back. So that was my motivation. Me, in Indianapolis, them not re-signing me after my contract was done, I'm like just because you guys don't want me, I'm not going to end my career. It's the same thing. Got to the Super Bowl and like, 'God dang, we almost had it.' I don't want to go out that way. You know what, I'm going to come back. I think, honestly, I thought I was going to re-sign there. If I would have known maybe of what I would have had to go through in this process, I might have retired. But I didn't know. I didn't know. No one knows, right? If I would have known, if I was a psychic and was like, 'All right, Dwight, you're going to come back, but you're not going to get signed the first eight weeks and you're going to bounce around for two teams, Seattle and Detroit,' I might have been like, 'Ahh, nah. I'm not doing that.' But that's hindsight."

Knowing what you know now, do you regret it?

Freeney: "I don't regret it at all. No regrets. There's always experiences and things that you experience. I go to Seattle and meet some great people. I get to sit down, chop it up and having that experience and feeling the 12th Man. I've always said it would be great to play in that stadium one time as a defensive player. Definitely a great experience, got to meet some of the competitors over there over the years. And then come back here full circle, you don't regret any of it. As you're going through it, reunited with Jim and those guys, it's priceless."

The end is closer than the beginning, what's your life goal after this? What do you want to do?

Freeney: "Life goal is different. Life goal is live to I'm 90 or whatever. Just be happy doing whatever I'm doing. As corny or whatever as that sounds, to be happy, man. And so whatever you're doing, whether I end up doing TV stuff or golfing every day, whatever it is, I need to be happy doing what I'm doing. Life is short and you blink and you're 50. You blink again and you're 80. It's like you really have to treasure those moments and make sure you're happy doing whatever you're doing. Who you're with, your family, that's important. In the end, that's what I would like."