John Freeman practically grew up in the press box above the Western Albemarle football field. Every fall Friday night, perched on his knees in a chair to see over the table, he’d watch the plays and call the numbers as his dad, Allen, the voice of the Warriors, announced. Ten years later, his dad was still announcing, but John wasn’t in the box anymore. Now he was on the field himself, an all-district defensive back sophomore through senior years. A captain, he was on the field in 2003 when an undefeated Western came from behind to beat a til-that-moment undefeated Monticello using the famous Lonesome Polecat formation, a play that will live on in Western Albemarle sports lore forever.
After graduating from Western in 2005, John went on to the University of Virginia, and he himself became an announcer like his dad, doing the radio play-by-play for soccer, lacrosse, and women’s basketball. Though he could still crush the opposition on his rec soccer team, he thought his own moments of real athletic glory were behind him, on the field at Western. But he was wrong.
This August, Freeman’s athletic talent took him far, far from the Friday night lights of Crozet. It took him to the Saturday afternoon sun of Melbourne, Australia, for the 2017 Australian Football International Cup. There, as a starting and starring midfielder for the USA Revolution, America’s men’s national team, he got to experience the thrill of team competition in a whole new and entirely incredible way.
Freeman is the first to admit a kind of baffled wonder at how he wound up playing for an international championship. After all, it’s not every day a boy from Crozet “finds the most niche sport that will allow him to play,” he jokes. But self-deprecation aside, the truth is that the sport sort of found him.
Freeman moved from Charlottesville to Nashville in March 2016, and he went to a park to play pick-up soccer, hoping to meet some folks and make some friends. Across the field, he saw a group kicking around a sort of oval-shaped ball, and recognized what they were doing: playing Australian rules football, a game played on an oval field in which two teams of 18 active players try to score points by kicking the ball through the goalposts, passing the ball by kicking it or punching it off their palms—no throwing allowed. Also no helmets, no pads, and no timeouts. The company Freeman works for is owned by Australians, so he’d heard about the sport and even kicked around the ball himself at a company gathering in Vancouver once. He approached the group in the park, which turned out to be the Nashville Kangaroos, the Music City’s professional Aussie rules football team. When he introduced himself, they taught him how to play and asked him to come to practice later that week.
Within two months, Freeman was a standout on the Kangaroos. At the regional tournament in Indianapolis, he was really still learning the game, but he played so well that the national scouts noticed him. They invited him to a national team training camp in Philadelphia in July of last year. There he underwent rigorous physical tests and evaluations, and the national coaches stayed in touch. After the national tournament in Sarasota, Florida, in October, he was one of just 60 players selected to attend the final national team tryouts in Dallas. So this past April, he traveled to Texas for more evaluations and fitness tests and trial games. None of his teammates back in Nashville were surprised when the final national team was chosen and John had made the cut. Anyone who had watched him back in his all-district days would not have been surprised, either. Everyone knew John Freeman was all-world.
It did surprise Freeman himself, though. “Things escalated pretty quick,” he said. On August 5, he found himself landing in Melbourne and donning official red, white and blue apparel emblazoned “USA” on the back. “It was pretty exciting. But it was also pretty terrifying, cause I’d never seen play at the level I saw in Australia.”
The Revolution’s first game was against Canada, and the Canadian Broadcasting Company carried it live on air, so Freeman’s Canadian colleagues tuned in to watch him on TV. Down at halftime, America came back and won 45-25, securing bragging rights for Freeman at the next company meeting in Vancouver.
Next the Revolution played South Africa, and won handily, 64-17. But the third game was the big one: America was taking on Papua New Guinea, known in the Southern Hemisphere more simply as PNG, an island neighbor of Australia and a hotbed of Australian Football League talent. In the same way that the NFL is huge in America, the AFL is huge in Australia, and many of its professional players are recruited from PNG, who won the Aussie Rules International Cup last year. The USA/PNG game was played in Montrose, a suburb of Melbourne and home to a professional AFL team, whose stadium welcomed the Americans warmly. “It was nuts!” Freeman recalled. “People were tailgating, they had a legit TV broadcast, it was on radio, they had USA painted on the field. There were a couple thousand people there.” Before the game started, PNG did a haka, a traditional war dance, in a moment of terror but also wonder for Freeman, who never got over the adventure of it all. “These island people are doing a war dance in my face, and there was this moment like, ‘How did I get here? This is the most random thing I’ve ever done,’” Freeman said. Maybe the most random, but also one of the most impressive. Though America lost the hard-fought game, Freeman scored two goals, and afterwards the coaches and media ranked him the highest-rated US player in the game.
In the fourth game of the Cup, Freeman scored two more goals as the Revolution annihilated France, 132-19. They kept up the point scoring ruthlessly because after the loss to PNG, their only shot to make the championship game was the point-differential stats.
However, they fell a little short of qualifying and instead played for third place against Ireland in the fifth and final match. They lost that game, too, so they went home with a fourth-place finish.
Freeman is grateful that he also went home with all his bones and ligaments intact, as the sport can be pretty brutal and injuries abound. Over the course of his year in the sport, he’s suffered one severe shoulder sprain and countless other minor wounds: “I usually find a way to bleed from my face,” he said, and described how after a game he often finds bruises on his arms in the shape of perfectly outlined fingers, since opponents grab a player’s arms to keep him from releasing the ball as he’s tackled.
Besides the sore muscles, Freeman also went home with some serious accolades, including the distinction of being one of the few men who played and started in every game, which Freeman, with customary humility, said was, “just as much luck as it was a feat of endurance.” Even more impressively, Freeman also won the honor of being named top midfielder on Team USA. The coaches have already said they want him back three years from now, for the next Aussie Rules International Cup.
But the global glory isn’t what really matters to Freeman. What he’s most grateful for is simply the chance to come back to the world of true, deeply invested team sports, a world he hasn’t really gotten to be a part of since those days back in Crozet. “In high school, you live for the championship, and then that competitiveness just lay dormant for years. I was always kind of jealous of people that got to play and complete,” he says. Traveling with the U.Va. teams he’d announce for, he’d often think, “How cool it would be to be on this team!” Now, in Melbourne, he got to experience firsthand how cool it really was. “I was kind of living out all the things I’d wanted for 10 years,” he said.
Just as the Lonesome Polecat play was an amazing moment he’ll remember vividly forever, his trip across the planet with the national team will always be a technicolor memory. Recalling the PNG game, he recounted the feeling: “We’re on a bus to the game, and it leads us to the locker room, there’s people tailgating, there’s little kids asking for our autographs, they’re playing our anthem, and I was just like, ‘I got everything I wanted.’ I never took that for granted.”