Dwight Freeney had accomplished so much prior to signing with the Seahawks two weeks ago, building what is likely a Hall of Fame résumé during a long career spent in Indianapolis, San Diego, Arizona and Atlanta. Through 15 seasons, Freeney was a seven-time Pro-Bowler and three-time first-team All-Pro; he won one Super Bowl with the Colts and played in a second with the Falcons; he was among the top-20 all time in sacks; and he made plenty of money along the way.
In other words, Freeney didn't have anything left to prove.
Yet as the NFL season moved along without him this year, Freeney kept working hard anyway, and he kept in touch with teams that might be in need of his services. At 37, Freeney kept pursuing the right situation to come back one more time because he knew that once his remarkable career does finally come to an end, there will be no replacing the feeling he gets on Sundays when a stadium comes alive after he makes another game-changing sack.
"I'm having an amazing time," Freeney said. "That's why I keep hanging on, because I'm having so much fun when I'm out there doing it. It's something where you can't really replace that feeling and that emotion in those moments. I've talked to a lot of guys who are retired, and they said, 'Man, if you still love it, keep playing as long as you can,' so that's what it is. My body has been feeling pretty good, so I said, 'You know what, if I can help another team out and have fun in the process, why not?'"
And Freeney isn't just having fun; he's showing that he can still be a disruptive force despite being the oldest player on Seattle's defense by almost six years (fellow defensive end Michael Bennett is 31).
"He's ageless, right?," said defensive end Branden Jackson, who grew up idolizing Freeney, as did plenty of other pass-rushers his age. "It's funny to watch a person growing up as a kid, then to play alongside of him. I know opponents probably study him thinking, 'He has to have lost a step, and we know what's coming, he's been doing this for 16 years.' But he has proven he's hard to stop."
The Seahawks have brought Freeney along slowly, using him on 18 of 71 snaps against Houston, then 25 of 63 snaps against Washington, but in that limited time Freeney has been very productive, recording 3.0 sacks and coming very close a couple other occasions. He is also helping free up other pass rushers, one reason why the Seahawks have recorded 11 sacks in the past two games.
"He has been involved in three sacks already and he had two or three other rushes where he was as clean as you can get—if the ball didn't come out right now, he would have had sacks then too," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "He just continues to show why he's Dwight Freeney and why he's had all these numbers in the past. And not only in his own rushes, but he has done a really nice job in games too in the first couple of weeks for us. He's a good complement to the guys too; he'll do his part to get other guys clean too. He's really sharp and disciplined about that."
With three sacks, Freeney is now up to 125.5 in his career, which ranks 17th all time, one spot behind Kansas City Chiefs great Derrick Thomas, and three spots behind Lawrence Taylor, considered one of the best pass-rushers in history.
"Those are all people I've watched over my lifetime and in my career that I've always wanted to be like and play like," Freeney said. "Lawrence Taylor is at 132 (sacks) and he was my idol, so if I could ever get there, it'd be great. But who knows? Sacks, they come and go. It doesn't matter how many sacks you had as long as you had fun and played your heart out."
Freeney's next two games will be against his previous two former teams with the Seahawks playing at Arizona Thursday, then hosting Atlanta the following week, and his experience of joining those two teams late has helped him make an immediate impact with Seattle. Freeney joined Arizona midway through the 2015 season and recorded 8.0 sacks in 11 games, then he signed with Atlanta last summer at the start of training camp, recording 3.0 sacks in the regular season and one more in the Super Bowl. Going the last two seasons without being a part of a team's offseason program—and in the case of 2015, without training camp or a preseason—has made this transition to Seattle go rather smoothly for Freeney even if he was, by his own account, ready to retire in another week if things hadn't worked out with the Seahawks when they did.
"Unfortunately I've been used to it," Freeney said of being unsigned in the offseason. "I've done that the last few years here where I had to jump into a situation. Actually probably the worst case scenario was when I went to Arizona. (The defense was) completely new, so I had to just dive in deep there, so that actually helped me prepare for this type of situation. It also helped me hold on and not retire."
As for how Freeney is still an effective pass-rusher at an age when almost all of his peers are retired, he credits the time he spends in his hyperbaric chamber after every practice, as well as putting more effort into taking care of his body than he had to when he was in his 20s.
"That becomes priority one two and three now," he said. "When you're younger, you just jump out of bed, go run a lap, practice. Five minutes of stretch, who needs it? Just run. Now? It takes me 45 minutes to do anything."
To understand just how impressive Freeney's longevity is in such a physically demanding sport, consider that Seahawks defensive coordinator Kris Richard was selected by the Seahawks in the same 2002 draft as Freeney.
"He's a supreme competitor," Richard said. "There isn't much I can say about him; I'm kind of at a loss for words about him. Every time that somebody brings him up, I'm like 'Man, goodness gracious.' … I love working with the guy. He's able to kind of bring everything together and we have gotten better since he's been here."
And while the Seahawks signed Freeney primarily to help fill the void left by Cliff Avril's absence, they also knew they'd be getting more than just sacks. Talk to any young defensive lineman in Seattle's locker room, and they'll tell you how much they've already learned from the 16-year veteran.
"He's very impressive," defensive end Frank Clark said. "How hard he works, how hard he has been working for the last 16 years; he's just continuing to show why he's one of the all-time greats as far as rushing the passer and playing the position as a whole. I feel like I've learned a lot from him. If you're a good learner and listener, you should learn a lot. He has a lot of knowledge that I don't have, obviously, so there's a lot of learning to do from him. Just taking in all that knowledge and sucking it all in as long as he's here, it's only going to help me out in the future."
Added Jackson, "He just brings a lot of experience and a lot of knowledge to the group. When he's out there it's kind of like having a coach on the field. He just recognizes certain things. And when you have him and Mike B, those intellectuals on the field on the same time recognizing things, it's easier for the defensive line to just get off and play fast, because one of them, if not both of them, is going to know what play is coming."
And it's not just young players or even defensive linemen who can learn from a player as experienced and accomplished as Freeney.
"He has been a great addition to our locker room," said linebacker Bobby Wagner, one of Seattle's defensive captains. "Outside of his play, his leadership—because he's older, he's got a lot of gray hairs—so we're learning from him. I'm asking him a bunch of questions. I feel like he makes the whole locker room, the whole defense better. You see the way the guy prepares, you see him go out and execute—the first thing I noticed when he came out on the field was how smart he was. He knew all the line games just like that. He makes you elevate your game."
Take a look at some of the best images from Seahawks newly acquired Defensive End Dwight Freeney's career.