Jay Cutler didn’t see him.

But Jerrell Freeman was accustomed to being overlooked. Five years removed from his final college snap, the Indianapolis Colts linebacker was finally playing in his first NFL regular season game. He even spent his time in college playing out of the limelight at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in Division III. So it’s no surprise that, on the Chicago Bears’ second offensive series of the 2012 season, Jay Cutler didn’t see Freeman sprinting out to the flat; it’s no surprise that the quarterback might not have even known No. 50’s name.

But, seconds later, Freeman introduced himself.

Jerrell Freeman returned "home" to graduate.
Mary Hardin-Baylor

Only a few plays into his NFL debut, Freeman sprinted in front of Cutler’s pass, snagged it and, without breaking stride, bolted into the Bears’ end zone. In an instant, he’d silenced more than 60,000 at Soldier Field. Through the rest of the season, he pulled thousands of Colts fans to their feet, amassing 145 tackles -- fifth most in the NFL -- while securing a starting spot. But with newfound fame and potential riches ahead of him, Freeman hasn’t turned his back on his humble past. Rather, he’s embraced the small university in the heart of Texas where his promising career began.

After his breakout 2012 season with the Colts, Freeman returned to Mary Hardin-Baylor during the 2013 spring semester to finish the 11 credit hours that stood between him and a degree in criminal justice. On Saturday, May 4, he traded in his blue and white uniform for a cap and gown and accepted a diploma from the school’s president Randy O’Rear.

“It’s a long way from Division III football to the National Football League,” O’Rear said. “When you have a guy that goes off and plays at the highest level of his sport, but degree completion is important enough to him to come back and get that finished, boy, that’s something we’re really proud of.”

Though he pursued his dreams of playing professional football, Freeman never forgot the promise he’d made to his parents -- no matter what came next, he would graduate from college. Even after securing a starting spot on an NFL playoff team, he wouldn’t renege on that pledge. So, before the Colts ventured to Baltimore for the opening week of the playoffs, he texted Steve Theodore, Mary Hardin-Baylor’s senior vice president for administration and chief operating officer. Freeman wanted to come back; what would he need to do to earn his diploma?

“Coming out of high school, education was a big thing for [my family],” Freeman said. “Even now when I go out and talk to kids, I try to preach education, because it has allowed me to do the things I do now.”

Theodore dug into Freeman’s academic records and found that he was only a handful of classes shy from completing his degree. Theodore told the former D3football.com Defensive Player of the Year that he should be able to complete the coursework in time to walk at the school’s commencement in May. After the eventual Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens knocked the Colts out of the playoffs in January, Freeman and Theodore worked to find him an apartment on campus and to enroll him in classes. Soon, Freeman was more than 1,000 miles away from the stadium he’d made roar, sitting in quiet classrooms like any other student.

Seemingly, an NFL starter roaming the campus of a DIII school that’s home to fewer than 3,000 undergraduate students would cause a stir. And while Freeman noted that he occasionally heard a whisper or two from awestruck classmates, he blended easily back into life as a student and didn’t prove to be a distraction, school officials agreed.

And his presence was welcomed by current Mary Hardin-Baylor student-athletes. Rather than workout in private or at a separate facility, Freeman sweated and strained alongside some of the school’s football players. He’d once been in their shoes -- a DIII student-athlete with a dream, seemingly light-years away from the NFL. Head football coach Pete Fredenburg said that Javicz Jones, a senior linebacker who won the same defensive award in 2012 that Freeman won five years before, was particularly enthralled by Freeman’s presence and worked diligently alongside him. After last month’s draft, Jones received an invite to the Houston Texans’ rookie minicamp for a tryout.

FREEMAN'S 2012 NFL STATISTICS  
Games 16
Started 16
Tackles 145
Solo 90
Assists 55
Sacks 2.0
Passes Defended 2
Interceptions 1
INT Yards 4
INT Touchdown 1
Forced Fumbles 1

“He’s going through the same things Jerrell went through,” Fredenburg said. “It was really motivation and inspiration for him.”

But why did Freeman have to return at all? Why couldn’t he finish his degree years earlier? An unexpected opportunity to pursue professional football interceded before he was able to earn his diploma. When his athletic eligibility expired, he still had those few classes to finish. But pro scouts had been visiting campus during Freeman’s final two seasons. Though he wasn’t drafted, the Tennessee Titans signed him after the draft and invited him to training camp. Long hampered by his size -- he weighed only 185 pounds coming out of high school, but has since pushed himself to more than 230 pounds -- he made it through the preseason, but was one of Tennessee’s final cuts.

Freeman was set to return to Mary Hardin-Baylor to finish his degree shortly after being cut, but the CFL’s Saskatchewan Roughriders offered him a roster spot. It was an opportunity to bulk up, to improve by playing against more skilled competition and to bolster his chances of eventually landing a coveted NFL roster spot. He had to say yes, he told his parents, but he promised that, no matter what turns his football career might take, he’d return to graduate. After amassing 144 tackles and 13 sacks through three seasons, the Colts gave him another shot at the NFL.

“Canada came calling,” Freeman said. “It was a chance for me to further my career. ... It ended up working our pretty well for me.”

As the Texas native toiled in snowy practices in Canada and eventually began to make a name in the NFL, coaches and administrators at Mary Hardin-Baylor kept tabs on their former star. They’d taken a great interest in him not only for his athletic prowess, but because he’d handled his successes with such humility. They genuinely liked him; they genuinely hoped he would succeed. Why? Fredenburg recalls the first time that an NFL scout visited campus to meet Freeman. When the linebacker approached the room to greet the scout, he was wearing a flat-billed cap skewed to the side, but, as he stepped through the door to shake the scout’s hand, he politely removed the hat. Fredenburg was floored by the small gesture, which he didn’t expect from someone Freeman’s age.

“I thought, ‘Wow, that’s just the kind of guy he is,’ ” Fredenburg said. “He’s got such a great strength of character and those intangible qualities that really make a difference whether a guy is going to be successful or not.”

And the feeling is mutual. Freeman could’ve tackled those 11 credit hours anywhere. He could’ve taken classes online. He could’ve enrolled at a college closer to his new home. Instead, he traveled those 1,000 miles from Indianapolis back to tiny Belton, Texas, to finish what he’d started at the campus he loved, to walk across the stage he’d promised his parents he would. Recently, when O’Rear and Freeman chatted in the president’s office, O’Rear asked why he’d chosen to come back. Why not finish somewhere else, somewhere more convenient?

The answer was simple. Freeman held his arms aloft, motioning to the campus around them.

“Because this is home.”